Friday, 7 November 2014

Putting the Black Back Into the Union Jack

Detail from early 16th Century RoodScreen Panel
I am today - 8th Nov 2014 - speaking at the UCL History department's event - Putting the Black Back Into the Union Jack, part of the session Africans in Tudor Times .

I'll be sharing the stage with Dr Miranda Kaufmann and Philip Udeh from NarrativeEye.

I'll be speaking about what the image is, how it reached rural 16th century Devon, what it meant at the time and possibly what it means today.

Monday, 20 October 2014

What's Happening in Black British History? A Conversation

Delighted to be part of the team – Dr Miranda Kaufmann & Prof Philip Murphy – organizing a workshop for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies – What’s Happening in Black British History ? A Conversation. We’re using its mnemonic WHBBH as the hastag on Twitter.

The vision is that the WHBBH in University London’s Senate House  Oct 30th should be the  first of a series of conferences – one a term – moving around the country. Cities proposed so far are Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham ie those cities with a significant black presence.

My personal vision for WHBBH workshops is that they will consistently present a Black British History that is more than slavery, immigration and colonialisation and goes back in time long before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. A history that makes connections between the past and the present, as I believe any history that fails to make connections with now is irrelevant, to be real history must find those connections, making  links between then and now – essentially the reasons why I write this blog.

We’ve adopted Sara Forbes Bonetta the god daughter of  Queen Victoria as our logo as it represents many of the ideas of WHBBH - her back story and image are a surprise to many and her ancestor can be traced to the present.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Face of Fortune - Black & White

Artist Unknown, 16th Century Italian
Inspired by Petrarch (1304 –1374) Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years. Fortune is shown as woman with a face half white half black. Petrarch saw fortune or luck being either good or bad, too much of either was not good, one should strive for a balance seeing them as equal.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

One in almost every room…

The National Gallery’s Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Europe (19 Mar to 15 Jun 2014) is , for me, quite simply the most brilliant exhibition they have put on for a long time, it even tops the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan back in 2012 which had the incredible bringing together of Leonardo’s Virgins of the Rocks from the National and Louvre. The National has brought together 50 Veronese paintings the majority of which  are brilliant.

OK I have to put my hand up I am big, BIG Veronese fan, I just love his use of colour, composition, scale, complexity and drama to create, for me, some of the most unforgettable images of the period. And he was his own man, at a time when the role of artist was changing from artisan/workman, paid by the square foot for his work, to the aesthetic individual interpreting a scene, being paid (and revered) according to his talent, and more importantly would  be considered a gentleman rather than workman.

Black Presence
 in The Feast of the House of Levi aka The Last Supper 1573
555 by 1280 cm
What totally converted me was his notorious 1573 interrogation over his painting  The Last Supper for a convent, which had a number of black servants as well as jesters all  administering to Christ and apostles at the table . When called to account for why he painted so many other figures, than Christ and disciples, he said ‘we painters take, liberties, the same way as poets and lunatics’  and the same could, and should, be said of artists to this day.

And he has blacks in abundance.

The  presence of blacks reflects his patrons - hinted at in the exhibition’s strap line – the rich, powerful and magnificent of Venetian society . Blacks as enslaved servants were essential accessories to Venetian high society as attendants and objects of possession and fashion.

Visually every room was stunning, delights to the eye were everywhere, and to add to my pleasure there were black figures to be found in almost every room!

Universally, Veronese positions his blacks  on the edge or at the very rear of the composition (some so far on the edge they are cropped!) , reflecting their subservient role in Venetian society , the majority having been brought as slaves from the Portuguese or Spanish.  The bottom left and right hand corners are often reserved for the patrons of the painting, to look up and into the scene they have sponsored in the hope of eternal salvation. It’s ironic the black is found to be taking that position.

Room 1 Early Works

The Supper at Emmaus, about 1555
242 by 416 cm
The room is dominated by the magnificent The Supper at Emmaus which contains all the hall marks of a quintessential Veronese: it’s BIG 2.4 by 4.2 meters, it has a classical architectural back drop, it’s packed with figures across the picture plane and going back into the picture, its colour combination are like an exercise in use of the colour wheel complimentary colours, like  the mother figure on the right  her orange dress and blue wrap work together, to create a very pleasing effect.

This painting looks like a wealthy patron family’s full length portraits of its household, as all those around the table, observing Christ taking supper with pilgrims,  look like members of the same family.  There is the most delightful picture within a picture at the bottom center,  a charming depiction of two ,who look like, sisters, maybe even twins, cuddling a stoically resigned looking dog. There is so much happening in the painting the eye never rests.

Then there at the very back of The Supper at Emmaus, in the shadows is the black attendant. We only see his head in profile. What he is doing is unclear, I would propose Veronese has included him to underline the family’s wealth and status as black servant were only to be found in such homes, the black servant going along with the palatial setting of Veronese’s patrons.

Room 2 Portraits  1555-1565 (Veronese 27 yrs to 35)

No blacks here, interestingly there are no additional figures to underline the status of the sitter. Some years earlier Titian had used a black in a Portrait of Laura Dianti. I have yet to see a Veronese portrait with a black in a supporting role, I would not be surprised to see one, as they were status symbols as shown by the Titian.

In these portraits Veronese uses his exquisite painting technique to depict the expensive , high status cloths and jewelry to let the viewer know, in no uncertain terms,  how important and wealthy these sitters are.

Room 3 Altarpiece & Painting’s for Churches

The Miracle of St Barnabus, about 1565 to 1570
193 by 260 cm
In The Miracle of St Barnabus Veronses has St Barnabus using the Gospel to miraculously cure a sick man, in the bottom left hand corner is a black attendant, seen lighting candles. He is in a compositional position often reserved for the patron he looks into the picture. He is seemingly temporally distracted,  in his right hand he takes a flame from the fire to light the four candles in his left hand.

The candles are not for light as the blue sky indicates so perhaps they are there to symbolize or enhance healing

The Martyrdom of St George, about 1565 to 1570
193 by 260 cm
Room 4 Theatricality & Magnificence

This room was the highlight of the show with the largest black presence and  to my eye the most outstanding picture in the show - The Martyrdom of St George a huge work, scrapping the ceiling,  taxing the National’s presentation facilities  almost to the limit!

The Martyrdom of St George is incomplete contrast in size (57 by 43 cm) and busyness  to the The Finding of Moses, which is an altogether much smaller and calmer work as Veronese captures a moment of contemplation as the princess considers the baby Moses and what to do.

Room 5 Art of Devotion

Two Adoration scenes, subtly difference, within a common, quintessential Veronese composition, packed with characters  and colour. The Black King is typically  the last in line of the three Kings, one stands alone while the other has a Black attendant

The Adoration of the Kings 1573 - National Gallery 
The Adoration of the Kings 1573-4  - Santa Corona, Venice
 Detail from the two Adorations
LEFT National 1573 RIGHT Santa Corona 1573-4
Room 6 Allegories and Mythologies

Bar one painting  made up of works  from the National’s own collection of Veronese paintings. All OK but none is as dramatic or colourful as the rest of the exhibition and like Room 2 there is no black presence,  so let’s move on…..

Room 7 Late Works

The only black presence  here is in Judith and Holofernes

We, via Veronese, enter this Biblical scene late, as Judith has already cut off Holofernes’s head. Judith is caught in the act of putting his head into a rather elegant bag held by Judith’s old, haggered looking Black maid, stooping graciously responding to her mistress’s command.


Putting Room 6 aside this is an outstanding exhibition, with  wonderful pictures in every room show Veronese to be a master of colour and composition on a grand scale and not afraid to take ‘liberties’ to  include one or two, sometime even three, black figures

A great day out,  looking forward to seeing the Exhibition again as I will be visiting the exhibition with OU friends from the 2007 Summer School

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Moses and his Nubian Wife

Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Nubian Wife, 1650
This picture is outside my period so, let me make the usual art historian’s caveat when venturing outside their comfort zone  aka period – this is not my period!

Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Nubian Wife, 1650 was painted nearly a century after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, which I have unilaterally and arbitrarily placed as the end of my period, so this is way outside my comfort zone.

Having said that  I am not aware of any other paintings of a similar composition within or outside my period, further, according to Prof Elizabeth McGrarth in her excellent YouTube video introduction to the work says it is unique.

Moses with his black African wife (Numbers 12.1) was an Old Testament scene which never created by a Renaissance artist unlike others eg Susanna and the Elders  (Daniel 13)  or the worshipping false gods or idols (Exodus 32) There are several versions of these images by difference artists which were used  by the Renaissance Church to educate its congregations.

I am inclined to agree with Prof McGrath that the image of Moses with his black wife served no teaching purpose and was no reference model for the Church at that time. In contrast the image of the Black Magus with its message of the coming together of all nations at the end times had a purpose unlike, Jordaen's image seems to have no use in educating or retaining a congregation, thus Renaissance artists believed it not worthy of painting, consequently Jordaen's image remains a one off.