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Searching for Sharma

A couple of months ago we were contacted by Nyay Bhushan, a film maker and photographer in India who had heard of our project from the Royal College of Art archivist Neil Parkinson. I had recently carried out research at the RCA archives exploring documents relating to Indian students who were based at the college in the 1920s and 1930s and Neil suggested that Nyay Bhushan might want to contact us. Nyay’s research project on his great grandfather Vasu Deva Sharma is fascinating and he has kindly produced a blog post for the December entry of The Equiano Centre’s Black Presence blog explaining a bit about his great grandfather’s life and the research he is carrying out. I have cross-posted it here below.

Searching for Sharma: Vasu Deva Sharma, an Indian student at the Royal College of Art, 1923

by Nyay Bhushan

Vasu Deva Sharma in 1920s Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Nyay Bhushan

Vasu Deva Sharma in 1920s Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Nyay Bhushan

My great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, studied at the Royal College of Art and graduated in 1923 with a diploma in decorative painting. Based in Lahore (then in undivided India, now in Pakistan), he was a professor of drawing and was offered an RCA scholarship. He was 39 years old when he sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line arriving in London on September 25th 1920 (thanks to Gemma Romain for sourcing this information from The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960).

After his graduation, he travelled across Europe (France, Germany, Scandinavia, Greece and Italy) to study and practise art in various cities before he returned to India.

One of my project aims is to look for any surviving paintings and artworks related to my great-grandfather. The only document I have is his RCA student file which gives details about his progress as a student; the file also mentions his brief study visits to some provincial UK colleges but their names are not given.

From my initial inquiries at the RCA, they don’t seem to have any other records or artworks related to Vasu Deva Sharma except for the graduation photo of the class of 1923, a recent and rare find for my project (special thanks to Neil Parkinson at RCA who also referred me to Drawing Over the Colour Line). Among his fellow graduates were Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth along with Indian students Uday Shankar Choudhary and Mukul Dey.

Royal College of Art 1922-23 Convocation photograph, highlighting Vasu Deva Sharma. Courtesy of the Royal College of Art archive.

Royal College of Art 1922-23 Convocation photograph, highlighting Vasu Deva Sharma. Courtesy of the Royal College of Art archive.


Our family archives have a rare photo of Vasu Deva Sharma which was taken at a photo studio in Berlin, sometime in the mid to late 1920s. The picture is by a photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can see that Berg was appointed to a German court, without any indication which court this might be.

Another very significant point of interest is the connection between then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal Painting and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts.

After Vasu Deva Sharma’s return to India in the late 1920s, he practised art in Lahore and was a professor at Chief’s College. He was also commissioned by some Indian royal families for portraits, such as the royals of Chamba (in North India).

From whatever family history I have researched, I am told that Rothenstein travelled again to India in 1944 and visited my great-grandfather at his mansion in Lahore which also housed his studio and artworks.

Vasu Deva Sharma passed away in 1946, a year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule. His surviving family members, including his only son – my grand-father – and my father, were forced to flee Lahore in the wake of the partition riots and could not take his artworks and other belongings which were left behind in the mansion.

One of my main project aims is to look for any surviving artworks which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India.


Nyay Bhushan is an award-winning fine-art photographer and film-maker based in New Delhi. In addition to researching more about his family legacy, the project also offers transmedia opportunities, from a film documentary to an exhibition. To find out more about his work or to make contact with information about Sharma, please visit


New exhibition by UCL’s Migration Research Unit – Faith in Suburbia: a shared photographic journey

Exhibition Flyer

Some of our colleagues in the Migration Research Unit in UCL’s Department of Geography have also been working on visual culture in relation to the experience of diverse communities in London. A new exhibition opens this week at UCL’s South Cloisters called ‘Faith in Suburbia:  a shared photographic journey’ – which displays images reflecting the lives of different West London-based faith communities. The images were taken by photographer Liz Hingley, Leverhulme-funded Artist in Residence in the Migration Research Unit, working in collaboration with members of the communities and with Dr. Claire Dwyer, co-Director of the Migration Research Unit.

The exhibition will be at UCL until the end of January 2013 and then moves onto Gunnersbury Park Museum in Ealing until the end of June 2013.

New Event: Black History Month Wikipedia event

Organised by Wikimedia UK and The Equiano Centre, UCL.

Friday 26 October 2012

2pm until 6pm

The presence of Black people in Britain before the Second World War is often neglected in mainstream history. During the interwar period Black people were settled in various places around the country and included a diversity of nationalities and occupations, from dockworkers, domestics, writers, artists, doctors and students. There was also a presence of people of African and Asian heritage based in London during this time who were involved in political activism such as anti-colonial and anti-racism campaigning.

To coincide with Black History Month, Wikimedia UK (a charity supporting Wikipedia) in conjunction with The Equiano Centre, UCL is organising an event on 26 October in London. The event will explore some of these histories and work on adding the information to Wikipedia (including biographies on some of the figures of African and Asian heritage living, travelling or working in Britain at this time).

The event is especially aimed at new Wikipedia editors, who might be intimidated by the job of editing the Internet’s primary source of basic information. Representatives from Wikimedia UK will be on hand to show you how the site works and answer questions.

For more details and to book a place, visit the booking page

UCL Art Museum Pop-up exhibition: Drawing over the Colour Line with City and Islington College

On the afternoon of Thursday 28th June a pop-up exhibition in UCL Art Museum will highlight some images from the Drawing Over the Colour Line project that were discussed by City and Islington College students during a joint Equiano Centre and UCL Art Museum workshop last week. During the day we explored a range of subjects and histories and also explored Black inter-war histories and the artworld through a walking tour of Bloomsbury. I’ll be posting in more depth on this workshop day later in the week.

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].

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.