English Heritage has featured six paintings that tell fascinating and little-known stories of people from the African Diaspora in the history of England, including the Roman Emperor who fortified Hadrian’s Wall and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter.
The patrimonial body commissioned six artists painting portraits, displaying them in forts, abbeys, historic houses and barracks where they have an association.
The project aimed to bring their stories to life for a wider audience, said Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director. “African figures from the past have played an important role in some of the historical sites under our care, but many of their stories are not well known.”
Subjects include Septimius Severus, who was born in Leptis Magna, the current city of Al-Khums in Libya. He traveled to Britain in 208 AD and ordered the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall and the reoccupation of the Antonine Wall, in what is now central Scotland, with a view to expanding his empire.
It has been painted by Elena Onwochei-García, who said she was drawn to Septimius because of her own background of multiple inheritances, in her case Nigerian, Spanish and German. “This made me reflect on how people could imagine someone like us,” he said.
“I wanted to go beyond painting the ‘African emperor’ of Rome, to portray a complex individual paying attention to his personality and how he chose to be seen on his coins, statues and architecture.
“Historically, black people have had little control over their representation. Septimius Severus incarnated and altered the image of the Roman Empire. “
The portrait will go on display from Wednesday in Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall.
Another theme is Dido Belle, born in 1761, the daughter of an enslaved black woman and a British naval officer. He was raised as part of the aristocratic Murray family in Georgian London and spent much of his life at Kenwood House on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath.
Belle has been painted by Mikéla Henry-Lowe. She welcomed “the opportunity to paint a black woman who experienced growing up in an aristocratic family, because most representations of black women in Georgian Britain were shown as slaves.”
Clifton Powell has painted Abbot Hadrian, an African scholar in Anglo-Saxon England and abbot of St. Augustine Abbey, Kent. Hadrian was from Cyrenaica, a Roman / Byzantine province in North Africa.
Powell said he had felt his subject’s presence since the portrait began and played monastic Gregorian chants while painting.
Hannah Uzor has painted the portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the daughter of a West African ruler who was enslaved by King Gezo of Dahomey, present-day Benin. In 1850, Bonetta was presented as a “diplomatic gift” to a British naval captain, Frederick Forbes, and taken to England.
Bonetta was introduced to Queen Victoria, who was evidently enchanted by her, describing her as “sharp and intelligent.” Victoria became her godmother and paid for her education in Sierra Leone and Gillingham, Kent.
Chloe Cox has painted Arthur Roberts, the son of a Trinidadian man, who was born in 1897 in Bristol and grew up in Glasgow. He served in World War I and survived the Battle of Passchendaele. The painting is on display at the Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks in Northumberland.
The sixth painting is by James Chappell (1648-1730), a servant from Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, who saved the life of the owner of the room. It has been painted by Glory Samjolly.
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