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Art show sheds light on black Victorians

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Portrait of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Walter Wallis, was painted in 1881.

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MANCHESTER, England (CNN) -- What do the artists Millais and Rossetti both have in common?

They both painted a black, working-class woman named Fanny Eaton, making her one of the most painted black women of the Victorian period.

The portraits are all on display at the Manchester Art Gallery where the Black Victorians exhibition explores the presence of people of African descent in 19th century British art, opening a fresh perspective on what it was like to be black at the time.

With more than 100 works of art in a wide range of media from paintings to sculpture, prints, photography and ephemera, the exhibition dispels the idea that there were only a few black people in Britain at the time.

Katherine Dickinson, curator of exhibitions at the Manchester Art Gallery, dismissed the common assumption that black people were always peripheral characters in the background.

"Research and this exhibition proves that there are a lot of high-profile figures," she said.

"The portraits in the exhibition include a number of quite well-known figures. The range of roles in which black people are presented is greater than we might assume."

Portraits of Crimean nurse and heroine Mary Seacole, (the black Florence Nightingale), celebrated actor Ira Aldridge, composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and acrobat Miss La-La, a trapeze artist who caught the eye of Degas hang alongside pictures of Sara Bonetta, Queen Victoria's god-daughter, political refugee Prince Alamayu and Arthur Wharton, Britain's first professional black footballer.

Caroline Bressey, a researcher into the lives of black people living in Victorian Britain, says looking at images of black people has become important.

"One of the interesting things about Victorians is that even though they're great record keepers, one of the things they tended not to record was the color of someone's skin or their ethnicity," she explains. "You'll never find that in the census as a box to tick as you do now."

Much of the research depends on records from institutions such as Barnardo's and the census, so is patchy for charting the lives of the working-class black community.

The portraits go some way to filling in the gaps. The portraits are also an invaluable barometer of the rise of racism in Victorian Britain. One of the significant changes in the 19th century was the abolitionist cause and the support to free black slaves.

Painted early in the century the fine noble portrait of Simpson's captive slave became emblematic of the cause in 1827.

But attitudes changed in part due to the well-publicized and bloody Indian Mutiny and violent protests in Jamaica.

Dickinson said the later portrait called The Toy Seller shows a black peddler offering a toy to a clearly anxious child, disturbed by the presence of the African. A reflection, Dickinson suggests, of suspicion between Britain and the colonies.

But she is disappointed that as yet research has failed to unearth a fine artist, illustrator or photographer who was black.

But Jackie Kaye, the Caribbean poetess, believes that this is purely academic. For her the exhibition, the first of its kind in Britain, is a huge success.

"It was so exciting to see so many black people there looking at the paintings," she says. "Explaining to their children the history. I've never seen so many people in the art gallery before. It was almost a way of finding a past through looking at these paintings."

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