Monthly Archives: March 2012

Event: The Image of the Black in Western Art

Harvard University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute’s ‘Image of the Black in Western Art’ publication project  is holding an event at Harvard on 23 April. The event includes a presentation related to volume 5 of the publication series and a discussion with the contributors of the volume.  See here for more details of the event and here for more details of the project.

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Pictured but Unknown

Many of the posts here will focus on the different types of letters, documents, and images I come across in my work as research associate on the project. Before this project, in 2008 I carried out a short research project commissioned by UCL Art Museum in order to document and highlight some of the images in their collections relating to Black people from various periods in British history. I spent a week exploring the collections looking for evidence of artwork by individuals of African and Asian heritage, along with representations of Black people within different types of artwork and representations of histories relating to the Black experience.

The project uncovered a range of pieces, referencing histories of the Black presence in Britain and showing histories and legacies of enslavement, colonialism, empire, exploitation and racism. A striking image found within the collections was the image of the ‘black servant’ in elite portrait pieces from the late seventeenth century to the eighteenth century, designed to symbolize the wealth and prestige of the white sitter (or sometimes their wish for prestige) by linking them with empire and colonialism. You can see many pieces of this type when visiting the National Portrait Gallery and at other museums and galleries around the country.

Additionally, the Museum holds an array of pieces of modern artwork as the collection includes an archive of works from Slade School of Art students throughout the twentieth century. These pieces reveal some of the ways in which Black students in the post-1945 period reflected within their artwork upon their individual and collective experiences and identities, such as the various Black power images created in the late 1960s by Slade student Lev Mills and images created in the mid-1980s by Sunil Patel.

I also came across various life-drawings of artists’ models of African heritage drawn by Slade School of Art students. These pieces of art are fascinating sources which add to our knowledge of the Black presence in Britain throughout the twentieth century. Our blog header shows two of these pieces of work by individuals studying at the Slade during the 1930s (Ann Tooth’s ‘Seated Male Figure’, c.1934, and Leila Leigh’s ‘Seated woman, resting right arm on back of chair’, 1935).

Images of people of African heritage were also created by students at the School in the late 1940s. Here is a life-drawing by Denis Curry of the head of a man of African heritage. This work won first prize in in the Slade School’s Head Drawing category in 1948. Curry is a sculptor and painter who was a student at the Slade after the Second World War. Images of his later work can be found on his website

Exploring the Slade School of Art archives and artwork collections has been extremely revealing and I’d recommend a visit along to explore them – you can follow this link for details of the museum’s opening hours. I’ve recently written a report on this research which also reflects on some of the ways in which we can explore different types of diverse or hidden histories within archive collections, which you can download here  and you can see more of the images here. Looking at interwar artwork from UCL Art Museums and trying to explore the histories and identities of these artists’ models will be a major part of this current project and I’ll update you here on my research within these collections.

Image credit: with thanks to Denis Curry for permission to include this image in the blog, and to UCL Art Museum for permission to use this digitised copy of his artwork.