Apologies for the pictures on this review – these were the best I could take on my phone and besides, you should really go and check them out yourself if you can get to London (several photographs are shown on the National Portrait Gallery and Autograph ABP websites).
When I began writing my novel a number of people seemed surprised that, not only were there people of colour living in Victorian London, but that they weren’t all servants or struggling to survive in the slums. A number of people recommended Dickens and Gissing to read to get a picture of living in poverty in the nineteenth century. But I’m writing about a middle class class black family, I said. Cue dubious looks. So many in fact that I undertook a great deal of research to find a real-life family to base my fictional family on.
Black Chronicles showcases nineteenth and early-twentieth century photographs taken in Britain. The display forms part of Autograph ABP’s The Missing Chapter, a research project to research and present photographic images of black presence in Britain before 1945. It occupies three rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, the main Mezzanine room and then there are photos in two other rooms (though these contain other unrelated works as well).
I went to see the display last week (19th May) as part of the gallery’s Lates programme (art, music, drinks, talks). This runs every Thursday and Friday – instead of closing at 6pm there is a programme of events and the gallery is open until 9pm. To celebrate the display opening there was a talk by Renee Mussai from Autograph ABP which was very well attended and gave a lot more insight into the personalities and the history behind the photos. There is a great programme of events linked to the display including a weekend workshop in the Autumn, stories of cultural diversity on 25th August and a lecture on slavery in commemoration of Slavery Remembrance Day on the 26th August.
There are stories behind a lot of the photos. These are two of the most compelling:
Sara Forbes Bonetta was an orphan from West Africa who was sold into slavery. Captain Frederick E Forbes persuaded her captors to let him take her as a present to Queen Victoria and she took her name from him and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. He did indeed take her to Victoria who took a shine to her and raised her as a goddaughter. The display features photographs taken in celebration of her later marriage to Nigerian businessman Capt James Pinson Labulo Davies, taken by Camille Silvy, photographer to the rich and famous at the time. Sara’s eldest daughter Victoria also had the Queen as her godmother, and later attended Cheltenham Ladies College.
Peter Jackson was born in 1861 on the island of St Croix (now part of the US Virgin Islands) which was then part of the Danish West Indies. Born a Danish citizen, Jackson moved to Australia as a child and fell into boxing whilst living in Brisbane. His early success was later hampered as he struggled to secure fights with white boxers, with many commentators claiming that he could have become a heavyweight champion if it weren’t for racial prejudice. He did travel to fight in the US and in England. After his career stalled, Jackson returned to Australia where he died of TB at the age of 40.
Black Chronicles runs until 11 December 2016. Free entry. Check website for events (some payable).
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London