'Unusual' painting of 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge discovered in tea chest
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
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Best underrated Christmas movies from Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food