Airbrushed out of history: How Victorian Britain portrayed its black community

Victorian Britain's attitudes to Aldridge and other black individuals who played a prominent and eclectic role in the life of the nation are captured in the first exhibition of black people in British Victorian art, which opens in Manchester this weekend. The exhibition shows Britain's ethnic population in the period was far greater than originally thought and reveals the abundance of talents they offered: from the Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to Britain's first black professional footballer, Arthur Wharton.

But their ethnicity seems to have had a strange habit of being airbrushed out. The wirewalker and trapeze artist Olga Kaira (known simply as Miss LaLa) appears white-skinned in portraits by Degas.

The exhibition, which runs until 8 January at theManchester Art Gallery, shows that black subjects were cherished by artists of the day, who found them a welcome break from the pasty, pink bodies they spent hours with.

Few black models were in greater demand than Jamaican-born Fanny Eaton, who lived in London from the mid 1850s and sat for the likes of Rossetti and Albert Moore. Ms Eaton is mesmerising in Moore's Mother of Sisera and appears in Rosetti's The Beloved, two of the exhibition's highlights. But she is an object, not a subject, and the underlying prejudice is revealed by one critic, who wrote in 1867: "A black is eminently picturesque, his colour can be turned to good account in picture-making."

The curator, Jan Marsh, whose pursuit of exhibits has taken her several years and drawn pieces from Southport to Kingston, Jamaica, is under no illusions about the way black subjects were captured. "The artists were capable of painting a heroic figure and thinking that individual was a 'lower' figure," she said. "Throughout the 19th century, the vast majority of Europeans regarded themselves as more intelligent, more socially advanced and naturally superior to most other groups in a manner that is today called racist."

William Etty's The Wrestlers makes her point, depicting an even match between a black and white wrestler in which only the white man's face is shown - rendering his opponent the anonymous one. In Thomas Barker's The Secret of English Greatness, a black African prince bows to offer gifts to the Queen in return for "the secret". Black figures appear in other roles ranging from mischievous boys to harem attendants.

The prejudice is less subtle in other pieces, including one of the Sunlight Soap cards of the day, which depicts a black girl -the idea of washing dark skins white was a common jokeof the age.

Yet recent studies have shown that in cities such asLiverpool, London and Edinburgh, black residents were fairly common - and the talents they brought to the nation shine through in the exhibition. Arthur Wharton won the 1886 100-yard sprint at the Amateur Athletic Association championships in a time of 10 seconds, later recognised as the first world record. His football career for Preston included an FA Cup semi-final appearance. The photographers who captured him cannot manipulate him as artists might have done, though his life after sport revealed much about the life lived by many black Britons. Wharton worked in the pub and coal industries and died in poverty.

An indomitable Seacole (who was voted the Greatest Black Briton in a poll last year) is also captured in undiluted glory by Albert Challen, wearing the medals she was awarded by the British, Turkish and French.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a prolific British composer who paid express tribute to his African roots in many works and is remembered for his Song of Hiawatha, is pictured at the piano in London. "It is difficult to get a sense of what the black experience itself was really like," said Ms Marsh. "Some people told of how positively they were received in Britain but Seacole and Coleridge-Taylor both spoke of being name-called in the street."

An omission is the portrayal of blacks by black artists of the time as no black British artists active in the period have been identified. "The subjects are like actors written in a show written and cast by whites," Ms Marsh said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade