Currently on display at NPG is a group of lively impressions of international diplomats in Britain at the end of the 19th century – often overlooked individuals from a largely forgotten aspect of Victorian history. They include Chinese envoy Kuo Sung-tao in 1877, Japanese ambassador Tadasu Hayashi 1902 and Ras Makonnan (then anglicized as Makunan) (1852-1906) envoy from Abyssinia (as it was) who was father of Ras Tafari Makonnan, later Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. (Spellings vary and in some sources Makonnan’s full name is given as Mäkonnen Wäldä-Mikaél Guddisa)
He arrived in Britain on 23 June 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII at the end of the month, which owing to illness was postponed till 9 August. In the unplanned interval he visited Birmingham, Glasgow and Paris. Back in London, he paid an official visit to Windsor, where according to one courtier, ‘he came with a suite of jolly black men who consumed a great deal of fruit at tea’. Before tea, the Ras paid a special visit to St George’s Chapel, to see the burial place of Theodore [Prince Alamayou] , described as ‘the little Ethiopian prince, to whom Queen Victoria had extended her protection’ and upset the Dean of the chapel by saying the memorial inscription was ‘wrongly written’ (no further details)
While in Britain Ras Makonnan sat for portraits: photographs by the Lafayette studio in Bond St, wearing full ceremonial regalia, and a watercolour by caricaturist Leslie Ward, wearing plainer robes and seated with his rifle across his knees – such a long firearm that its depiction reaches beyond the sides of the artist’s sheet, and was so reproduced in Vanity Fair six months after the event.