Saturday, 26 November 2022
Tuesday, 22 November 2022
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
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.
Friday, 28 October 2022
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.
Thursday, 22 September 2022
Sunday, 4 September 2022
Sunday, 28 August 2022
|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.