Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Black boys in green jackets and purple caps

The big new VERONESE exhibition at the National Gallery is my opportunity to check out Ruskin's distasteful jokes during the US Civil War - that in his view the main purpose of Negroes was to be painted by Veronese, and his unamusing request  that Charles Eliot Norton send him 'something American - a slave perhaps. I've a great notion of a black boy in a green jacket and purple cap in Paul Veronese's manner.'

 Those who admired Ruskin's tremendous description of Turner's 1840 picture Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on :  as 'the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted':
 "It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the indistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying."
certainly expected him to be an Abolitionist.  Far from it; perhaps influenced by his own admiration for Thomas Carlyle and certainly by his political conservatism, Ruskin did not oppose slavery, and indeed at the height of the US Civil War stopped writing to his old friend Norton, an active Emancipation  campaigner.

Lest Veronese be co-opted into this argument, it should be said that Ruskin's remarks followed his aesthetic conversion away from the pious calvinism of his upbringing to a warmer valorisation of physicality  thanks  to "the mighty Paul Veronese, in whose soul there is a strength as of the snowy mountains, and within whose brain all the pomp and majesty of humanity floats in a marshalled glory, capricious and serene like clouds at sunset - this man whose finger is as fire and whose eye is like the morning..."

So what of the black boys in green jackets and purple caps?   In the fifty works in the NG exhibition, there are indeed quite a few figures of unmistakeably African ancestry, though some are not immediately discernible and nearly all are marginal onlookers or servants, whose colouring may have been their chief pictorial purpose.  The exceptions are naturally the third king in the Adoration of the Magi,  his appropriately Ethiopian attendant, 
and the equally appropriate local young man who has found Moses' cradle in the Nile and  handed him over to the apparently European daughter of Pharoah, as in this detail from the version from the Prado : -

The Martrydom of St George - lower half only here - has a lad in green acting in support of George's executioner, though he could conceivably be trying to restrain him. 

I didn't see any black boys in purple caps (Ruskin must have had other paintings in mind) but I am also interested to note the ethnicity of Judith's maidservant and accomplice in Veronese's account of the decapitation of Holofernes, as at the top of this post. She is also clad in green.  Veronese was living and painting in Venice in the 1570s and 80s when these pictures were produced; so one assumes that black servants were common figures in the city, available to fill pictorial roles along with  nobles, merchants and courtesans.

The same cannot have been true of other characters who jostle and gesture in these busy, vigorous scenes - namely the many angels and cupids who act their allegorical roles so convincingly, rising and floating and swooping with airborne realism, here lifting a saint to heaven, there dropping an episcopal hat on St Nicholas, even carrying a plump putto in the crook of an arm.

The pictures are confidently tremendous, as is their staging in the large top-lit galleries with grey or maroon walls.  Nearly all are large and designed to be viewed from the floor at a distance, so in the spacious rooms one can stand back and look, as at a cinema screen, taking in the composition wholly and severally, in a  very comfortable viewing experience.  When desired, closer brushwork scrutiny  is equally not impeded by a queue of other viewers.  And there are many other topics to ponder besides servants and angels.  Check out the animals, too.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Am I Not a Man

an interesting post from SEAN CREIGHTON

Did Thomas Bewick Design 'The Kneeling Slave - Am I Not a Man and a Brother''?

An astonishing find was made this winter in a Northumberland field next to the 18th-century George Hotel at Chollerford, – part of the bowl of a clay pipe with the ‘Am I Not A Man and A Brother image’ on it. ( It was found by Ron Brown of the North East AAG Archaeology consultancy (

This finding is significant because it suggests that the Gateshead area pipe makers were using the famous image which is most associated with the potter Josiah Wedgewood. It is a small indication of the degree of support for anti-slavery across the classes in the North East as shown by the work in the 2007 Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery Project. But it could have more significance if, as I have been arguing since then, that the image was based on a design by Northumberland engraver Thomas Bewick, a known supporter of the anti-slavery movement. The pipe could therefore be an artefact representation of perhaps the North East’s most influential and powerful contribution to the anti-slavery movement, which finally found its success in the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies under Northumberland’s Earl Grey’s Government in the 1830s.

When designing its 2007 commemorative badge the Great North Badge Company states that its ‘inspiration … is taken directly from Wedgwood's medallions. The badge's ornate belt border being based upon a contemporary engraving by the well-known artist Thomas Bewick.’ (

Bewick's Full Engraving

A full engraving by Bewick sets the kneeling slave in the plantation background and it was reproduced in John Sykes Local Records collection of events in Northumberland and Durham. Thomas Hugo's 1866 book 'The Bewick Collectorcontains the following note written years before by the North East collector John Bell: “Bewick took a deal of pains with this cut. It was done for a Society in London and Newcastle, 1787, in which there were Sir John E. Swinburne, Mr. Thomas Bigge, and others, who were particular friends. It has since been much hacked, by being used for everything which had any allusion to Negroes or the Slave Trade....” While this is not conclusive, it suggests that there may be a strong case for Bewick being the designer of the image for the London Society’s seal in 1787, which was then quickly interpreted by Wedgewood’s designers into the jasperware medallion in the same year. The reference to a Society in London and Newcastle in 1787 is perplexing, because no evidence has been found for the existence of an anti-slavery society that year in Newcastle. The Newcastle Society was not established until 1791. There may have been an informal grouping of anti-slave trade supporters because Newcastle Corporation was to submit one of the first petitions from the provinces to Parliament in 1788. That was the year Swinburne became an MP.


Mediallion Version

A medallion style version of the kneeling slave with plantation background was used on the front cover of the printed play Princess Zanfara by William Hutchinson a solicitor, antiquarian, and freemason based at Barnard Castle published in 1789. Another version was used for the tract published in December 1791 by the newly formed Newcastle Anti-Slavery Society giving details from the inquiry into the slave trade by the House of Commons. In discussing this in his book Popular Politics and British Anti-slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion John Oldfield writesBewick’s interpretation of the London Committee’s seal gave fresh life to what was by now a familiar image.’ The image went on being used in Newcastle publications to 1830.

I have an image of a page of a printed publication showing both of these images which discusses both the 1789 and 1791 images. ‘We learn from John Fenwick, Esq, of Newcastle, that Thomas Bewick engraved two cuts of the Negro kneeling. One of these was cut for an Abstract of the Evidence given in reference to the Slave Trade .. published at Newcastle and the other for the “Princess of Zanfara” …Fenwick was one of the Secretaries of the Newcastle Anti-Slavery Societies and donated many of his anti-slavery tracts to the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society. Given the massive number of notes taken in the 2007 Project I unfortunately cannot link the image of the page to the reference to the publication this was printed in. This appears to confirm that medallion images reproduced in Newcastle publications were by Bewick.

Raising the Question

I first began to raise the question of whether Bewick is the original designer of the kneeling slave image, and whether Wedgewood took his inspiration from Bewick, when I was Archival Mapping & Research Officer for the 2007 Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery Project. I shared the idea with a wider audience in my talk on slavery and abolition in the North East at the 1807 Commemorated Conference at the University of York held in September 2008, and in January 2011 in my talk at the British Society for 18thC Studies Annual Conference at Oxford University.

I asked Jenny Uglow, author of the superb biography of Bewick Nature’s Engraver, whether she knew anything about it, but she did not.

Bewick, who financially subscribed to the abolition cause in 1792, had a clear moral philosophy and supported radical causes throughout his life. But he was not an organiser. He was one of the hundreds of supporters whom organisers need to be able to sustain movements through the peaks and troughs of campaign activity. To have that support requires a climate of opinion that organisers can energise. As a leading engraver he leant his skills to the cause.

Geting Up-to-date

I have not undertaken any more work on the issue in the last three years because of concentrating on other research interests. Now thanks to Roger Holly asking me for information about John Fenwick, I decided to see if anything new had gone onto the web that might throw more light. I was very pleased to find that the British Museum features several of the uses of Bewick’s design in its on line collection of images.

Its notes on the front cover of Zanfara state: ‘This famous image originated in 1787 as the design for the seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade; it was produced in many versions, probably the best known being the jasper-ware cameo by Josiah Wedgwood, a member of the Society (see 1887,0307.I.683). A small version is included in a scrapbook of wood-engravings in P&D, 166*.d.1, 1928,1126.71.’ The design attribution is given to Bewick with a question mark. It takes the same approach with the Society’s Abstract of the Evidence to the House of Commons Committee on the slave trade published in 1789.

It is more confident about attributing the same image used on the Newcastle Religious Tract Society’s published edition of Hannah More’s The Sorrows of Yamba(1823): ‘Print made by Thomas Bewick.’ (

Given there is no mention in his autobiography of the image, I think it is time to reassess Bewick’s role in anti-slavery, his links with other activists like Clarkson, Swinburne and Bigge, and his contribution to the visual campaigning imagery. I leave it to others to decide on what should be done and how it should be done.

A  fine example of the Wedgwood medallion in cameo form is offered for auction Sothebys London 28 March 2017,  with this account of its origin by Clarkson:
The medallion was first modelled by William Hackwood in 1787, taken from the design of the seal of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in the same year. Wedgwood himself was a member of the committee, and the medallions were distributed through the organisation at his personal expense. The medallion in material expressed the growing awareness and horror at the barbarity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist and founding member of the Society, as it was later known, wrote in his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Vol. II, 1807:

“Wedgwood took the seal of the committee, ... for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Saturday, 5 April 2014


A new account of the life of Sarah {Ina} Bonetta Davies, the West African girl brought to Britain by Capt Forbes, RN, and effectively adopted by Queen Victoria, will be soon broadcast on BBCWORLD.  It sounds truly fascinating, with a wealth of new information obtained in Nigeria including interviews with descendants of Sarah and her husband James Davies, by presenter Zeinab Badawi, who was born in Sudan.

For the record, another new photograph of Sarah has been discovered.

Hitherto the main known images are those taken by the London photographer Camille Silvy shortly after Sarah & James were married in 1862, surviving as contact prints in Silvy's reference album in the National Portrait Gallery.  The new discovery was taken by the Brighton photographic studio Merrick just before their wedding at St Nicholas church there, and was ordered by Queen Victoria as a carte-de-visite for distribution to friends and admirers.  It shows Sarah wearing a fine silk crinoline with pagoda-style sleeves, holding what looks to be a  feather-trimmed hat of the latest fashion.

Left:  Badawi and her cameraman with curator Constantia Nicolaides, NPG Photographs department, alongside the Silvy album 

See also here for Zeinab's visit to Lagos State Archive