Proof of presence of black people in Victorian Britain unearthed from 120 year old archive

Photo: John Xiniwe and Albert Jonas, London Stereoscopic Company studios, 1891. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When was the first photo of a black person taken in Britain?

 

Autograph ABP, a charity that advocates the inclusion of historically marginalised photographic practices have made a remarkable discovery that will put paid to theories about black presence and history in Britain. A new exhibition at the Rivington Place- Black Chronicles II, explores black presences in 19th and early 20th century Britain, through the prism of studio portraiture – continuing our critical mission of writing black photographic history.
Drawing on the metaphor of the chronicle the exhibition presents over 200 photographs, the majority of which have never been exhibited or published before. As a curated body of work, these photographs present new knowledge and offer different ways of seeing the black subject in Victorian Britain, and contribute to an ongoing process of redressing persistent ‘absence’ within the historical record.

Many of the images on display have very recently been unearthed as part of the charity’s current archive research programme, The Missing Chapter – a three-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is the second exhibition in a series dedicated to excavating archives, which began with ‘The Black Chronicles’ in 2011.

Saragano Alicamousa, renowned lion and tiger tamer, c. 1870s. Courtesy Michael Graham-Stewart collection

Saragano Alicamousa, renowned lion and tiger tamer, c. 1870s. Courtesy Michael Graham-Stewart collection

Black Chronicles II is a public showcase of Autograph ABP’s commitment to continuous critical enquiry into archive images which have been overlooked, under-researched or simply not recognised as significant previously, but which are highly relevant to black representational politics and cultural history today. For the first time a comprehensive body of portraits depicting black people prior to the beginning of the second world war are brought together in this exhibition – identified through original research carried out in the holdings of national public archives and by examining privately owned collections.

Unidentified sitters, c. 1870s. Courtesy Paul Frecker Collection

Unidentified sitters, c. 1870s. Courtesy Paul Frecker Collection

This research also coincides with Autograph ABP’s continuous search for the earliest photographic image of a black person created in the UK.
All of the photographs in the exhibition were taken in photographic studios in Britain prior to 1938, with a majority during the latter half of the 19th century. Alongside numerous portraits of unidentified sitters, the exhibition includes original prints of known personalities, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, goddaughter to Queen Victoria; Prince Alemayehu, photographed by renowned photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; or Kalulu, African ‘boy servant’ (companion) to the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

Peter Jackson, 1889. London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Jackson, 1889. London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This extensive display of over 100 original carte-de-visite is drawn from several collections, and presented in dialogue with Autograph ABP’s 1996 commission ‘Effnik’ by Yinka Shonibare MBE.

A highlight of the show is a dedicated display of thirty portraits of members of The African Choir, who toured Britain between 1891-93, seen here for the first time. Perhaps the most comprehensive series of images rendering the black subject in Victorian Britain, these extraordinary portraits on glass plate negatives by the London Stereoscopic Company have been deeply buried in the Hulton Archive, unopened for over 120 years. These are presented alongside those of other visiting performers, dignitaries, servicemen, missionaries, students and many as yet unidentified black Britons. Their presence bears direct witness to Britain’s colonial and imperial history and the expansion of Empire.

The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall (1932-2014). It features text and audio excerpts from his keynote speech on archives and cultural memory, held at Rivington Place in May 2008.
Black Chronicles II
12 September – 29 November 2014
Rivington Place, London
EC2A 3BA
Free

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