The Black Presence in British Art

The subject of a black presence in British history has, up until quite recently, been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative. But for the next few months guides at Tate Britain, including myself, will be giving special tours focusing on the black presence, or lack of it in British art.

The island story of Britain cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world and certainly not from African, and other parts, of what was once the British Empire.

Africans were a  part of Britain’s history centuries before the empire-going back to Roman times.

In Tudor times there was a black royal trumpeter, John Blanke, who was brought to England as one of the attendants of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In fact recent research has shown there were hundreds of Africans in Tudor England.

Image of John Blanke, Royal Trumpeter, The National Archives

Image of John Blanke, Royal Trumpeter, The National Archives

William Shakespeare, who was often performed in Queen Elizabeth’s court, was clearly intrigued by the notion of ‘the other’ and wrote several black parts, the greatest of which was Othello. The fact that he put them in mainstream entertainment reflects that they were a significant element in the population of London.

Britain’s great homes, its financial system, major ports, textile and sugar trades- all this prosperity was based, to a large extent, on the  enslavement of black men, women and children

There were black freed slaves who fought for the Crown, as this painting by John Singleton Copley shows:

John Singleton Copley,  The Death of Major Pierson, 6th of January, 1781  , 1783 (Tate Britain)

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Pierson, 6th of January, 1781 , 1783 (Tate Britain)

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Lubaina Himid, Carrot Piece, 1985, (Tate Britain)

The work of British artist Lubaina Himid celebrates Black creativity and the people of the African diaspora, while challenging forms of institutional invisibility. Her work includes paintings, prints, drawings and installations, and she has addressed the histories and legacies of colonialism and slavery, and engaged with political questions and artistic traditions from the eighteenth century to the present day. She is the first black woman to have won the Turner prize in 2017 and also the oldest woman to have won at the age of 63. Fabulous, inspirational and long overdue.

To find out more, come to one of Tate Britain’s special tours, 30 Minutes on African Heritage, Mondays and Wednesdays at 1.15pm