Friday, 7 August 2020

What was it about those Whistlers?


The current   condemnation of the depiction of a captive Black child led like an animal, and then chained running behind a carriage  in Rex Whistler's whimsical mural in the Tate Britain restaurant is especially remarkable in that it has elicited no public attention hitherto, despite the well-publicised restoration of the 'Pursuit of Rare Meats' art work in 2013.  I myself have never eaten in the [high-priced] restaurant, but had one known of these racist images efforts would have been made to view and condemn them.  

They are exceptionally offensive and really quite inexplicable in an allegedly pastoral scene.

The artist Rex Whistler, who died in WW2, was not related to his earlier namesake, the American James [Jimmy or Jem] McNeil Whistler, who settled in London in the 1860s, but both held racist views. Jimmy Whistler did not as far as I know depict Black figures in his paintings, but he boasted of assaulting a fellow-passenger on a transatlantic voyage.  In telling the tale, Whistler dubbed his victim, from Haiti, 'the Marquis of Marmalade'.  At the dinner table, Whistler first flung insults and then hit his fellow-traveller so  hard that he injured his own hand. As a result, the ship's captain arrested Whistler and locked him in his cabin.

Whistler's explanation was that 'This passenger was simply a Negro among several forced upon our company on the voyage.  The degree to which he offended my prejudices (as a Southerner) who for the first time found Negroes at the same table, led finally to our coming into collision.'  The next day, when reproved for such disgraceful and  'ungentlemanly' conduct, Whistler hit the Captain with his uninjured hand, and was duly punched in the face and subdued in return. 

Rex Whistler  less combative, perhaps,  but something about Black people stirred his prejudices.  He inserted a Black coachman or footman into a fancy portrait of   two upperclass young women, the Dudley Ward sisters, in 1933, historicizing the composition as an 18th-century picnic so as to evoke the social and visual difference of Black and White commonly deployed in earlier aristocratic portraiture.  

And there is somewhere a  mural depicting Circus performers, including a naked acrobat, which  I've only seen in a photo of Rex by his pal Cecil Beaton, reproduced on a book jacket.


Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Mary Seacole portrait bust plus update

UPDATE 30 JULY  at today's sale, the hammer price reached £101,000    - a tribute to Seacole's historical significance but which sadly probably means the portrait won't be going to a public museum.

31 JULY    @RacingGreenUK
 is thrilled to announce that producer owner Billy Peterson won the bid for the Mary Seacole terracotta bust today at auction. The company hopes to feature it in the upcoming movie 'Seacole' starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

A second cast of the delicate terracotta bust of the famous Victorian healer Mary Seacole has unexpectedly come to light.  Dated to 1871, it was modelled from life by sculptor Victor Gleichen  and exhibited at the Royal Academy in summer 1872.

The bust was previously known from a black-and-white photograph from the 1870s and a version now in the National Museum of Jamaica in Kingston, which was loaned to Manchester Art Gallery in 2006 for the Black Victorians exhibition curated by Jan Marsh.  Both are the same half-lifesize dimensions and both show Seacole wearing the replica medals commemorating her service to British soldiery during the Crimean War.

The appearance of a second cast is unusual, because terracotta – the fired version of the original clay portrait modelled by hand during sessions with the sitter – is not often reproduced in the same medium.  While conveying a warm colour that is more attractive than bronze or marble in relation to the human head, terracotta is fragile and prone to chips and stains.

The newly-discovered bust has suffered some knocks, but is generally robust.  It clearly shows the marks of the sculpting tools, and the firing seams. It belonged to Jack Webb, antique dealer and collector who haunted the shops in Camden Passage and specialized in militaria.

Jamaican-born Seacole, whose career has inspired generations of nurses and whose statue now stands outside St Thomas’s Hospital, was voted ‘greatest Black Briton’ in 2004.  She

Undeterred, she financed her own voyage to the war zone

“I have seen her go down, under fire, with her little store of creature comforts for our wounded men and a more tender or skillful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons’,  wrote the Times’s war correspondent.  Nightingale loathed Seacole for selling alcohol to the troops – doubtless much-appreciated amid the wintry Crimean conditions.

One of the officers among the British forces was a German-born nobleman known as Count Gleichen von Hohenlohe-Langeburg, who was related to Queen Victoria.  After the Crimean War he trained as a sculptor and had a grace-and-favour residence in St James’s Palace.   Gleichen was one of the British officers who raised funds for Seacole when she was left bankrupt by the sudden ending of the war.  

Sculpting the portrait bust over a decade later seems an additional gesture of gratitude and support. It appears to have been made in an edition of four or six, in accordance with sculptural practice, so there should be other copies awaiting discovery.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

British History (aspects of)

In the context of the deposition and drowning of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, one can reflect on Britain’s relationship with its slaving past.  Which is important because the nation’s mercantile and financial history was built and is based on the banking, insurance and investment systems developed to support the slave trade and slave produce from the 1660s onwards  – later augmented to profit from exploitation in India and Asia.  Over a century later, in 1780, the humanitarian campaign began against shipping human beings like cargo or cattle, and then in the 1830s colonial slavery was eventually abolished (except in India).  At which point, Britain switched from being a leading slave nation to self-congratulatory emancipation.

Abolition happened to coincide with the 1834 destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire.  As it was rebuilt in High Victorian Gothic by Sir Charles Barry, attention turned to interior decoration in form of mural paintings and sculptures.  This occupied years and years, although early on it was agreed to chose scenes from British history – plus, in some proposals, scenes from English literature.
These were many and various, and apart from the vast depictions of the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar that were eventually painted and are still in situ, many if not most of the suggestions did not progress further.  However, in 1847 there was a specific proposal for six scenes to decorate the central corridor, with three depicting antiquity and three illustrating modern subjects.  The contrast was between ancient Britain ‘sunk in ignorance, superstition and slavery’ and the Christian [sic] Britain  of the present, ‘instructing the savage, abolishing barbarous rites and liberating the slave.’  A good spread of self-congratulation that presumably also commended itself by not obviously depending on military conquest.

So the three ancient topics were to be:  Phoenicians in Cornwall; Druid sacrifice; Anglo-Saxon captives in Rome.  [I’m unclear as to why ancient Phoenicians represented ignorance, but the others were familiar subjects from then-prevailing history].  The three modern scenes were wonderfully illustrative of the then-prevailing view of Empire: Captain Cook in Tahiti, protesting against human sacrifice; the suppression of sati in India; the 'emancipation of Negro slaves' - all matters to applaud.  None of these subjects was actually commissioned for the Palace of Westminster.  But they do convey Britain’s erasure of its own barbaric practices in favour of a benign global mission. In a generation colonial enslavement had been transformed into liberation.

And a century further on, when the subject was revived in 1924-5, a new scheme illustrating the ‘Building of Britain’ was commissioned, which according to today’s account ‘brought together images important to the development of the Nation. These included the importance of naval defence, and of transporting expeditions overseas, both essential for an island race; the nobles who protested against oppression; the long struggle for religious freedom; the daring adventure to find the New World in the Elizabethan age; the start of English [sic] influence in India; and the union of Scotland and England in 1707.'

One of these stirring scenes was in fact Richard I departing on the first crusade, painted by Glyn Philpot.  Which doesn’t seem to fit the forgoing list but presumably still popularly represented the defence of Christianity. Another was the embassy to the Mughal court of Jahangir in 1614, painted by William Rothenstein.  It shows how ‘Sir Thomas Roe, envoy from King James I of England to the Mogul Emperor, succeeds by his courtesy and firmness at the Court of Ajmir in laying the foundation of British influence in India.

No doubt in the 1920s the question of the Raj was important but problematic, especially in terms of possible pictorial representation.  This episode, of which I was previously ignorant, marks the beginning of the East India Company’s activities in India.  Not exactly a topic for celebration, but as ambassador Roe returned to London without a trade agreement, it perhaps seemed relatively neutral.  

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Elizabeth Siddal Annunciation

Elizabeth Siddal, gouache on  paper; 120 x 110mm;  s&d 1856; Wightwick Manor National Trust
This very small watercolour depicting two figures in dense woodland is now known as The Haunted Wood,  which is a fair description of the scene in which a blue-gowned female leans away from a more indeterminate shadowy figure, who stands with hands upraised, as if saying 'Here I am', or even 'Boo!'

It is assumed to be the same work as was exhibited at the Russell Place exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite works in summer 1857,  as no.68 ‘Sketch: ‘The Haunted Tree’.   It was given to Wightwick Manor in 2001 by William Rossetti's great grand-daughter, so has a firm line of provenance,  which assumes William inherited it from Gabriel in 1882.  It is signed with initials and date  ‘E.E.S / 56’, and is labelled on the back ‘Elizabeth Rossetti (Siddall) The Haunted Wood.’

This may just link to another piece of information regarding Siddal's works.  The 1892  posthumous sale of works owned by Liverpool shipowner Frederick Leyland  includes four [lots 21-24] attributed to 'Mrs Rossetti'.   One was entitled 'Annunciation',  which does not immediately accord with any other known  composition, by Siddal
The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies  is about to publish my article arguing that The Haunted Wood is indeed an albeit unusual rendering of the Annunciation, with the blue-clad Virgin startled by the unexpected appearance amid trees of the archangel, hands raised in a 'behold' gesture?

Unusual but not unique in presenting an alfresco scene.  Following his well-known Ecce Ancilla of 1850, showing the Virgin on her bed,  Gabriel Rossetti broke with pictorial convention in 1855, creating a sunlit al fresco scene of Mary paddling in a stream (or washing clothes, though no garment is visible) while the Angel hovers between sapling trees, arms outstretched.   This was originally owned by George Boyce. 

This provides a precedent for Siddal's woodland scene - or maybe her conception prompted his. Neither offers a plausible reason for Mary being outdoors;  there can be no biblical justification for her to be wandering in a forest.   But for both artists, imagination was stronger than scholarship.

Both also – but Siddal most strongly -  were fascinated by subjects featuring mysterious, visionary figures, given visible form.   Spirits, phantoms, spectres, ghosts, apparitions, revenants.   Such were ever-popular in traditional tales and spooky stories, but the mid-nineteenth century witnessed an enormous spread of belief in communication with the dead, or rather, communication from the dead, via seances, dreams and self-appointed mediums.  This affected almost all parts of society, from the most to least educated. 

Rossetti’s participation in seances designed to communicate with Siddal after her death are well-known; Siddal’s interest is only once recorded, in a letter from Ruskin which commends her for giving up ‘disagreeable ghostly connections’.   

Which is only tangentially linked to the pictorial representation of angelic messengers but allows us to ponder how the Annunciation might have been conceived as an apparition manifesting itself between trees, hands raised in salutation: ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured’, says the angel in the King James text. ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.’  Sounds like a divine but scary spirit, which might easily be mistaken for an alarming but benign ghost.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Janey Morris around 1881

a hitherto unpublished portrait photo of Jane Morris lurks in the collections of the University of California at Berkeley
thanks to Frank Sharp for finding this 

Taken by the Mayall firm, it dates from the 1880s when Edwin Mayall ran the London studio in New Bond St.
It was given to Annie Cobden, presumably around the time Janey accompanied Annie, her sister Jane Cobden and Annie's husband James Sanderson on a trip to Tuscany in 1881.  

Before meeting up with the Cobden sisters, Janey stayed with Rosalind and George Howard on the  Ligurian coast at Bordighera, describing her 'surroundings here [as] most beautiful, olives, lemons, oranges everywhere, blue mountains - blue sea, and such sunsets!' 

While the Howards were back in Britain for a sudden general election, Janey helped their eldest daughter Mary manage the house and younger children.  Henry James called, reporting on Jane as 'the strange pale livid gaunt silent, and yet in a manner graceful and picturesque, wife of the poet and papermaker', who 'doubtless too has her merits. She has for instance wonderful aesthetic hair.'

A few weeks later Janey was in Florence and then Siena,  when the comical photos inscribed 'Pilgrims of Siena' were taken, showing Jane  slouching to reduce her height so as not to tower over Annie's intended.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

who was the Prince Regent's black servant?

In 1787  Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibited a major portrait of the Prince of Wales [later Geo IV]  attended by valet who is shown fastening the prince's belt. 

This was the premier picture at that year's Royal Academy in May.  It is visible behind sitter and artist at the Summer Exhibition opening in May that year. A bit hard to see amidst crowd of persons and pictures [and dogs] but very clearly centre of the display, as befit the royal figure.

As it happened, the campaign to abolish the transatlantic slave trade had just been launched.  Reynolds was a supporter and signatory to the first of many petitions, as the campaigners were not successful until 1807.

So who was the manservant depicted?    in a good number of earlier aristocratic portraits, attendants of African appearance are often included as exotic accessories, some of  which will have been painted from life, others 'copied in' from unrelated studies.  Given the Prince of Wales' prominence at this period, and the nature of London 'society' centred on the Court, it seems unlikely that Reynolds' portrait featured a generic valet.  Surely this young man was one of the Prince's attendants? 

Letters from Reynolds to the Prince of Wales's accountant show the portrait was still for sale a year later.  'The only Picture that he[Reynolds] has finished of His Royal Highness since the account sent in the last year, is a whole length with a black servant, which is still at his house, the price of that is two hundred Guineas',  reads the letter of 22 April 1788 to Mr Robinson. 'There is another whole length of the same price which is not quite finished.'   Perhaps the prince had inquired about purchasing it, though he did not. .

Then on 24 April Reynolds wrote again: 'There is another whole length which is intended for Lord Charlemont which according to Sir Thomas Dundas's opinion ought to be copied from the picture  of H.R.H with the black servant, and to have one sitting to make it an original.'  

Do these references imply that the 'black servant' was an employee in the royal househoold?  
Is it possible to find out who he was?

Monday, 6 July 2020

John Ystumllyn

The sitter in this anonymous portait, inscribed with his name and the date 11 May 1754, was a servant in the Wynne household at Ystumllyn, near Criccieth in north Wales. The date and manner of his arrival are obscure.   One account of his origins, seemingly from his own, states that he was hunting waterfowl in a woodland stream when white men seized him and took him to their ship.  Which would imply a West Africa birthplace, transport to Caribbean enslavement and thence to Britain as a boy.   He could be about 12 in the portait?  so a posible birth date in early 1840s?

In Wales he became an outdoor servant, gardener, adept and skilled woodworker.  He learnt Welsh and English and was baptised and inevitably re-named.  John was the generic name given to male servants (presumably to save employers having to recall others) and Ystumllyn that of the estate, where he was also known as Jac Dhu or 'Black Jack'. Local anecdotes tell of his popularity with female servants and of various employments in the area.  

Ystumllyn house 1794

In April 1768 he married Margaret Gruffydd in Dolgellau, with whom he had seven children, only five of whom survived into adulthood.  One of the latter was named Richard Jones.  John and Margaret were employed as stewards at nearby Ynysgain (where the landowners were Joneses)  then later the couple worked at another Wynne property where a cottage called Y Nhyra Isaf 'was given to John together with a small field by Ellis Wynne Esq in recognition for his service. 

He died in 1786, in his forties and was buried at a now-remote churchyard at Ynyscynhaeren, inland between Criccieth and Portmadoc.  Some years later a gravestone was installed, with an inscription by Dafydd Sion Siams, bard from Penrhyndeudraeth which translates as 'Born in the Indies, to Wales I came to be baptised. On this spot, a grey slate marks my cold resting place'. 
Then in 1888  a brief biogaphy was written by Alltud Eifion, a bard from Tremadoc, whose grandfather had been the doctor who attended John at the end of his life.  Translated, the title reads 'John Ystummllyn or Jack Black, the history of his life and traditions about him since his capture in the wilds of Africa until his death; his descendants etc, etc, together with a picture of him in the year 1754'.  The illustration is a woodcut of the oil portrait that now hangs in Ynyscynhaeren church.