Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fit Bodies: Statues, Athletes and Power

Drawing over the Colour Line panel within Petrie Museum exhibition

Henry Tonks, Portrait of a Wounded Soldier before Treatment, 1917, pastel on paper, UCL Art Museum, EDC2800



Exploring Henry Tonks’ pastel of the Nigerian wounded soldier J. Williams, Gemma Romain, part of the UCL Drawing over the Colour Line research project, reflects on the experiences of colonial soldiers and on Tonks’ representation of the body in relation to ideas of race, colonialism, disability and disfigurement.



I am particularly interested in how Black people are represented within British art in the early twentieth century and my current research focuses on the inter-war period.   I am researching artwork held within the Slade School of Art collections at UCL Art Museum, exploring the work of students who drew models of African and Asian heritage. As a result of my work with the museum I came across this pastel drawn by war artist and Slade School of Fine Art lecturer Henry Tonks.  It is a portrait of the Nigerian soldier J. Williams who was injured in 1917.

During the First World War facial injuries were commonly suffered by troops, particularly injuries to the nose and jaw due to the type of head protection available to those fighting. Henry Tonks, who was a trained surgeon, worked with pioneer facial plastic surgeon Harold Gillies during and after the war by drawing surgical diagrams and also pastel artwork for the wounded soldiers’ case notes.

Henry Tonks’ drawings have been explored by art historians including Emma Chambers and Suzannah Biernoff who comment on the way in which facial disfigurement has been represented in art and the complexity of Tonks’ drawings in that they represent surgical documentation yet also are aesthetic interpretations using the fine art medium of pastels. They also importantly reflect on the public gaze and spectatorship involving war disfigurement and art, both at the time it was created and today. As Chambers has recalled, despite Tonks’ opposition to both the public gaze upon the artwork and in considering the pastel drawings as traditional artworks, he viewed the portraits and the soldiers’ disfigurement in the context of art traditions of representing classical statues –  in a letter to a friend he wrote: “I have done some … rather fine pastel fragments! One I did the other day of a young fellow with rather a classical face was exactly like a living damaged Greek head as his nose had been cut clean off just where noses of antiques generally are cut off.”

I am interested in this particular piece of artwork also for its importance in reflecting on the marginalised histories and identities of African and Asian people serving in the First World War, as well as the ways in which the African body has been exploited in the history of colonialism for doing certain types of work and labour.  J. Williams is listed in Gillies’ surgical archives as being injured on 1st September 1917 and is described as a Private in the Regiment of the Nigerian 3rds. His injuries are listed as ‘GSW Lower lip jaw chin’. In the War Office records, I have so far only found one J. Williams listed who served in Nigeria, but he served in the Royal Engineers (Inland Water Transport). As David Killingray and James Matthews have documented, Nigerians were recruited as both soldiers and as labourers such as water transporters in the Inland Water Transport, supplying the troops with goods and water in harsh conditions.

This artwork makes us think of multiple silences and experiences.  The African soldier and labourer and also the soldier facially disfigured in the war were marginalised and ignored in public displays of commemoration. In the visual display of mainstream commemoration white soldiers without facial disfigurement were generally represented within official war commemoration artwork. Despite its possibilities for exploring and bringing to the fore what was hidden from view, this portrait remains problematic.   For example,  J. Williams, and others in this series of portraits, were not necessarily posing on their own terms for a piece of artwork they wanted to create, but were taking part in a process of medical documentation.

In thinking through the notion of a ‘fit body’ in the context of this piece of art I envisage ‘fitness’ as a term which must be critiqued and historicised; this artwork reminds us that ideas of fitness are partially shaped by those in power who deem what is a fit body to be allowed within public visual culture and how fitness and the body have been constructed in relation to histories of racism, disableism, imperialism and ideas of visual beauty.

[This post originally appeared on the Petrie Museum blog here, and is a panel from their new exhibition ‘Fit Bodies: Statues, Athletes and Power’, North Cloisters, Wilkins Building, University College London, from June to September 2012].


One Hot Summer – A radio play on the 1919 Race Riots.

We focused the research period of Drawing Over the Colour Line on the inter-war period because we felt is was important to include the race riots that erupted in Britain during 1919 and to see if artists responded to the violence in any particular way.  Juliet Gilkes-Romero’s radio play, broadcast on 30 May on BBC R4, provides a hard hitting insight into the lives of Black men who lived through the violence that erupted in Liverpool during that year of international uprisings and racist violence.  The play gives us a glimpse of imagined conversations between the men who try to understand how their British nationality and their recent military service has been so quickly forgotten by their white neighbours.  Their anger, fear and disbelief is set against reports on the escalating violence from local newspapers, including the murder of Charles Wootton who features as a friend of the main group.  Although mentioned by others, the voices of Black women are absent, Jacqueline Jenkinson’s work on 1919 notes a number of black and white women were involved in the riots, both as victims and the perpetrators of violence.  The only woman who really features in the play is Rose, a young white Liverpool girl caught up in the riots because of her friendship with the ‘angry young man’ of the group, Liverpool born Sam.  The play effectively recreates an atmosphere of fear and takes us into the personal lives, hopes and dreams of a group of male friends.  Although women are absent, through Gilkes-Romero’s play we hear determined, if frustrated, resistance to racist violence through voices that have proved so difficult for historians to recover.  CB

Listen to One Hot Summer on the BBC iplayer here

Read more about the 1919 riots in Jacqueline Jenkinson’s Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain, Liverpool University Press. Also, Gemma has explored the collective and public memories of the 1919 riots in chapter 6 of her book Connecting Histories (Kegan Paul, 2006) called ‘Re-remembering and Forgetting Histories: Memories of Racist Riots in Britain’ and C. E. Wilson carried out oral histories with the Black Liverpool community on their memories of the riots in the thesis ‘A Hidden History: The Black Experience in Liverpool, England, 1919-1945’ (University of North Carolina, Ph.D. thesis, 1992).

Event update: Black ephemera – depictions of people of African descent

I recently posted about an event which the University of Reading are holding on 4 July 2012. The all-day symposium run by the Centre for Ephemera Studies explores representations of Black people within ephemera such as advertising, greetings cards, and sheet music. To book a place, download the form here Black ephemera study day

The programme for the study day has just been finalised. See here Black ephemera study day programme and below for the details:


10.30-11.00 Arrival and welcome

Introduction to the day
Michael Twyman, Director, Centre for Ephemera Studies

Patrick Vernon
Black Ephemera: consuming stereotypes and identities

Temi Odumosu
The St Giles’s “Blackbirds”: some popular African presences from Georgian and Regency print culture

Tom Wareham
Using and abusing – Considering the use of Ephemera in the London, Sugar & Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands

Jonathan King
Anthropology and ephemera: representing Africa and the Caribbean at the British Museum

Amoret Tanner
Mary Seacole – the story behind the iconic carte-de-visite

Leon Robinson
Black Victorian entertainers

Jeffrey Green
Edwardian postcards

Mary Guyatt
Representations of black people in children’s ephemera 1870-1950

Sandra Shakespeare
Caribbean through a lens: Depictions of black people using photography

Deborah Sutherland
We shall not be silenced: Ephemera as a record of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa

Stefan Dickers
Fighting for Justice: Campaign ephemera in the Bernie Grant Archive

Zoe Whitley
Conspicuous absences: branding and un-branding the black body in magazines

6.00-6.30 Final questions/discussion/thanks and farewell

Book launch: The Lone Protestor – Fiona Paisley in conversation with Bernardine Evaristo

Fiona Paisley and Bernardine Evaristo discuss Fiona’s new work on the life of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Australian Aboriginal who protested against British imperial rule while he lived and worked in London and Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.

Co-hosted by Aboriginal Studies Press, the Equiano Centre UCL & the Raphael Samuel History Centre, The Lone Protestor takes place at the Bishopsgate Institute Library on Thursday, June 14, 2012 from 6pm to 8.30pm.

This event is free although registration is required for catering numbers. For registration follow this link

For more information, please see the pdf flyer here

Event: Black ephemera – depictions of people of African descent

On 4 July 2012 an all-day symposium run by the Centre for Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading will consider visual representations of people of African heritage. As the flyer states, ‘the study day focuses on the ways in which black people from the African and Caribbean diaspora have been represented in ephemera over the last two hundred years.’ The event will explore different types of ephemera such as sheet music, greetings cards, advertising and postcards and there will be talks from  ‘historians of black culture, ephemerists, and those concerned with racial equality and community relations.’ For more information including contact details and registration costs, see the pdf flyer here: Black ephemera study day

The Studio magazine and Black British history

Over the last few months I’ve been researching art journals and magazines from the 1920s and 1930s, which are held in the collections of the British Library. One of these journals The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art holds a wealth of fascinating information on the artworld which relates to the Black presence in Britain

The Studio magazine was set up by Charles Holme in 1893, a businessman from Bradford who was a textile trader and “Oriental art” collector, so from the start of the magazine the production of visual culture and its links with imperial trade were entrenched within the magazine. Brian Holme, Charles Holme’s grandson, recalled “Charles Holme’s son (and my father), Geoffrey Holme, who was to take over The Studio Ltd. in 1919, maintained that his father’s pre-Studio days as an East India merchant had greatly influenced the editorial direction and general high quality of the early issues of the magazine. Looking back now at the many articles on Oriental art, particularly Japanese “applied art”, quite obviously it had.” (Bryan Holme: 1) As Catherine Delyfer stated in her investigation into the beginnings of the journal “the type of art promoted in The Studio and the myths created to shape and solidify the cultural identity of the artist in this magazine are intricately linked to the backgrounds and interests of its founding fathers.” (Catherine Delyfer: 438) The Studio focused on arts and crafts and applied arts as being of equal merit to fine art, and it explored the processes of production as a constituent of art, with the artist as craftsman.

The journal included articles on movements in art, annual and one-off exhibitions, traditions and developments in art within a variety of countries, and kept its readers up to date with reviews of exhibitions occurring in different cities, mainly within Europe and the US, though also those occurring in countries including India and Japan. It also had a section on events and exhibitions occurring in London and through the journals descriptions of art work being shown or even just short references to the titles of pieces of artwork we get some tantalising glimpses into some of the art produced in Britain referencing black cultures or representing people of African or Asian heritage.

A few of the references found in The Studio so far are:

In Volume 88 there is a visual reproduction of a charcoal drawing by Glyn Philpot entitled ‘Head of Negro’ (The Studio, Volume 88, 1924, p. 4).

In Volume 111, there was a review published of the “52nd Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, held at Prince’s Galleries.” The exhibition gave the correspondent an impression of “rather insipid competence.” According to the correspondent, some of the notable pieces within the exhibition included  “David Jagger’s A Modern Negro”. (The Studio, Volume 111, 1936, p. 49).

In terms of Black students based in London during the interwar period, we see in the 1920-21 volume of The Studio references to Aina Onabolu. Onabolu was a Nigerian student who trained in London and Paris in the early 1920s, before returning to Nigeria to work as a major artist and teacher of art, described by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie as “Nigeria’s pioneer modern artist” (Ogbechie: 36). He studied at the St. John’s Wood Art School, where he won a prize for his student work. The Studio states “amongst the names of prize winners at the St. John’s Wood Art Schools, as noted in our last issue, was that of Mr. Aina Onabolu, of Lagos, who is said to be the first native of West Africa to receive an art training in Europe. He has been studying portraiture more especially, and on returning home proposes, we are told, to instruct his fellow countrymen in European methods of painting pictures, about which native art is ignorant. It will be interesting to see what success will attend the innovation. The chief form of art practised by the natives is woodcarving in high and low relief, and colour is usually applied to the figures. They also excel in metal and leather work, and display a good deal of taste in ornamentation.” (The Studio, Volumes 80 and 81, August 1920-June 1921, p. 114).

I’ll be exploring these images and references in further depth throughout the project, trying to trace some of the objects mentioned within these contemporary sources and will explore the images and references in relation to contemporary politics and art, and theories relating to colonialism, imperialism and race.


Delyfer, Catherine ‘The Studio and the Craftsman as Artist: A study in periodical poetics (1893-1900)’, Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, number 71, April 2010.

Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu. Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2008.

Introduction by Holme, Bryan. “the Studio”: A Bibliography : the First Fifty Years, 1893-1943. London: Simms and Reed Ltd, 1978.