White Lines: Black folk in Victorian Art

('The Guardian')
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There were plenty of black faces on canvas in the 19th century - but few behind the easel. Diran Adebayo on how racial prejudices were expressed in art 


Dante Gabriel Rossettii's The Beloved (The Bride)
Photograph: John Webb. © Tate Gallery.

There's a piece of advice I give budding black British writers who want to write a successful "black" novel. "The best thing," I say, "is to hang out with as many white folk as you can. Find out what's on their minds about black people." I do not mean this cynically - OK, a little bit - but more as a reflection of the fact that in the literary world, most people (the editor, the PR person, the critics and most of the book-buying public) are white. Black novelists thus find themselves in the peculiar position of creating a work of fiction in the knowledge that those who are most likely to appreciate how well it has been done are the ones who don't matter. This doesn't only affect black writers and artists - a white working-class novelist might say the same - but it has affected us greatly down the years, and tends to increase the more rarefied the artistic air you breathe. With pop music, it's possible to make a record cheaply and then generate a black street buzz around your product, but in the worlds of film and visual arts, less so.

Manchester's exhibition Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 is a case in point. Of all the paintings, photos and sculptures presented here by curator Jan Marsh, none are by black Britons; these images are, more than usual, a record of the white gaze. And there are some celebrated white gazers among them: the sculptor Pietro Calvi, the painters Gabriel Rossetti, James Whistler and John Lewis, whom Ruskin ranked second only to Turner among British artists of that period.

The fact that no traces remain of any active black British artist in the 19th century is surprising, given that there were more black people here than is commonly thought. We don't know how many exactly, because ethnic origin was not recorded in the first in-depth national census of 1841, but it's clear that our visibility exceeded our numbers (not least because artists welcomed the opportunity black figures provided for contrast, and to use neglected parts of the palette). Black people were already in England in sufficient numbers during the 16th century for Elizabeth I to issue her "Blackamoor" proclamation of 1601, ordering their expulsion. Then, black people were often servants, court and fairground entertainers, and seafarers. Novels such as Steve Martin's Incomparable World have alerted us to the presence of a black community around London's Covent Garden in the late 18th century, when a motley crew was augmented by runaway slaves from the Americas, but black people were more typically to be found in the poorest parts of big cities, such as London's East End. They crop up regularly, in early stabs at depicting cultural diversity, to add to the low-life flavour in the boisterous tavern and crowd scenes of caricaturists such as Cruickshank. As Britain's imperial sway grew in Victoria's reign, so did the range of black folk to be found here. You could see black students strolling arm in arm with white people down the Strand, and messenger boys, sports- and tradespeople, too, some earning extra pennies moonlighting as artists' models.

So, what did white hands make of this other? There are stereotypes aplenty - dusky female attendants in harem scenes; the poor; future composer Coleridge-Taylor posing as an African draped in a leopardskin (the leopardskin was a popular studio prop) - but there are few grotesques. Most subjects are given fair, unexaggerated likenesses and the positions they occupy in these scenes, though often sentimentalised, are not ridiculed.

As Marsh notes in the catalogue, Victorian racial attitudes were both simple and messy. Certainly, many black British residents encountered prejudice. This was underpinned by a hierarchical understanding of race that, since the Enlightenment days of Hume and Kant, placed "unlettered" blacks on the bottom rung (hence black servants' proximity to household pets in Georgian sketches); it was bolstered in the 19th century by the emergence of anthropology and ethnography, which reached the British public through the era's big exhibitions and spectacles, stacked with the spoils of empire.

Beyond this, though, were the great tugs of the abolitionist and missionary movements, both of which emphasised the commonality of all men and the duty incumbent upon Christians to convert the heathens. Queen Victoria, who wept, like many of her subjects, on reading about the horrors of slavery described in Uncle Tom's Cabin, was an abolitionist, and anti-slavery had become an emblem of national virtue by the middle of the century. Thomas Barker's picture The Secret of England's Greatness, in which the Queen hands a Bible to an African prince, perhaps shows the limits of her compassion. She is standing, he gratefully kneeling, and their hands do not quite touch.

British artists were also beginning to travel, and their contact with people in Africa and the Caribbean contradicted the homogeneous, undifferentiated vision of the negro held by many back home. Lewis went to live in Egypt for a decade, and his immersion pays dividends in the range of expressions and skin tone in the African figures that populate his "orientalist" studies.

After Abolition there was a decline in the amount of black material coming out of the galleries or the printing-presses, which became more marked as events abroad hardened attitudes at home. There were insurrections in Jamaica and India, British deaths at Khartoum and in the Zulu wars in the 1880s, and savage, punitive raids mounted on the west African kingdoms of Asante and Benin a decade later, preceding full takeovers. The market demanded more generic, anodyne images of Africans and, as the century ended, English buyers lost their appetite for paintings of black people.

Britishness was now being enforced abroad, and at home - where racial jibes were on the rise and those seeking education or asylum were judged on the speed of their adoption of English clothes and customs - it had become an ever more significant factor in how black residents were viewed and treated. You get an inkling of this in Camille Silvy's 1862 portrait of a black couple. They stand with due dignity, the husband's hand tucked into his suit pocket, the respectable Victorian gentleman. There is no sense of them being mocked for their "impudence", the way there is in many American prints of the same period. Here, the point seems to be: they are British now; they have done as well as they could.

The current national, or at least media, obsession with the threat to our national identity is nothing new, and it raises the question of just how much more progressive and enlightened we are than our Victorian forebears. What would a time-traveller think if he had touched down in the late Victorian era and then returned, a century or so later, to our shores, with the visual arts as his main guide? Well, he'd see that now there was at least a black British artistic faction. But he would still see little genuine black control over visual representation. There is a great appetite for showing the problems that some of the black community face (gun crime in the play Elmina's Kitchen, or the film Bullet Boy). And where black appears unproblematically in the mainstream (in, say, reality TV, or an average white-and-black buddy movie), it is there often as a pointer to white inclusiveness and modernity. The story remains much as it would have been a century ago. Most arrivals would have wanted to be "British", if that concept could be widened to accommodate them.

Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 is at Manchester Art Gallery (0161-235 8888) until January 8. Diran Adebayo is writer-in-residence at the British Museum.

Copyright: Guardian Newspapers Ltd.
 


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