Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 2

Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 2

Last week, inspired by a talk I was asked to put together for Black History Month, I wrote an introduction to looking at the history of depictions of slavery in British artwork and across a range of artistic genres. You can (re)visit my introductory post here. This week, I’d like to look at just a few examples of slavery in the arts to demonstrate some of the information that we can gather from artistic works.

I should note that my postgraduate research centred on identifying proslavery arguments, works, individuals and societies, and their efforts to combat popular abolitionism in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, up to the mid-1830s. As such, much of my work on the history of slavery in art was focussed on pro-slavery works, and the items I’ve selected here reflect this experience.

It’s important to remember that just because a piece of artwork, literature, music, or propaganda seems to state or promote one side of the slavery debates, this does not necessarily mean that the author or publisher held those beliefs. It could have been that he or she (although probably ‘he’ at this point in time) was aware of the market and what the public wanted, in order to maximise their chances of sales. In other cases the author or publisher clearly states that they are trying to contribute to the slavery debates. Finally, in some cases the author is an anti-slavery or West Indian society or representative, and so  the connection and motivation behind the work doesn’t need to be inferred.

Political Prints and Caricatures: ‘The Blind Enthusiast’, published by William Holland

blind-enthusiast

The Blind Enthusiast, pub. William Holland (1792)

The Blind Enthusiast is a very interesting piece. It is a political print, a format that was gaining popularity amongst the politically-aware and active elites in London during this period. Politicians and wealthier Londoners could collect prints: many more could view them in shop windows in London. To be a good print, the characters and scene needed to be recognisable. Wilberforce stands blindfolded in the centre of the scene, therefore his image must have been recognisable by members of the British public by the early 1790s.

The print is making a commonly-advanced anti-abolitionist argument: that the work, information, and propaganda being produced by abolitionists (here embodied by Wilberforce) is actually setting the colonies alight. The islands are labelled, just to make sure that the viewer sees that it is Britain’s West Indian colonies that are being enflamed.

At this time and across the following three decades, abolitionists would be charged again and again that by regularly challenging colonial slavery in Parliament (Wilberforce brought in bills to abolish the slave trade annually), sending missionaries to the colonies to inform and convert slaves, and spreading conflicting ‘incendiary’ information about British abolition through colonial newspapers, they were damaging master-slave relations and threatening the ‘peace’ in the islands.

Environmental Theatre: Using blackface to gain attention and support

‘The delusions practised, too, in order to work upon the people, and excite their sympathy, were of a ridiculous nature; and when his noble friend (the Lord Chancellor) stood for Yorkshire, there were persons led about in chains, with blackened faces, in order to rouse the feelings of the people.’

Alexander Baring, House of Commons, 15 April 1831

On 15 April 1831, MP Thomas Fowell Buxton brought in a motion for the abolition of slavery. The motion is introduced with a lengthy speech, typical of motions for abolition and emancipation at the time, that discusses the history of British slavery in the West Indies, what is believed to be the current state of slavery there, and the pressing demand for abolition. In the discussion that follows his motion receives substantial support and also some strong opposition. In the end, the debate is adjourned until after the forthcoming Reform debates.

I’d like to take minute here to look at one element of a sceptical MP’s argument. MP Alexander Baring presents a lengthy speech in defence of the colonies that points out holes and errors in the beliefs that underpin the stated arguments for abolition. In his speech, he intentionally downplays the importance of the ‘5,600 petitions’ by suggesting that, while they may indeed contain tens of thousands of signatures, they were all created by the same society. He then goes on to say the abolitionists have been going to towns and creating spectacles through blackface and and chains to bring awareness of colonial slavery to the wider British public.

I think such activities could be interpreted as early environmental theatre. Environmental theatre aims to remove the distinction between the audience/observer and the actors/show by typically removing the need for a stage and instead performing on the streets, in public forums and venues, with or without notice. The action takes place within the audience, and the audience may or may not know that they are viewing a planned or somewhat scripted performance. It can be used to draw attention to causes, which Baring believes to have been the intention here, and the nature of this type of theatre encourages the public to get involved, take a role, learn more, and be motivated to then do something. In Baring’s opinion, spectacles such as these may have unfairly affected both voting and the signing of petitions.

Wedgwood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ blue jasperware

wedgwood

Many of us are familiar with the phrase, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’, and the associated image of a kneeling enslaved man of African descent in chains. Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent abolitionist and the founder of the Wedgewood pottery business, worked with The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to place the iconic image on the famous medallions.  The resulting image was a massive seller in the 1790s and into the 1800s across a range of formats. Therefore, this was a commercially-successful image.

Wedgwood’s medallions in particular became a popular fashion accessory for women, but the image was also used on Wedgwood’s famous blue jasperware. Through the Society’s efforts and those of Wedgwood and his descendants (he died in 1795), they made this image and the plea for help with the abolitionist cause recognisable across Britain. At the same time, they also made a lot of money for their business and their cause.

This is a very specific image, however, that is being promoted and shared here for the purposes of spreading information and selling goods. It is the image of a man who is begging for help. He is unable to help himself yet he wants help, he is physically restrained by chains, and he is almost naked and therefore even more vulnerable. The Society is sharing a safe, reassuring, commercially-viable image with the British public, one that insists that enslaved Africans need help and that they are not a threat. The man in the picture is child-like, docile even, in need of paternal care. There is no sense of African agency or strength here. It was a success and has left a lasting impression.

You’ll find my list of suggested readings in the first of these two posts on slavery and the arts. If you’d like more information and many more examples of proslavery arts and culture in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s, why not check out Chapter 3 of Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition.

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An Introduction to Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 1

An Introduction to Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 1

Over the summer I was asked to take part in Glasgow’s Black History Month programme of events and started putting together a talk on ‘Slavery in the Arts in the Era of [British] Abolition’. I had previously looked at the importance of artwork, literature, and drama to the anti-abolitionists in establishing and demonstrating the existence of a culture of proslavery for both my PhD thesis and my book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). I also wanted to share some of my thoughts here on some of the uses of artistic depictions of slavery during abolition.

blind-enthusiast

William Holland (publisher), ‘The Blind Enthusiast’, 1792  — Image credit: The British Museum

Works of art are vital sources of information. In theory, many types of artistic works could be seen, heard, and understood by a wider range of individuals than written works such as a periodical, newspaper, or pamphlet. They contain visual details that might not otherwise of have been captured by an author’s printed words. Information about Africans and people of African descent in the colonies was shared with a wide swath of the British public and British politicians by Britain’s anti-slavery societies and their opposition. Many of these artistic works could certainly have been created with the intention of swaying public opinion, but their form, being pieces of art, meant that they could also be passed off as a simply pieces of art.

There seems to have been four central uses of artwork, drama, song, literature, etc.  that depict images of the enslaved in Britain in the later 18th and early 19th centuries:

  • Art as a Leisure Pursuit
  • Art as Information
  • Art as Propaganda
  • Art as a Commercial Endeavour

The divisions between the categories can be quite blurred, as you’ll see, depending on the author’s intention, the date of creation/publication, and the display or distribution of the item.

‘Reading’, analysing, and understanding artistic sources requires a range of techniques that are drawn from the fields of history, drama, art history, and language studies. Items need to be studied within a wider context:

  • Where and when was it created?
  • Who was the creator/artist/author?
  • Who might have seen the work?
  • Why might it have been made?
  • How does the piece compare to other similar contemporary works?
  • Are there any contemporary records that mention it? If so, where are the records from and what do they say about it?

Art is also an interpretation of its subject, so any analysis of a piece of artwork would be an interpretation of an interpretation.

This was a period of growth in the middling classes. People were encouraged to go out, visit newly opened galleries, expanded theatres, and circulating libraries in cities across Britain, share ideas in cafes with likeminded, politically-aware individuals, and develop ‘taste’ and an appreciation for the arts. The upper middling and upper classes also had the money and time to support the arts, read widely and build up a small home library, attend the theatre, collect some favourite political prints or caricatures, and have portraits painted to display within their homes.

People bought or borrowed books and tended to read aloud, allowing for others to share in the experience. Women will still discouraged from attending the theatre (due to the threat of being ‘corrupted’ by the experience); this demonstrates a heightened awareness of the theatre as political and influential, as well as the true mix of crowds in the stalls. Literacy rates were growing among men and women. Novels, known more in the 18th century as histories, romances, etc., became more popular and more common as literacy rates grew.

Portraiture was the most popular genre of art in 18th century Britain. Political prints, however, were a key part of making a politician or other individual recognisable to the wider public. Meanwhile, hundred of poems about slavery and the colonies were also published. Most of these were anti-slavery in nature, but a few supported the institution of slavery or the colonies in general.

A few key things have shaped how slavery would be depicted in the arts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. First, by defining or classifying Africans and people of African descent as ‘black’ and Britons/Europeans as ‘white’, this automatically places the two in direct opposition with one another. This opposition can be magnified through an artist’s paint choice or pen strokes. In a pen and ink political print, for example, a ‘white’ subject might not have any colour or shading added to their skin, whereas a ‘black’ might be completely coloured in.

Second, as the century went on, we see that for the first time African or black subjects are being depicted as ‘familiar’ rather than ‘foreign’ subjects in some forms of art. This suggests a growing awareness or even a sense of familiarity of slavery or the role of Africans in the British colonies and in Britain. Abolitionists were striving to make the plight of African slaves on slave ships and in the colonies a familiar subject to the British public. They wanted to convince Britons that they could and should help induce Parliament to make a change and vote for abolition. Perhaps this shift in the role of blacks in British art is a sign of their efforts and denoted their later success.

I hope this has served as an informative, interesting introduction to art in the era of British abolition. Next week I’ll look at some specific pieces to show how art (and slaves) were used across the genres of artwork, song, literature, and drama.

Suggested Reading:

Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal, eds., Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Jan Marsh, ed., Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Aldershot: Manchester Art Galleries, 2006).

Marcia Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representations of Slavery and the Black Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Karina Williamson, ed., Contrary Voices: Representations of West Indian Slavery, 1657-1834  (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008).

Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representation of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000).