Saturday, 23 May 2015

Blackamoors in Florence

  Article  here on the NYU conference and exhibitions in Florence last weekend prompted by the collection of antique blackamoor figures at the Villa Pietra, NYU's Italian campus.

Here is one of them: 

It was an exciting event, packed with scholarship, literature, music and art and attended by hundreds of delegates.  Full details

All the papers were livestreamed and recorded so in theory available to hear,  but the sessions were so numerous that it is best to consult the program first.

The RE-SIGNIFICATIONS exhibits - contemporary artists' responses to historic representations - are on three sites through June and July.   These too were so packed with artworks and people that it was hard to capture any useful views, but these give a glimpse:


On the weekend of 28-31 May is a large-scale scholarly gathering
organised by NYU in Florence Italy and including a vast range of papers on  literally hundreds of topics.  Rather too many to cover in a blog, but among the attractions is an exhibition 
that will be on view all summer at the Museo Bardini, Villa la Pietra and  Fondazione Biagiotti Progetto Arte,
SEE  here    

'Lost' pictures by Marie Spartali

Marie Spartali Stillman's exhibition record stretches from 1867 to 1922 and in that period she exhibited around 150 works whose titles and ante quem dates are known.   Although it's been assumed she was generally 'unsuccessful' in seldom selling her pictures, in fact a large proportion were sold.  There are few records of the purchasers, however, and many of the paintings that are now known passed down through the families of her daughter and  son. Which leaves a good number of documented but now lost works whose location is currently unknown. 

One of these, newly identified as Luisa Strozzi, exhibited in 1884, priced at 80 guineas, has recently surfaced through a bequest in Canada.  Fruit of the artist's residence in Florence, and her knowledge of a tragic historical story, this features a Renaissance half-length woman, with the Palazzo Strozzi in the background.  Sadly, this emerged too late for the forthcoming Delaware Art Museum exhibition, which nevertheless includes a good few works that have rarely been seen since Marie's death.

copyright Delaware Art Museum 
Two more tableaux perdus are known from contemporary photographs.  Both were among Spartali's most-acclaimed works and if re-discovered will instate her fully within the Pre-Raphaelite canon, for both invoke the Italianate world inspired by the poetry of Dante and Boccaccio, showing imagined figures from that fictional world and are painted with all appropriate refinement.    That on the right depicts Fiammetta, Boccacio's inamorata, referring to his 'last sight' of her;  that below a scene from Dante's Vita Nuova, showing the poet, Eros, Beatrice and her companion Giovanna.
copyright Delaware Art Museum

A third  painting, this time known from an illustration, depicts another scene from La Vita Nuova, showing Dante overcome with emotion, trembling and faint, at the sight of Beatrice among a gathering at the house of a newly-wed couple. 

If  any of these - or any other 'missing' pictures - should come to your attention, please let us know.  It has been rewarding to reconstruct Spartali's career and start a serious assessment that takes it beyond 'talented amateur, better known as model'.  But a lot remains to be learnt and found.

More details of the  exhibition here

The catalogue, Poetry in Beauty :  The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman
2015 [ ISBN 978-0-996-06761-4 ]  is now in production by Marquand Books for Delaware Art Museum

Sunday, 10 May 2015

'Dear Francis'

The Fortunes of Francis Barber: the true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s heir
By Michael Bundock
Yale University Press 2015

Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, 1755-6, NPG
About half way into this biography of one resident in eighteenth-century London is a glimpse of his social circle when in the early 1760s a young student called to find the famous author was away from the dingy lodgings he currently occupied.   ‘The Doctor was absent’ wrote the visitor, ‘and when Francis Barber, his black servant, his black servant, opened the door to tell me so, a group of his African countrymen were sitting round a fire in the gloomy anti-room.’ All turned to the white visitor, who was disconcerted by the sudden stares of ‘their sooty faces.’

Historians have found other, albeit fragmentary evidence of a thriving Afro-Caribbean community in Georgian Britain. ‘On Wednesday last’ reported one newspaper, fifty-seven members of a social club, ‘supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music, consisting of violins, French horns and other instruments, at a public-house in Fleet Street, till four in the morning. No Whites were allowed to be present, for all the performers were Blacks’.  As well as conviviality, the community organised mutual assistance for those in need or sickness, for most were employed as domestic servants, and if left without a place could seldom claim parish relief; furthermore, the servants’ network formed the best opportunity for finding a new position.

Very little is known about these networks and clubs, so even brief glimpses are useful in figuring the diversity of London in the 1700s.    In this new book Michael Bundock pulls together all the recorded scraps of information about Francis Barber,  who stands out from his fellow-servants, male and female, by having been the protégé and eventual beneficiary of Samuel Johnson,  whose writings, lexicography and eccentric personality made him one of the celebrities of the age.  Those penning their own accounts of Johnson’s life, or their acquaintance with him, incidentally also recorded aspects of Barber’s life, which Bundock has woven together with strands of contemporary history, notably the legal cases involving the civil status of formerly enslaved Black individuals.  How were differing laws and property rights in the colonies to be reconciled with those in the metropolis?

Barber was born in Jamaica, probably in the early 1740s, probably on a plantation owned by Richard Bathurst.  His original name may have been ‘Quashey’ or Sunday-born, for a child so-called was among four slaves not sold with the plantation in 1749, and young Barber travelled to England with Bathurst the following year, to join the many other blackamoor servant boys in London.  Here he was re-named, and sent to school in north Yorkshire. In 1752 he was ‘given’ by Bathurst’s son to the recently-widowed Johnson, who to all intents and purposes adopted him, as it might be an indigent nephew.  There were more attempts at education but fairly soon Barber’s role was as house servant, answering the door, running errands, among a group of elderly dependents whom Johnson maintained partly out of charity.

In 1755 when Bathurst died, his will gave Barber ‘his freedom and twelve pounds in money’, probably the first cash the teenager had ever possessed. Aged about 15 he decamped, to work for an apothecary in Cheapside and then, to Johnson’s dismay, he joined the navy, having, in his own words, ‘an inclination to go to sea.’  (This episode incidentally coincided with time that Olaudah Equiano spent on warships as slave/servant to Lieutenant Pascal)  Barber’s naval career, chronicled in the fleet’s muster books, lasted just two years: in 1760 Johnson successfully petitioned the powers-that-be, through an elaborate system of interest and favours, to obtain his discharge.   On behalf of ‘that great Cham of Literature’, Tobias Smollett applied to the Admiralty, on the grounds that ‘our lexicographer is in great distress’ and the lad  was ‘particularly subject to a malady his throat which renders him very unfit for his majesty’s Service.’

Bundock infers that Barber returned reluctantly to Johnson’s household and this meticulous reconstruction of his career provides insight into the general experience of rootless Londoners with no family to return to, as well as the unusual relationship between two men so very different in age, background and status.  The question of race, or colour, is hard to analyse: several of Johnson’s close friends wrote insultingly about Barber, with malice that may have been augmented by their disapproval of Johnson’s legacy (in trust) for Barber; others like Boswell regarded him with apparent affection.  As Bundock explains, no very firm inferences of Barber’s opinions and emotions can be drawn from the scattered surviving hints.  At around the age of thirty he married  Elizabeth ball, whose ancestry is almost as obscure as her husband’s, and they had several children, the first (short-lived) and second sons were named Samuel, as was conventional, Johnson being Frank’s surrogate father.  They moved to Lichfield, where Francis died in 1801, retaining to the end a measure of personal celebrity as ‘Dr Johnson’s negro servant’.  

Bundock has tracked his descendants.  One born in 1930 recalls that when his father mentioned Francis, his mother would say ‘don’t talk about that Black man in front of the children’, but that he and a cousin find the ‘black roots’ in their family history fascinating and wonderful and 'very emotional.'

In a postscript, the identification of Joshua Reynolds’ heroic head study of a young Black man against blue sky and clouds as a portrait of Barber is firmly rejected in favour of the sitter being Reynolds’ own servant (name as yet unknown) as stated by the picture’s first owner.   Though good art history, this is also a pity, for there is no portrait – not even a sketch or caricature  – of Barber, to accompany this painstaking biography.