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.