Charles Card-Reynolds explores Black Portraits

In her kalendar of saints the Church of England commemorates on 30 July Olaudah Equiano (1745-97) as an anti-slavery campaigner with the collect:

God our deliverer, who sent your Son Jesus Christ to set your people free from the slavery to sin: grant that, as your servant Olaudah Equiano toiled against the sin of slavery, so we may bring compassion to all who work for the freedom of the children of God, through the same Christ, Our Lord.

He is best known for his autobiography The Interesting History of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in London in 1789 – and which remains in print. For his writing and his campaigning he has been voted in a BBC poll, The Greatest Black Briton – though he is perhaps less well-known than he desires.

Equiano grew-up enslaved in British America and the West Indies but through great efforts purchased his own freedom in 1766 aged 21. His life was one of extraordinary endeavour and adventure, all recounted in the Interesting Narrative. He travelled to Turkey and to the Artic, he rescued a sinking ship and escaped re-enslavement and then settled in London in 1786 where he helped found the campaigning group The Sons of Africa. The Interesting Narrative is also a spiritual autobiography, telling of his search for faith. Equiano felt called to the priesthood and although the Bishop of London was prepared to ordain him be could not secure a stable patron. Instead he was appointed Commissary to the Sierra Leone Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor but he was critical of the administration of the enterprise and withdrew.

This unique colour version of his portrait, commissioned by Equiano himself, shows him in the blue uniform of a Royal Commissary – his hand rests on the Bible, open to Acts 4 that tells of salvation coming through faith. His hair, dressed as a short clerical-style wig, declares his learning.

The portrait is currently on display at The National Museum of Barbados in an extensive exhibition entitled The Black Presence: Activism and Agency in a Different Age. I had the great joy of delivering the opening lecture in those far off, pre-lockdown, days of February. The museum has now re-opened and the run extended.

The first version of the exhibition was displayed 2018-19; The Fellowship of S. John (the Cowley Fathers’ charity) sponsored this exhibition of historic portraiture of African and African-diaspora people at Bruce Castle Museum, Tottenham. The venue was a specific choice. Our research had uncovered that the African-American poetess Phillis Wheatley (1755-84), who during her visit to the UK in 1722, ostensibly to meet the Countess of Huntingdon, a leading evangelical, had met with James Townsend, Lord Mayor of London. Townsend was of Ghanaian descent and lived at Bruce Castle. It was the perfect setting to display 40 portraits.

The motivation for the collection of black historic portraits started in January 2016. I was conducting a parishioner’s funeral. The West Indian tradition of the family back-filling the grave was taking place. It was raining and each shovel-full of thick London clay only very slowly peeled into the grave. As we stood watching two mourners spoke to me about Barbara Francis (who had grown-up in the Diocese of Guyana, which as readers of ND will know made Barbara Anglo-Catholic royalty). She had been a great influence upon a generation of black youngers in the 70s and 80s, providing a quiet space for homework on her dining table. The two mourners told me of this and its importance, for the British educational system had at times been a hostile experience. It was hospitable but ‘only up to a point’. My two companions at the graveside had excelled academically and had prospered in the decades since – but culturally Britain was still only ‘hospitable up to a point.’ Now with children of their own, both enjoyed taking their families to museums, galleries, to a National Trust property – ‘But’ one said, ‘if only one day we could walk into an exhibition and it wasn’t all peaches and cream.’ Though we laughed it set me thinking – I have the easy expectation that as I look back at history, it looks back recognisably at me. What if that was not my experience?

Many conversations followed and I drew together a network of academics, collectors, curators and art dealers. I am most grateful for their input over the last 4 years that has built a lending collection of portraits in the medium of prints (engravings, etching, mezzotints and lithographs) dating from 1640s to 1920s, with an emphasis on the Georgian period.

The exhibition at Bruce Castle Museum attracted thousands of visitors, including large numbers of school children. For the ‘selfie’ generation the education department gave the children the task of analysing the portraits – what did the sitter wish us to understand. Younger children were wonderfully not delayed with any sense that the exhibition had a thesis – they were simply portraits of people – politicians, composer, boxers, royalty, a road sweeper,  clergy, actor, musicians, writers etc. College aged students expressed annoyance, many of African and West Indian heritage, ‘how come,’ some asked, ‘we’ve just gone through school and we don’t know about these people?’ At the opening event we sponsored the live performance of the harpsicord music of Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) – stereotype evaporated.

While not side-lining the history and horror of enslavement, these historical portraits witness to a positive meeting of Africa and Europe where agency was not lost and learning and culture were enriched. This portrait of Job ben Solomon (1702-73) appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1750. He is shown with a copy of the Koran around his neck, which he had inscribed entirely from memory. He grew-up in The Gambia but was enslaved and transported to Maryland in 1731. An Anglican priest, Thomas Bluett, befriended him, admired his learning and organised a subscription to purchase his freedom. Job ben Solomon came to the UK in 1733. He worked with Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum on Arabic translations and similarly at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Before returning to The Gambia, he was presented to King George II, who gifted him a gold watch in gratitude.

A century later Jan Tzatzoe (1791-1868) came to the UK; he was a chief of the Xhosa nation of South Africa. He was a Christian missionary and diplomat. This portrait shows him in 1836 when he gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons that went on to recommend the protection of African ownership against Imperial land appropriation. Tzatzoe is wearing the uniform of a senior diplomat. He toured Britain with other African clergy in the 1830s drawing vast crowds.

The only photograph in the exhibition is of The Right Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809-91) – the first African to become an Anglican bishop. Like Equiano he is commemorated in the kalendar, on 31 December. The collect reads:

Almighty God, you rescued Samuel Ajayi Crowther from slavery, sent him to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Nigeria and made him the first bishop of the people of West Africa. Grant that those who follow in his steps may reap what he has sown and find abundant help for the harvest, through Him who took upon Himself the form of a slave that we might be free, the same Jesus Christ.

At 17 Crowther was rescued by the Royal Navy from Portuguese slavers and released to Freetown, Sierra Leone. There he was cared for by the Anglican Mission Society who sponsored him to be educated in London. He excelled as a scholar – eventually receiving Oxford’s highest degree, Doctor of Divinity. In 1843 he was ordained priest by the Bishop of London and in 1864 be was ordained to the episcopacy at Canterbury Cathedral. This photograph was taken at the time of his appointment as Bishop of the Niger. In his hand he holds a book and rests his other hand on a stack of books – he is remembered for his scholarship of Latin and Greek, for his translation of the Bible and Prayer Book into Yoruba and his primers in Igbo and Nupe.

These images reproduced here are just a small sample of the holding. The collection continues to expand and there are early and exciting signs that it may contribute to a major national exhibition in the UK in years to come. Discussions with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust are underway. This is now happening against the backdrop we have witnessed in recent weeks of violence – from Minneapolis to Reading. We have seen the protest and anger that has followed. Symbols and images have become highly contested. Our hope is that these exhibitions are celebrations through portraits that recover and speak of a graced and redemptive meeting of our one human family. The unbinding and setting aside of the burden of ignorance and prejudice is a work of the Spirit – as the collect prayers, others have sown, and we should now thankfully harvest.

Fr Charles Card-Reynolds FSJ is Vicar of S. Bartholomew on Stamford Hill