Saturday, 26 November 2022

'Finishing Touches' by Alfred Emslie
Has anyone ever seen or read information about the present whereabouts of this painting?
It's notable for depicting  a Black artist at work with his wife and daughter in a domestic interior that is part studio and part parlour.  I have long hoped for the re-emergence of  the original on which this illustration is based.

The painting was included in the spring exhibition of 1878 at the Dudley Gallery in London (no.384)  It was placed on the line  so must have been regarded as worthy of notice.
It's not clear if the original was in oils or watercolour - which the Dudley favoured - but the artist is shown in working in oils on a standard-sized portrait canvas, albeit with an elaborate frame already in place, perhaps justified by the title, since final touches could be added up to and beyond exhibition.  The figure on the canvas looks to be three-quarter or full-length.  The whole image is however an invented scene.  It was engraved for the Illustrated London News  (13 April 1878, p.337) 

There are two critical comments on the picture from the ILN,  which have to be slightly censored but still retain their offensive quality.

The first (9 March 1878, p 219) is brief:
'Nor is Alfred Emslie's "Finishing Touches" (384) - a swell n**** painting his wife's portrait - destitute of the comic element; and, though the pigment here and there seems forced, may be regarded as in keeping with the negro sense of colour'.

The second (ILN 13 April 1878, p.339) accompanied the engraving:
'Mr Alfed E Emslie has produced an amusing picture in which he sets forth the imitative nature of the negro.  The artist's profile has a touch of the Caucasian about it; and it is this element in his nature which has no doubt prompted him to become a painter; but in the determined action of his extended leg, throwing the whole of his left side  into a straight line, forming the hypotenuse  of the right-angled triangle into which, by the aid of his dressing gown, the rest of the figure falls, is seen the extravagance of the negro.  The ladylike repose of his sitter - who is likely to be his wife and the mother of the ebony little cherub who clambers up so gleefully behind the artist's chair - was probably learned from her white mistress, before the great war in America set the slaves free. We see how apt a pupil she is; and although she cannot change her skin or alter her features, there is a kindly intelligence beaming in her face  and a quiet gentleness in her whole air and aspect, that one feels to be ladylike.  The original picture, which we noticed at the time of its exhibition in the Dudley Gallery, where it occupied the line, is full of sparkling colour.' 

The whole of this is an eloquent example of Victorian racism that does not perceive its racism, but nonetheless seems to regard Emslie's picture as a provocation.

[A good copy of the engraving is in the British Museums collection (2010,7033.6) presented by Donato Esposito]


Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Lord Monboddo's African manservant




On the famous tour of Highland Scotland taken by Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773, the pair stopped off at the estate of jurist Lord Monboddo [aka James Burnett], located in the Mearns [Kincardineshire] south of Aberdeen.    They left on 21 August, according to  Boswell’s journal:

Gory, my lord’s black servant, was sent as our guide, to conduct us to the high road [to Aberdeen]  The circumstance of each of them having a black servant was another point of similarity between Johnson and Monboddo.   I observed how curious it was to see an African in the north of Scotland, with little or no difference of manners from those of the natives.  Dr Johnson laughed to see Gory and Joseph riding together most cordially.  ‘Those two fellows’ said he, ‘one from Africa, the other from Bohemia, seem quite at home’.

Joseph was presumably manservant to either Boswell or Johnson or maybe to both for this excursion.  ‘Gory’ – named from Goree Island, Senegal, one of the slave-trading sites in West Africa -  was employed by Monboddo, who was known for the ‘magnetism of his conversation’ and his ‘paradoxes’ or eccentric opinions, which included pre-Darwinian speculation over the relationship between primates and humans.   The conversation at Monboddo House involved a sort of debate comparing or contrasting the capacities of  ‘the savage and the London shopkeeper’.  To Monboddo citing ‘the savage’s courage’, Johnson responded, ‘it was due to his limited power of thinking’.

With his notorious toast ‘to the next insurrection of the Negroes in Jamaica’, Johnson was of course a notable opponent of enslavement on the grounds of natural justice, though evidently unpersuaded of natural equality.

When Gory was about to part from us, Dr Johnson called to him. ‘Mr Gory, give me leave to ask you a  question! Are you baptized?’  Gory told him he was and confirmed by the Bishop of Durham. [Johnson] then gave him a shilling.

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Alfresco Annunciation


Way back in 2020 I wrote on the correct title for Elizabeth Siddal's watercolour known as 'Haunted Wood', 

when I drew attention to Rossetti's comparable rendering of the traditional Annunciation with Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel also in an unusual outdoor setting.

Now I have seen a third contemporary version, by Burne-Jones, in the large and wonderful triptych currently loaned to  the Pre-Raphaelite Drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean.   The triptych is full of details and vignetters, of which this is one 

Not easy to photograph and so a rather rough image.  Mary is not in a wood nor beside a stream but by the well in a walled  garden and the archangel is floating in through the garden door,  Mary's attitude is quite close to that in Siddal's image.  
It makes me wonder again if there is a prototype for an outdoor Annunciation - in 14th century painting, manuscript illumination or a medieval text.  Or is the notion a Pre-Raphaelite invention?  

Friday, 28 October 2022

William Morris against Imperialism

 on 12 November I give a talk for the William Morris Society on the subject of past and present views of British imperialism. Here are the proposed opening paragraphs


I will begin with or in Oxford, because it is so closely associated with WM and because there contested history of the unlamented British Empire is currently an active issue, as in respect of the sculpted figure saluting benefactor Cecil Rhodes on the external wall of Oriel College and the campaign Rhodes Must Fall.

As you see it’s modest in size and protected from pigeons by a net that makes Rhodes look as if he’s wearing a spiv’s checked suit. Demands for removal have prompted a ‘retain and explain’ response from Oriel.

Not far away, on a building where Rhodes lodged during his brief university career, is a complementary plaque praising Rhodes for the ‘great services’ he rendered to his country.

Meaning the expansion/imposition of British political-economic interests in southern Africa, extending from diamond exploitation to the nation Rhodesia created in his name. 

In summer 2022, the late unlamented Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries intervened in the heritage listing process.  Historic England said this memorial did not merit legal protection; Dorries insisted it was of ‘great historical significance’.  I don’t know the reasons she adduced.  But unwittingly she drew attention to both robber baron Rhodes and his partner in diamond crime who installed the memorial plaque, Alfred Mosely. [No relation to Oswald]   Both made immense fortunes from the Kimberley mines and in later life both spent part of this on ‘good works’.

[I suspect Dorries confused Mosely’s plaque with Oriel’s statue, but as it happens the former usefully cites Rhodes’s imperial impact rather than college benefaction]  Just to recap: Rhodes’s commercial misdeeds were underpinned by his racist ambition of world domination, to extend the Empire,  by bringing ‘ the whole uncivilised world under British rule, recovering the US and making the Anglo Saxon race but one empire.’

I will return to the question of historic monuments.   But we can agree that WM did not celebrate Cecil Rhodes or his colleagues in business or politics.   To Morris, the British Empire was an ‘elaborate machinery of violence and fraud’.  When  for example the Colonial and Indian Exhibition opened in South Kensington in 1886, he suggested alternative displays showing the death and horror at the core of British policy. 

WM’s anti-imperialism was an integral part of his Socialist convictions, but pre-dated those.


Sunday, 4 September 2022

who is the boy? [10]

this boy is fairly familiar, given that he was painted by the very famous Van Dyck  and has been on view at much-visited Kenwood House since the Iveagh collection was opened to the public.
A good deal is known about his companion, Henrietta of Lorraine, ill-fated and really quite  obscure.  Nothing about the boy, who is simply assumed to be an accessory in a proud resplendent portrait that 'evokes wealth and nobility' in despite of Henrietta's insecure and at times backstabbing life.
The inequities of scale are striking, for if Henrietta's hand on the boy's shoulder were actual, he would be about the height of a large dog, whereas his aspect and posture, proffering a dish of pink roses in homage to her European complexion, suggest a teenager.  The effect of course is to increase Henrietta's pictorial and social stature, although as the boy is clearly as fictive as his flowers, this does not signify much; it was standard in European portraiture.
However, there were very many young Black men and women in European courts from the 1400-1600s.  As we would like to know about them, it is a pity that when they were employed as artist's models they were seldom if ever identified.


Sunday, 28 August 2022

Who is the boy? [9]

Laurens Alma Tadema,  Head study, c1858, Walters AG Baltimore


the model for this fairly roughly painted study was presumably a young man in Antwerp, there the artist studied and worked in the late 1850s.  He wears a black shirt under a dark brown coat and a fur or rather wool-trimmed cap. An unlocated companion work depicting a profile head of the same sitter shows the cap was  leather-crowned, with the deep astrakhan brim seen full face here and standing in for the boy's [presumed] dark curly hair.  Presumed also a boy, because clean-shaven, although he might be quite a bit older.  And presumed of African ancestry owing to his dark skin, and warm coat and cap against European winter.   Therefore presumed to have been a seafarer,  moonlighting it were in Antwerp between sailings.

But he could have been born anywhere from the Caribbean to Indonesia, and a permanent resident in Antwerp's busy entrepot.  His abstracted expression suggests that the arftist was chiefly concerned with the work as a study in dark tones rather than portraiture, although the lad's static features are enlivened by the reflected lights on nose and lip.

Whatever, Alma Tadema was sufficiently pleased with both his studies of the unnamed model to take them with him when he moved to Britain, and keep them in his studio there.