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It's usually modern art that aims to overturn preconceptions, but a new show of 19th century paintings delivers more shocks than Tracey Emin.

One revelation is embedded in the title — "Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900." The very concept of "black Victorians" may surprise.

There had, of course, been Africans in Britain long before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but in the 19th century they were a familiar sight — not that you'd know that from most accounts of the old Queen's reign. Yet Victorian art depicted many black subjects — not only servants, but also soldiers, sailors, actors, musicians and pugilists. "I began to look more systematically and discovered hundreds [of these images]," Jan Marsh says. "It both reveals Victorian art as not as white as we imagine, but also Victorian society as not as white as we imagine"....

Of course, many black Victorians did still occupy subordinate positions. In Thomas Faed's Visit to the Village School (1852), set in Scotland, a local bigwig and his wife listen to the youngest students reading, while some of the older pupils taunt their young black servant.

Such story pictures were put together from studies of professional models. Jamaican-born Fanny Eaton often turns up in the background of biblical subjects, but later in the century black models appeared on the losing side in topical battle pictures. Prints like Lts Coghill and Melville Saving the Colours, Zulu War, 1879 (1882), after Adolphe Alphonse de Neuville, may look stagey to us, but even back then not everyone found them convincing. A critic commented: "[We see] the ordinary Parisian negro-models, reproduced in more or less warlike attitudes"....

For the most part, Victorian society was one in which most thought black people inferior. Yet Marsh observes: "Although Victorian society was racist through and through, this is not reflected in the art."

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