208 : Names and Faces – Black portraits. Reassessing the evidence

In forty years of researching into the activities, in Britain, of people of African birth or descent, I have been struck by images of black people with unlikely or no names. Reassessing this documentation is something new in black British history. It is a challenge to us. It is to be hoped that names added to the faces will be more accurate in future.

Joshua Reynolds painted one young male black around 1770. The original is in Texas. It was then normal for leading painters such as Reynolds to allow others to copy their works: and so there are six copies of this portrait.[1] Identified as Dr Johnson’s servant Jamaica-born Francis Barber, serious doubts have been raised over that, and I recommend Michael Bundock’s thorough The Fortunes of Francis Barber (Yale University Press, 2015).

A different painting, of 1826,[2] was once listed as Barber by the Manchester City Art Gallery – it is now identified as actor Ira Aldridge who was in that city in 1827.

There is other evidence of almost casual, undocumented ‘identification’. Another ‘famous British black’ was Olaudah Equiano. Paul Edwards edited his autobiography in the 1980s and a striking image appeared on the Longman and Heinemann editions of that book into 1996. The portrait appears on Wikipedia. The original is in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Their site suggests the portrait is ‘probably’ Ignatius Sancho (whose portrait is in Canada). Like the individual on the wall of Johnson’s house, I think we might be wise to consider this image to be of an unidentified person. (Paul Edwards knew that it was not Equiano.) Look at www.brycchancarey.com/equiano where the Exeter portrait and that from Equiano’s book are side-by-side: that page is headed ‘The Equiano Portraits’ [sic].[3]

As we go about our researches today are we also prone to allocating ‘famous’ names to the faces we see in paintings and photographs? We also seem to be satisfied to regard some people as nameless.

The Wilmington Singers from North Carolina toured Britain from 1876 to 1881 but we have their names but no ‘faces’. One singer settled in Lancashire and his son George Washington Cisco served in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment from April 1917 to February 1919: he died in Bolton in 1935 – one of his sisters died in Bolton in 1973.[4]

Soldiers tend to be photographed so perhaps somebody will check out Private Cisco but what about Sergeant William Dobson who was born in South Africa around 1840 and came to Britain as a baby. He served in the 72nd Highlanders until 1880 (which became the Seaforth Highlanders in 1881). Or George Rose, a Jamaican who served at Waterloo and continued in the 73rd Foot into 1837. He died in Jamaica in 1873. His old regiment became the Black Watch in 1881. Two black infantrymen in kilts – research is needed.[5]

Another name that lacks a face, as it were, is Robert Branford, Suffolk-born and described in 1893 as ‘the only half-caste superintendent officer the Met[ropolitan Police] ever had’. He died in Suffolk in 1869. This modern identification is due to Stephen Bourne.[6]

John Dempsey (died 1877) painted at least three black people in the 1820s. ‘Black Charley’ owned a shoe shop in Norwich in 1823. We really should know more about him.[7].

‘The Negro Boatbuilder’ was painted by William Parrott who died in 1869; he also painted ‘Black Jack of Tower Hill’ – the same man. A face and something of a name: nothing else.[8]

And the ‘The Toy Seller’ was painted in 1835 by William Mulready; and a similar portrait twenty years later. These are in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery of Ireland. A face: but no name.[9]

We have a name – Agnes Foster – but no image although she died in Manchester in 1910 having spent over sixty years in Britain. She founded the Salvation Army in Jamaica – but what of her long life in Britain, married to a Yorkshire farmer, with four children (a daughter was also active in the Salvation Army, in Britain).[10]

Put ‘Ira Aldridge portraits’ into your search engine and you will a number of images which seem to be of different individuals.

We should respond to this challenge – we must abandon the sloppy so-called identifications – and also wonder about those individuals whose faces have come down to us and about whom we know next-to-nothing: ‘Barber’ and ‘Equiano’ are just two. And ask ourselves about the lives of the wrongly identified sitters – who commissioned the paintings? Who put them on display? Who is the man whose face is in Exeter and on modern biographies of Equiano?

E correspondence late July 2019 with Bernth Lindfors, Aldridge biographer.

Your volume 1 (1807-1833) details the Manchester image (which you numbered figure 3) and mentions Ruth Cowhig’s research from 1983. But as there are several known Aldridge images can you really say that this image is Aldridge? I have prepared a short paper (above) which asks for more disciplined identifications, as I think that commentators have failed to realise that black people were more numerous in 19th century Britain than they believed.

You make a good point, and more needs to be known about the artists who painted some of these portraits. Where, for example, did Reynolds live in 1825-26? Aldridge was performing in London from May to December of 1825 and could have sat for him there. I also have my suspicions about the Briggs portrait at the National Gallery at the Smithsonian in DC, mainly because he shows the sitter with a part[ing] in his hair. This perhaps could have been Hewlett. The nose is also too long, much like Hewlett’s. The portrait was acquired from the Garrick Club in London, but I never found documentation there about the transaction that led to its removal. The Simpson portrait at the Art Institute of Chicago was asserted to be of Aldridge, but no evidence is provided, and their claim that he “was well on his way to being an acclaimed and recognized actor” as early as 1827 rings false. A more reliable sketch by Thackeray of Aldridge at Covent Garden has at least commentary by one of Thackeray’s young friends to back it. The portrait I once owned of Aldridge in his famous role of Mungo, by an unknown artist, is something I bought from an antique dealer who picked it up from a house in Norfolk, where Aldridge frequently appeared on provincial tours. The face in that portrait also resembles the face in the standard print of Aldridge as Mungo. A few years ago I sold that painting to Special Collections at Northwestern University Library, and they had a professional restorer brighten it up. The famous marble and metal bust by Calvi could, I suppose, have been based on any black sitter. He reused the same metal face in a bust of a guitar-playing black minstrel, which was auctioned off for about 30,000 pounds some years ago. So the mysteries remain. I hope you’ll have some luck in solving them.

[1] In London at the Dr Johnson House, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate Britain has two. Another copy is at Harvard.

[2] See Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Early Years 1807-1833 (University of Rochester Press, 2011) and Ruth Cowhig, ‘Ira Aldridge in Manchester’ Theatre Review International, Vol 11 No 3 (1986). It is reproduced in Jan Marsh (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Lund Humphries, 2005), p 155 and cover.

[3] It was used on the cover of Vincent Carretta’s Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-made Man (University of Georgia Press, 2005).

[4] See www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/085 and /177

[5] See http://www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/086 and 203

[6] See www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/173

[7] See www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/189; www.portrait.gov.au/exhibitions/dempseys-people-2017

[8] See www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/206).

[9] The later painting (in Dublin) is reproduced in Jan Marsh (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Lund Humphries, 2005), p 151.

[10] See www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/156


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