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Home HRArt and auctions An unsparing exhibition at the Royal Academy. Entangled Pasts, 1768 to now: Art, Colonialism and Change

An unsparing exhibition at the Royal Academy. Entangled Pasts, 1768 to now: Art, Colonialism and Change

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Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. By David Martin.

By James Brewer

Guests welcomed by the Lord Chief Justice to dinner in the 1770s at his stately home, Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, might be taken aback to see a young mixed-race girl named Dido Belle strolling in the garden arm-in-arm with the distinguished lawyer’s white, adopted daughter Elizabeth. Surprisingly, the “black” child was not a servant, but a cherished member of the aristocratic family.

Today, thanks to an intriguing double portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, their story – an intertwining and ambiguity of roles in the age of the brutal transatlantic slave trade – has been widely disseminated, even made into a period movie in 2013.

Naming the Money. By Lubaina Himid.

The painting is a touching symbol of the theme of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change,

As much an expiation and explanation as an exhibition, it is ambitious in interspersing historic artworks with contemporary pieces – 100 works in all. The show is presented as a metaphorical “conversation” about the involvement of art and artists in narratives around empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition, and colonialism. Throughout the show surges the Atlantic Ocean as a site of trafficking, mourning and collective memory. From networks of patronage associated with trading enterprises such as the East India Company there resulted much painting, poetry, and sculpture.

Art was dynamically entangled from the beginnings in 1768 of the Royal Academy itself, and its leading proponents were knowingly or unknowingly vehicles for the contradictions. How many practitioners were fully aware of the physical and spiritual dislocations endured by enslaved humans who permanently lived in a state of exile?

Watson and the Shark. By John Singleton Copley.

Informed by the RA’s ongoing research into its historic links with colonialism, organisers of the exhibition invited some 50 living artists connected to the institution to explore the relationship between art and our understanding of the past. Their cumulative contributions are part of the braided histories (a phrase favoured by the distinguished social historian Natalie Zemon David, who died in late 2023 aged 94 while still at work on a book about slaves and plantation owners in Suriname) that have emerged. The new works punctuate the international and UK loans and works from the RA’s collection and archives, sometimes making for strange bedfellows but offering new contexts for the sensitivity around the topic.

To return to the stony of Dido Belle. She was born in 1761 in the West Indies, fathered by British naval officer John Lindsay with a young African slave named Maria Belle who had been trafficked by a Spanish ship. Lindsay was the nephew of Lord Mansfield, who brought up Dido as his great-niece. One of three (or five) illegitimate children of Lindsay, Dido was brought up at Kenwood House by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. It seems that the girls were raised as equals contrary to expectations of the time.

Scottish artist David Martin (1737-1798) took up his oil paints in 1779 for a touching portrait of Dido and Elizabeth. The inner beauty of both these second cousins, and their emotional intimacy, shines out from their smiles and gestures. They are elegantly attired in silks and pearls; beyond them is St Paul’s Cathedral outstanding in the Georgian cityscape. The painting was one of the first to represent a black female as the social equal of a white sitter. It is speculated it is from the late 1760s when Dido and Elizabeth were probably aged around seven to ten, although they look older.

no world. By Kara Walker.

Dido bears a basket of tropical fruit, and she seems very much at home in the milieu. Why is she pointing at her cheek? Of this “puzzling gesture” English literature lecturer Christine Kenyon Jones asked in an article for the Jane Austen Society of North America, “Is it meant to draw attention to her skin colour, or simply to her smile and her dimples?”

For a long time, the portrait at Scone Palace in Perth was labelled simply “the Lady Elizabeth Murray.” Only in the early 1990s was her cousin’s identity clarified, and Dido became the subject of an admired British feature film, Belle.

As Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield presided over hearings that turned on the legality of the slave trade. In the case of a runaway slave called James Somerset, the eminent judge ruled that a master could not forcibly take a slave out of Britain. He said: “Slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it.” His ruling was widely understood to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England.

Armada. By Hew Locke.

He also passed judgment in an infamous case concerning 142 African slaves who drowned in 1781 after being thrown overboard so that shipowners could claim insurance for “loss of property”. Mansfield found the crew to be at fault, and that there might have been insurance fraud. Growing awareness of the horrific treatment of slaves strengthened the abolitionist movement, leading to the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished the trade, but not the practice of enslavement. The truly noble lord died aged 88, in 1793, making provision for Dido in his will.

A celebrated artist, John Singelton Copley, is the only Royal Academician known to have owned slaves, three of them. Many other artists, including those who supported abolition, worked for patrons whose fortunes were derived from enslavement and plantation ownership. Copley (1738 – 1815) was famed for large-scale, dramatic compositions. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a family of Anglo-Irish traders, his mother remarried to a skilled painter and engraver, who encouraged Copley’s artistic education, and the young man established himself as the leading portrait-painter of New England society.

Copley married Susanna Clarke, the daughter of Richard Clarke, agent of the East India Company in Boston. It was Clarke whose cargo was tipped into the harbour in the so-called Boston Tea Party of 1773 that presaged American independence. That event pushed Copley to migrate with his family to Europe where he travelled, mainly in Italy, and in late 1775 settled in London. History painting was becoming fashionable, and Copley’s best known such painting was Watson and the Shark (1778), based on the true story of Brooke Watson, a British merchant (and later Lord Mayor of London) who at the age of 14 fell overboard from one of his uncle’s ships in Havana harbour, surviving a shark attack. The shark painting is “the one exceptional loan” for the RA exhibition, from Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the picture, ships in the harbour were of the type that traversed the Middle Passage – the term for the sea journey of slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies.

Armada. By Hew Locke. (Detail)

Other history paintings on show include The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779-81), which incorporated portraits of 55 English noblemen, and The Death of Major Peirson (1782-4), which attracted the praise of George III.

A Royal Academician with great revulsion to the notion of slavery was JMW Turner. Two of his maritime paintings on display, Seascape with Buoy and Whalers, are in his electrifying, almost white-out style. In 1840, underlining his disgust at slaving practices, Turner sent to the Academy’s annual exhibition Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On; unfortunately, this is not shown in the RA’s current exhibition.

A biting modern commentary on the maritime aspects of centuries of intense colonial exploitation is a major installation by Hew Locke, who grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, and is based in London. Guyana is inextricably linked to the Dutch and British ships which transported captives from Africa from the early seventeenth century onwards.  Locke spent two years putting together a collection he calls Armada, a flotilla of 45 model ships and boats suspended at shoulder height from the gallery ceiling. His construction was inspired by seeing the votive boats offered by worshippers in churches and cathedrals in Europe in thanks for survival at sea.

Armada. By Hew Locke. (Another detail).

In a confection of wood, textile, metal, string, plastic, rubber, paper and paint, we discern vessels such as the Mayflower (the ship that transported the first English pilgrims to the New World in 1620, the Empire Windrush (which brought post-war West Indian immigrants to Britain), galleons modelled on those of the East India Company, fishing craft, and general cargo ships. Some are constructed from scratch and others are found objects to which the artist added items such as tiny woven plastic bags, mementoes carriers that contained the entire possessions of a migrating or enslaved families, and wreckage, rafts, and war debris.

Inaugurated in Birmingham in 2019, Armada is shown in London for the first time. It speaks to long maritime histories that underpin the competition between European monarchies for overseas trade and territory. The artist ruminates: “Today we’re always sailing alongside the ghosts of the past.”

Visitors should look through the sails and the rigging of the vessels to discern the histories they represent, urged Dorothy Price, lead curator of the exhibition, who has throughout skilfully read the advance of time on the geopolitical and emotional clock. It must have been far from easy to assemble such a far-reaching show.

Among those at the intersection of divided narratives was Phillis Wheatley, who became one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America. She is proof of the Academy’s reminder that painting and poetry are often called sister arts, with visual artists and writers uplifted by each other’s talents. There is brief reference to her in the exhibition, and her achievements are worthy of renewed honour.

Phillis was shipped to North America in 1761 when she was about seven years old, in a slave consignment from Senegal or Gambia. As “a slender, frail female child” unsuited for labour in the plantations she was bought “for a trifle” from a slave market by Boston businessman John Wheatley to wait on his wife, Susanna.

Most slaves were discouraged from learning to read and write, but Susanna had Phillis educated with her daughters, and she showed impressive intellectual ability, including in written English. Phillis found her rhapsodic voice in the classical mode of the time: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773, the first book by a slave to be published in the Colonies. At first, Boston publishers refused to consider her collection, so it was published in London, after the Countess of Huntingdon, a friend of the Wheatley family, interceded with funds.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley.

In the exhibition, a copy of the book is displayed open at an engraved frontispiece portrait of the “Negro servant of Mr John Wheatley of Boston, New England.” Wheatley’s letter to the publisher seeks to convince any doubters who might be prejudiced against her race. He insists that without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she attained the English language 16 months after her arrival, even the most difficult parts of the “Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.” He insists that her own curiosity led to her writing.

Her poem Niobe responds to The Destruction of the Children of Niobe which was produced in i760 by Richard Wilson, “the father of British landscape painting. Both works refer to verses by the Roman poet Ovid. Phillis chose as her title “Niobe In Distress For Her Children Slain By Apollo, From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. And From A View Of The Painting Of Mr. Richard Wilson.” The story is of a queen of Thebes who insults the goddess Latona who then takes vengeance on her children.

“Niobe comes with all her royal race, /With charms unnumber’d, and superior grace: /Her Phrygian garments of delightful hue, /Inwove with gold, refulgent to the view, /Beyond description beautiful she moves /Like heav’nly Venus, ‘midst her smiles and loves: /She views around the supplicating train, /And shakes her graceful head with stern disdain”.

In another poem, entitled On Being Brought from Africa to America, Phillis avers: “ ’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, /  Taught my benighted soul to understand /  That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: /  Once I redemption neither sought nor knew, /  Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / ‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’ /   Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

On Imagination is another noteworthy essay:  “Imagination! who can sing thy force? /Or who describe the swiftness of thy course? /Soaring through air to find the bright abode, /Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God, /We on thy pinions can surpass the wind, /And leave the rolling universe behind: /From star to star the mental optics rove, /Measure the skies, and range the realms above. /There in one view we grasp the mighty whole, /Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.”

Phillis wrote a poem “To SM, a young African painter, on seeing his works” and the dedicatee is assumed to have been Scipio Moorhead, none of whose works have survived.  Phillis hoped in vain that the painter would be long renowned: “… may the charms of each seraphic theme/ Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame.”

A stark reflection on the transatlantic slave trade came in a series of six etchings from 2010, An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, by American artist Kara Walker. In no world, a woman submerged in the ocean might be desperately swimming to escape or drowning after a shipwreck. Figures on shore suggest a pitiful future for those who survive the treacherous voyage.

One of the most striking and disquieting images in the exhibition is the huge 1875 canvas The Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Longden Long ((1829-1891) showing an auction hall in which a dozen young women are for sale, one of them on a podium being presented for bids.

The exhibition was set in train in 2021 in response to developments such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. Shortly afterwards, the RA’s Summer Exhibition 2021, coordinated by Yinka Shonibare, a leading British-Nigerian artist, adopted the theme Reclaiming Magic to “transcend the Western canon which formed the foundations of the Royal Academy.”

In the final section of the show, life-size sculptures start with Lubaina Himid’s Naming the Money, made in 2004, an expansive installation of 100 painted cut-out figures described as an ode to human resilience, community and creativity in the face of cruelty and subjugation. It addresses how in the 18th and 19th centuries Europe’s wealthy classes derived much of their wealth from enslaved African men and women and flaunted their power. Visitors can walk among the maquettes which gives the display added potency. Zanzibar-born Himid says that it is ‘the story of the slave/servant but also of the émigré and the asylum seeker. She is concerned with “the dilemma of losing your name, being relieved of your real identity, being saddled with another… and how you then have to invent something else equally real…to make sense of being alive.” The installation, (which the artist presented to the International Museum of Slavery, Liverpool). thus recalls roles such as musicians, ceramicists, painters, map makers, herbalists, toy makers, dog trainers and shoemakers.

The adjacent striking installation Akua’s Surviving Children from 1996 by sculptor El Anatsui is a phalanx of blackened driftwood logs found on a beach, made to represent families of survivors from the Danish slave trade, which operated between his native Ghana, when known as the Gold Coast, and the Danish West Indies. The concept took hold while he was at conference about slavery in Copenhagen. As is his wont, El Anatsui uses discarded materials, in this instance from which he hewed figures up to 165 cm high.

Lead curator Dorothy Price

The exhibition is curated by Dr Price, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art and Critical Race Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, with Dr Cora Gilroy-Ware, Associate Professor in the History of Art at the University of Oxford, Dr Esther Chadwick, Lecturer in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art; Sarah Lea, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts and Rose Thompson, assistant curator at the Academy. Alayo Akinkugbe, founder of @ABlackHistoryOfArt, was curatorial researcher for the exhibition, supported by a grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Running concurrently in the RA’s Collection Gallery cabinet is a free display of 20 of Lubaina Himid’s paper works for Naming the Money, until June 16, 2024.

So far, many colonial connections to Academicians have been uncovered. Including that of Richard Cosway (with his wife Maria Hadfield), who employed a black servant and was pro-abolition. The RA’s first president Sir Joshua Reynolds employed a black servant who had probably been formerly enslaved. Reynolds “benefited from the labour of a servant of African heritage… [and] profited from the patronage of enslavers, plantation owners and those involved in the West India trade,” according to the Academy’s review of past links to slavery.

In the Academy’s forecourt is a huge new sculpture by Bahamian-born Tavares Strachan, who lives in New York and Nassau. Entitled The First Supper it emphasises the role of communal meals in sustaining social relationships. It was constructed over four years and is Strachan’s tribute to individuals and communities whose stories have been overlooked or forgotten. It represents a utopian gathering of historically significant figures from Africa and its diasporas and includes resistance fighter Zumbi Dos Palmares; nurse Mary Seacole; activists Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Marsha P Johnson; explorer Matthew Henson; astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence; politician Shirley Chisholm; Emperor Haile Selassie; musicians Sister Rosetta Tharpe and King Tubby; and poet Sir Derek Walcott.

Spread out on the table are African rice, breadfruit, catfish, chicken, cocoa, custard apple, and soursop. These foods consumed in the Caribbean have been traced to Indigenous and African influences:  for instance, enslaved people played a crucial role in the expansion of rice cultivation in the Americas.

Captions in detail:

Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779. Oil on canvas. By David Martin. From the Earl of Mansfield’s Collection, Scone Palace, Perth.

Installation view of the Navigation Charts exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, 2017, showing Naming the Money, 2004. © Lubaina Himid. Image courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and National Museums, Liverpool. © Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas. By John Singleton Copley. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

no world, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite and drypoint on paper. By Kara Walker. British Museum, London. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers.

Installation view of the Here’s the Thing exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2019, showing Armada, 2017-19 by Hew Locke. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, published 1773.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change is in the Royal Academy of Arts Main Galleries until April 28, 2024.

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