Category Archives: Research

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

[Kevin Guyan is working as a student engager at the UCL Art Museum over the duration of our Black Bloomsbury exhibition. He has kindly agreed to us cross-posting his blog post ‘Engaging with Black Bloomsbury’ which can be found here:  As part of the series of public events linked to our exhibition, Kevin will be talking on the subject of Going Dancing: Black Bloomsbury and Dance in the 1940s exploring the Black presence in 1940s Bloomsbury and focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. The event takes place at UCL Art Museum on 15 November, 2 -3.30pm.]

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

By Kevin Guyan

Kevin Guyan

 

'Life Painting', Slade School of Fine Art.

‘Life Painting’, Slade School of Fine Art. George Konig, Keystone Press Agency.

The idea of Bloomsbury is as much a product of the mind as it is a geographical location.  Like Soho, its borders have been established through a mixture of real and fictional ideas, dependent more upon common opinion than municipal rulings.  The borders of Bloomsbury have been a common theme discussed by visitors to UCL Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Black Bloomsbury.

In my role as a Student Engager, it has been my task to draw links between the exhibition material and my own research interests.  My work explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the postwar period (c. 1945-1966), a topic not unrelated to some of the themes emerging from the exhibition.  Afternoons spent engaging in the museum have helped shape my own research; offering a refreshing and reflexive dimension to my work.  Discussing people’s opinions on historical ideas has challenged visitors and I to reconsider our views.  The process usually begins with a casual, “is this your first time at the exhibition?”  After this pleasant introduction and explanation of my role within the museum; around half of the visitors will continue to explore the exhibition on their own, the other half will return with their thoughts, their opinions or questions on the work.
Although my own research focuses upon a different time period (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948) and a different subject matter (White men rather than Black and Asian men and women), I have located some common themes running across both examples:

Space and identity

The relationship between space and experience, particularly within the context of identity, is one key example.  Black Bloomsbury is co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain, from the Equiano Centre based in UCL’s Geography Department, and because of this geographical context, an effective sense of people and place emerges throughout the exhibition.  For example, upon arrival, visitors are met with a large map detailing around 40 locations and a list of characters linked to the exhibition – showing where the characters lived, worked, met and socialised.

The role of place and space links to a secondary project I have been exploring in the past two years, focusing on how bodies were understood within dance hall spaces in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  In my work, the dance hall is framed as more than simply a backdrop for events and instead participates in my historical research as a productive force shaping the actions described.  For example, my research has explored the architecture and spatial arrangement of dance halls, admission policies, rules and rituals – all components that impacted a particular sense of identity when ‘going dancing’.  It appears to be the case that Bloomsbury had a similar affect upon the characters featured in the exhibition.

Methodology

Equally interesting has been a consideration of the exhibition’s methodological approach.  Alongside paintings, photographs are also displayed as a means to show how historians have been able to ‘see into the past’.  Unlike text sources that may make no mention of race, photographs present a visual window through which it is often possible to ‘see race’.  A key example of this approach in the exhibition is a class photograph of art students based at the Slade in 1938.  Although the name and background of every student is not known, the photograph allows modern-day observers to see the racial diversity of those attending the school at that time.

This is something I intend to echo in my own historical writing, in which actions and behaviours of men in domestic spaces are often hidden or beyond the vision of typical research methods.  Of course, it is very unlikely for source material to indicate that a household task was conducted in a ‘manly fashion’ or read personal accounts by men of domestic space, in which their sense of gender is discussed.  This therefore leads to questions over how best to trace these actions and behaviours?  This can be remedied by examining family photograph albums, documentary footage or any other visual source offering uncontrived access to spaces of the past, allowing historians to ‘see’ what men were doing in the home and how they were interacting with their environment.

Importantly, like Black Bloomsbury, my work also intends to not simply describe the actions and behaviours located or analyse them only within the confines of what is being discussed.  Instead, there is a need to conduct historical leaps – in which ‘everyday examples’ are used to consider what these performances say about wider ideas of race, gender and nation.

Politics and historical baggage

One key focus of the exhibition is on artists and their sitters, based on work developed with the Drawing Over the Colour Line project.  The relationship between artists and sitters has evoked several questions among visitors over the identities of these sitters and how they fit into wider social contexts of early 20th Century London.  What is often most interesting in the photographs of artists and their sitters is not located in the foreground but what is actually taking place in the background of the images.  A particular talking point has been a photograph of a Black male model, sitting perched in a loin cloth in the middle of the room, surrounded by several White, female students.  It is difficult not to see this image of a near-nude Black male and young, White women without setting-off historical alarm bells.  Yet, due to the spatial context of where these people are situated (in an artist’s studio rather than on the street) certain social customs appear to be excused, creating a situation far removed from the moral panic that may be found elsewhere in 1940s London over the association of Black men, quite often American servicemen, and White women.

Engaging upon ideas that are not resident in the distant past, has the potential for divided opinions and clashes over differing histories.  In my own public engagement events on experiences of ‘going dancing’ in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was often a tension between ‘official histories’ and personal reminiscences.  How can a workable history be extracted from memories – whose memories should matter most?  Should historians try to be as objective as possible or acknowledge that the past can be mined to satisfy contemporary political needs and desires?  These themes also emerge throughout Black Bloomsbury.  Some visitors have questioned the purpose of the exhibition and the political motivation for attempting to expand people’s image of Bloomsbury.  As I see it, it is not an attempt to evict Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes from their associations with Bloomsbury and replace them with a new assortment of characters but instead to complicate this image and suggest that, as was the case with areas like Soho, there was an equally cosmopolitan presence in early 20th Century Bloomsbury.  Through the production of historical geographies or geographical histories, the exhibition and people’s responses to the material continues to show the importance of space in shaping the actions of historical actors and how historical figures are perceived by those living in the present.

Advertisements

New film: London art in the Jazz Age 1919-1939

Visit UCL’s  youtube channel to watch our new short film discussing the project. The film focuses on art and the Black presence in Bloomsbury and highlights some of the artwork created by Slade School of Fine Art students during the interwar period.

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.

References:

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.

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.