Fresh insights into the celebrated 19th-century black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge can be drawn from a portrait of him dating from the 1820s which has been newly discovered just as a dramatization of his life is set to open at the Tricycle Theatre.
The unsigned painting shows Aldridge, the most famous black actor of the age dubbed by The Times the “African Roscius”, in a rare non-Shakespearean role. He is seen in a protective stance possibly dressed as pirate, surrounded by white women, children and young men who are looking fearfully at the door.
It was discovered by art dealer Stephen Howes in his late mother's garage, locked away in an old tea chest. He found it when clearing out her home and it wasn’t until he took it to Birmingham-based restorers Gale's & Co to be cleaned that its significance was discovered.
Art historian Michelle Linger, who has been studying the 40x 60cm oil, claims it “is unusual because it shows Aldridge actually performing” which she suggests means it was painted at the height of his fame.
Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 and worked as an actor in America until the 1920s when he migrated to England by working his passage to Liverpool as a ship’s steward.
Once there he managed to break down cultural barriers to play principal Shakespearean roles including Romeo, Hamlet and Othello, to which he famously added “a Jim Crow song and dance routine”, and later King Lear.
By the time he arrived in England Aldridge was calling himself a “scion of Senegalese royalty” rather than an American, probably in order to associate himself with the African theatre scene that was becoming popular in London at the time.
One of the best known paintings of Aldridge is The Captive Slave (1827) by John Philip Simpson. Linger believes a comparison can be drawn between Simpson’s painting and the new discovery. “Curiously, in the recently rediscovered picture, Aldridge is wearing extremely similar deep red-orange clothing as in The Captain Save painting,” she said.
Despite being one of the most recognisable stage actors of the time only a few paintings of Aldridge remain. Linger describes the new painting “an important document of black history” and Howes has vowed to keep in the UK.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s play billed as “Imagined experiences based on the true story of Ira Aldridge”, opens at the Tricycle next month. The play is the second in Indhu Rubasingham’s first season as Artistic Director at the theatre and will star Adrian Lester in the title role.
Red Velvet is from 11 October to 24 November at The Tricycle, London www.tricycle.co.uk