Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Shrubbery

Though hemmed in with streets, housing and a Victorian church built right over its carriage drive, the Spartalis' home in Clapham survives amid the late-nineteenth century surroundings as a substantial echo of the many Georgian mansions that once faced the Common.  

Even more magnificently, the grand interior entrance hall, columns, marble floor, staircase and lantern roof have survived the conversion of the house into sixteen spacious apartments, and have been splendidly maintained, or restored.  The effect is something like it must have been when Marie lived there with her parents, sister and brothers, and a large team of servants, accommodated on the attic level.

A big thankyou to the young residents who invited me in to admire the entrance hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

And here, just around the corner, is the house that Marie and William Stillman first inhabited after their marriage.  Not small, except in relation to the Shrubbery.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Italy 1430s

There is an interesting incidental remark by Lorenzo Valla, Italian scholar writing in the 1430s, where in a critical rejoinder to recently published theories on the supposed hierarchy of colour symbolism, Valla says

In my opinion, Ethiopians are more beautiful than Indians, for the very reason that they are blacker
[Et mea sententia Aethiopes Indis pulchriores, eo ipso quod nigriores sunt]

Leaving aside his opinion,  and the issue of pure versus mixed colour values, this sentence, dropped in an example or analogy, seems to indicate [a] that ‘Ethiopian’ was in general, or at least learned use, as a term for Africans, or possibly anyone with a very dark skin; and [b] that both ‘Africans’ and ‘Indians’ were sufficiently familiar in Italy for Valla to assume his contemporaries would instantly understand his point.  

Born in Rome around 1407, Valla had a rather peripatetic career owing to his critical opinions on papal power and in the mid-1440s left Italy first for Barcelona and then for Naples, before  being welcomed back to Rome and appointed apostolic secretary by a new pope.  So Valla could have been familiar with ‘Ethiopians’ in Spain or Italy.  But equally interesting is the fact that Valla’s patron during his wandering years was Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples, who as well as being a fairly aggressive ruler was a patron of the arts and a keen classicist, also had active diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Ethiopia.    According to Wikipedia, in 1428 Yeshaq I, ruler of Ethiopia, sent two envoys to Alfonso proposing an alliance against the Muslim forces, to be sealed by the marriage of Pedro, youngest prince of Aragon, to Yeshaq’s daughter – and requesting that neapolitan artisans be sent to Ethiopia as part of this deal.  The thirteen craftsmen despatched by Alfonso perished en route; several years later Alfonso wrote offering the new emperor Zara Yaqob another team of craftsmen if their safe arrival could be guaranteed, but, says Wikipedia, this letter probably never reached Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was of course a Christian realm in Africa that the Western church was well aware of – and the relationship with Alfonso V may indicate that Valla, who may have met Yeshaq's ambassadors,  meant ‘Ethiopians’ literally, not as shorthand for Africans.   

As it happens, there are portraits of two of Yeshaq's successors in the Uffizi, Florence, painted about a century after Valla's remark (the Uffizi works are careful, almost contempoary copies).  One is Lebna Dengel [aka Dawit II] who in 1520,  according to Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, was

 'a young man, not very black.  His complexion might be chestnut or bay, not very dark in colour: he is very much a man of breeding, of middling stature; they said he was twenty-three years of age and he looks that.  His face is round, the eyes large, the nose high in the middle and his beard is beginning to grow. In presence and state he fully looks like the great lord that he is.'

described on the panel:  ATANADI ∙ DINGHIL ∙ MAGNUS ∙ ABYSSINORUM ∙ REX/ VVLGO ∙ PRETEIANES APELLATUS ∙ 1532 [Atanadi Dinghil the Great King of the Abyssinians/ Called Preteianes by the People 1532

It is not clear where the likeness of Lebna Dengal was drawn from; Paolo Giovio, who commissioned the whole series of famous men to which this work belongs, is known to have written all over Europe and the near East soliciting portraits, so it is possible it is based on a drawing, though it looks as if confected in accordance with contemporary portraiture with some reference to Alvares' description.  The second Uffizi work labelled as an Ethiopian emperor is that of Alchitrof, which seems more or less completely fictive, even if the physiognomy depicted is recognisably 'African'.  it would be interesting to discover who the original artist and patron thought the sitter to represent, and what the empty frame  he holds was intended to signify. 


Friday, 11 September 2015

Black Chronicles II / 2

The collection of photographic images depicting sitters of African ancestry in Britain in the Victorian era that is one part of the ABP Autograph project is now on view at the  Emanuel Cooper Gallery attached to the Hutchins Center, Harvard University in Cambridge MA.
The shot above shows two young South Africans who travelled to the UK with the African Choir in the 1890s.   The choir was photographed by the London Stereoscopic Co., and it looks as if these two may have been so intrigued by the whole process that the photographer used their curiosity to pose them trying out his job.   Their names were John Xiniwe and Albert Jonas, which suggests they hailed from the Transkei and Cape respectively.

Many of the Black Chronicles images, drawn from the Hulton/Getty archive,  are visually arresting, not least when they are enlarged to sizes impossible in the 19th century, with no loss of detail or quality, so good were the originals.  The exhibition runs until  11 December and then transfers to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. I look forward to seeing how the installation looks and compares with its appearance at INIVA in London last year  - see earlier post 12 months ago.

For more information  see also
Autograph ABP is an ongoing research, events  and exhibition project - more here 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Vanley Burke @ IKON

Photographer VANLEY BURKE has for years created a visual chronicle of experience in Birmingham since the mid-60s.   He has also collected items of political, personal and decorative interest and is a dedicated archivist of objects relating to Black people in Britain, from china tea cups to slave shackles, piles of  magazines and postcards to coats, hats and shoes. 

For the past two months, the entire contents of his apartment in north-east Birmingham have been re-displayed in the Ikon Gallery, providing a vivid sense of being 'At Home with Vanley Burke', in sitting room, work room, kitchen, bedroom.   Every object is a story - engaging, polemical, nostalgic, fortuitous, musical, angry, comical.  Visually and spatially it is literally fascinating, every eye-ful yielding different juxtapositions - with vinyl playing on the ear as well.

Burke's words provide the intellectual and historical context:
"I am informed by my desire to capture people's experience ... History always has a starting point, but we, the African-Caribbean community, didn't trust the history that was written ... we needed to start documenting and writing our own history, so I collected material that reflects us .... It was all about the process of migration and settlement .  I was conscious that while you're doing that you don't have time to record your own history or see what's happening around you. My role as artist was to observe and document thee things ... I'm also interested in mass-produced objects  - the paraphernalia that was used visually to describe black people: figurines, masks, golliwogs. Although they were not owned by us at the time, they are still part of our narrative.  It's about the process of collecting objects which are pregnant with the history of the people who have used them.  A black experience, but largely a working-class experience as well."