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  • 'Painting our Past' is a new exhibition of portraits, six portraits each depicting an

  • historical figure from the African diaspora. Each of them have really interesting links

  • to properties in the care of English Heritage. Commissioned by English Heritage, these portraits

  • will be displayed at the forts, abbeys, country houses and even the barracks where these people

  • lived, worked or visited. In many cases their stories are just not well known. This is an

  • opportunity through this project and working with these artists to bring these stories

  • to life and share them with our visitors. From Septimius Severus, the African-born Roman

  • emperor who strengthened Hadrian's Wallto James Chappell, a servant who lived here

  • at Kirby Hall in the 17th century, these portraits span the century and shed new light on the

  • presence of African people here in England.

  • My name is Hannah Uzor and I'm an artist. I deal with historical figures, particularly

  • black historical figures, and I represent them through portraiture and film. I don't

  • always paint historical figures, but there always has to be a narrative behind the character

  • that I'm painting. Hannah's painting portrays Sarah Forbes

  • Bonetta, or Aina as she was originally known. Aina was born in 1843 to a West African ruler,

  • but she was captured by African slavers and taken to modern day Benin. It was in 1850

  • that she was presented as a 'diplomatic gift' to Frederick Forbes, the captain of

  • HMS Bonetta and this is how she got her anglicised name 'Sarah Forbes Bonetta'. Captain Forbes

  • took her back to Britain and presented her at the court of Queen Victoria. And Queen

  • Victoria took a great interest in this young lady and supported her through her education

  • and effectively became her guardian. And indeed, Sarah visited OsborneQueen Victoria's

  • holiday home on the Isle of Wightat many times throughout her life.

  • I was really intrigued with her story. And I discovered her through reading a book by

  • David Olusoga 'Black and British: A Forgotten History' and when I found her story it was

  • quite intriguing and I began to research a bit more, particular as I needed to know more

  • about her life and her experience. In my depiction of Sarah I wanted the audience

  • to see a strong, black, confident womanbut also an elegant black womanand comfortable

  • in her own skin, and comfortable in the position that she found herself in.

  • She was royalty, she'd always been royaltyand here was a picture that I wanted to depict

  • showing that royalty in her black skin. It looked like a perfect painting without

  • the fabric on it but I really wanted to see if I could stretch the limits of the experience

  • of the audience by adding this additional layer… a contrast, an antagonistic moment

  • for me as an artist but also for the audience when they see this depictionthis black

  • woman in an untraditional dressing. I think it's a really great privilege to

  • be part of such a wonderful project by English Heritage, and having these other artists tell

  • stories of how black historical figures have been forgotten is a really important thing,

  • not only for those who are living now but for the future generationsthe legacy of

  • those individuals and telling their stories from generation to generation.

  • Sometimes when we look at history we feel very disconnected from the subject matter

  • that we're looking at because we think it's something that's happened in the past. But

  • in terms of historical figures, we know that their descendants are actually living today

  • and some of those individuals we've actually been contact with…I've been in contact

  • with as well, and so history is a very living thing. It's not something that's set in

  • stone but it's something that's continuing. And in Sarah Forbes' case, her descendants

  • are still living here in the UK and in Nigeria as well.

  • Before I started painting Dido Belle I'd say I didn't know a lot about her, but working

  • through this whole process for English Heritage they gave me a lot of info on her. I was so

  • excited to try and get in to creating my version of Dido Belle.

  • Dido Belle was the daughter a young, enslaved black woman and a white royal navy officer.

  • She spent most of her time as part of the Murray household and she grew up right at

  • the heart of Georgian London and spent most of her life at Kenwood House on Hampstead

  • Heath. She is someone to pay attention to, someone

  • I believe had a voice because she had an important role... she is not just the daughter of a

  • slave, of a white man, and she was just lucky to be brought up in Kenwood House.

  • I like the placement of her hands where she's just softly resting in front of her body.

  • It's almost giving a sense of femininity… I also think, femininity doesn't seem to

  • be linked with people of colour, of women, seems to be harsh, hard

  • She's a strong figure. She also can be soft, not all these other narratives sometimes placed

  • on Black women, maybe harsh, rough, mean… A lot of my paintings have head wraps and

  • I like to work with them because there's this history about black women needing to

  • cover up their hair and I thought at that timethey didn't know what to do with

  • curly hair! So the solution was to simply cover it up.

  • To have this kind of fabric wrapped around her head it's not just any type of cloth

  • that's just to show the importance of her. In my head I wanted her silk dress to be this

  • dark, deep green because I know from experience that it goes well against brown, melanated

  • skinit just makes you stand out when wearing green.

  • There was this distinct shadow line right down the middle of her faceyou've got

  • this very, very light side, and this very dark side, and you put it together and you've

  • got Dido Belle. So I thought that was just a good commentary on who she is and what she

  • is. It feels great to be part of this almost like

  • a… it's a group exhibition even though everyone's a different places, it's just

  • to see how everyone interpreted painting these historical figures. People of colour who were

  • embedded in British history that we're trying to bring to the front like 'look, we've

  • always been here' [laughs]. We just wanted to show them in a really good light and show

  • all the things that they did. So, it's quite an exciting thing to try and bring light to

  • such a topic.

  • Whilst you're painting, I think a bit like perhaps when an actor is taking on a role

  • they really try and understand that personMy background is in history and art history

  • so that often begins my researchoften begins with those, going to the past to look

  • at things which I'm finding interesting or very relevant to what's going on now.

  • Elena's portrait shows us the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus. Septimius Severus was born

  • in Leptis Magna which is in modern day Libya in North Africa. And he came to Britain in

  • the early 200s to strengthen the Roman presence in the north of Britannia. He subjugated

  • certainly attempted to subjugate the local tribes there before falling back effectively

  • to strengthen Hadrian's Wall. So not only did he make his mark on Roman Britain but

  • he actually also died in Britain, in York, in 211.

  • It was really important to have a kind of total version of him, the good and the bad.

  • He is a person, no one's perfectand I think that gives also a more rich version

  • of history. People would ask me like 'oh but you know, he did this, and he did that,

  • and that's not so great' you're like 'but you know, you have to consider this'

  • and you become very kind of forgiving, maybe? Maybe too forgiving!

  • The symbols in the fresco on the top, they reference the narrative of his life as well

  • as the way he chose to represent himself in his coins.

  • You know, I really found it interesting the way that he seemed so astute and clever and

  • very original in the way he thought. When it comes to the face in my initial sketches

  • I actually did one side of the face which was kind of frowning and the other side had

  • a small smiling expression, cos I kind of wanted to have this inability to pin the expression

  • down which whilst painting it reduced a little but I hope that kind of stays in the painting.

  • He was very much in control of the information about him, and I really got this image of

  • someone who was a bit of a moralist, who was very quick at solving problems and a very

  • inquiring mindThe hand over the knee and then the hand which

  • is over the scroll again referencing that kind of control over information and the way

  • he was seen. I actively chose a pose where he was leaning

  • forward because I thought that really conveyed the fact that he was somebody who was always

  • moving about and that was quick to act. The fall of the garments, particularly of the

  • top area was quite important. Leaning forwards towards us and in dialogue with us directly

  • but also kind of perhaps holding something backand somebody who's quite severe

  • and quitethere's a little bit of secrecy always there with him.

  • To get to know these incredible other artists and see how they've approached the project

  • and how they've brought to life these other figures which are so importantthey exist

  • among many other figures lost to history so I'm really excited to see that this is just

  • the beginningIt's so important that Septimius kind of

  • exists within a space that he belongs to. I hope that it helps visitors to kind of re-envision

  • this pastthis British past, that point in time in which that area of the world must

  • have been so multicultural and so interesting.

  • My energy comes from my Dad. My Dad showed me how to draw and I haven't looked back

  • since, you know. I've been painting for a long time… I don't need energy anymore

  • it's something that you do! [Laughs] Clifton's portrait will be displayed at

  • St Augstine's Abbey in Canterbury and it shows us St Hadrian. St Hadrian was the Abott

  • of St Augstine's and he arrived in the England in the 7th century. He was a man renowned

  • for his diplomacy as well as for his great learning.

  • The first thing about the process iswas the time, the century. And I think that's

  • the first challenge. And the next thing is about where he's fromwhat tribe or,

  • you knowIt's not only the person, it's who the

  • person iswhat the person does. I use music to connect with the painting that

  • I do. For this painting I used Gregorian chant and this helped me to connect spiritually

  • with the work. The face was important, because the face tell

  • the personal of where he's from… I didn't want…a passive looking Hadrian.

  • I wanted to read from his face and his eyes, and that's what I was looking into. But

  • to get that reading, everything had to come in place like a jigsaw. But I didn't want

  • a nice, smiling, lovely, passive person… I wanted to look in his soul, deep within

  • his soul, because that is Hadrian when you look into his soul.

  • You think as a painter you could just do it, but it takes more than that. It takes study,

  • just to know who you're painting, and it makes you feel more, you know, involved and

  • special to be doing something like that. I went to the Abbey on a virtual tour during

  • lockdown, sowhen you're doing something like that you have to be there. I'm taking

  • notes, they have loads of cameras going around and they showed me everythingthings that

  • I need to know, and things I didn't know that I needed to know.

  • We identified where the painting is going to go. So the wall settings of the work, you

  • know, that dark red look, all the setting is designed for that space.

  • I try and get the colours to fit where it's going to be hung, with what it's going to

  • be there with, with the rest of the exhibit that is there.

  • I'm impressed by his accomplishment. As an artist to paint him now, today after all

  • those yearsit's overwhelming. It's an overwhelming feeling.

  • My name's Chloe Cox. I go by the artist name Artcee, and I'm an oil painter focusing

  • on portraiture. In my work I usually paint people from ethnic

  • minority backgrounds or ethnic minority communities. I just like to really represent the underrepresented.

  • Chloe's portrait depicts an individual called Arthur Roberts. He's the son of a Trinidadian

  • man who was born in Bristol and brought up in Glasgow. In 1917, Arthur Roberts enlisted

  • into the British army and he joined the King's Own Scottish Borderers. Now that regimental

  • base was at Berwick-Upon-Tweed. This regimental base would have been the heart, the home of

  • the regiment and everybody who was in that regiment would have strongly identified with

  • that place. Arthur served for the remainder of the First World War and even fought at

  • the battle of Passchendaele. Before I started the painting, I didn't

  • know anything about Arthur Roberts and it was a pleasure to find out a lot more about

  • him. I have this book called 'As Good as Any

  • Man' which sort of explores his diary entries, and reading that really enlightened aspects

  • of his personality, his journey throughout the war

  • Reading what he had written in his diary really felt like I was building a connection with

  • him as a person, and almost made me want to honour him even more in my painting.

  • I definitely felt I got to know him. He was quite a relatable character actually.

  • What was a step away from my comfort zone was the fact that the photos were all black

  • and white, they were quite grainy, cos I'm used to either taking my own photos or requesting

  • really high quality photos to draw from. There were a few photos of him in his uniforms

  • for me to choose from, and some of them were him as a new recruit, and others were him

  • later in his career and higher up in rank as a solider. And so I specifically chose

  • one where he had gotten higher in the ranks and looked more the part, and looked a lot

  • more comfortable in his uniform. I liked that… I wanted to show him in some level of seniority.

  • When people see this painting, I just want them to see a real human being and not see

  • just a black man. I want them to see a person who's got a sense of charm and confidence,

  • and someone who contributed to the war effort the same as his fellow counterparts in the

  • army. I'm really proud to have my work displayed

  • at Berwick-Upon-Tweed barracks. It's the first time that my work has been commissioned

  • to be part of a museum collection. So far most of my work goes into someone's home

  • which is great but I don't get to see it ever again, whereas here it's on public

  • display and I'm really excited about that and honoured to be part of the project.

  • As a person of mixed heritage as wellrepresenting a lost sort of figure in history and bringing

  • them to life and representing Arthur basically, doing that for himhas been a real accomplishment

  • for me.

  • It was only around the time that I started uni that I really delved into portraiture

  • but before that everything was an adventure, an experiment and I wasn't quite sure what

  • I wanted to do. I used to work in a lot of these art renaissance

  • halls and things like that, and I just loved to look around the art when I was free on

  • my break. I didn't see myself represented in it. What if I could represent the black

  • people, the black Europeans that I don't see? What if I could put something I don't

  • see into a world that I love? Glory's portrait shows us James Chappell.

  • James was a servant at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire and he entered the service of the Hatton family

  • at around about the age of 15 in 1672. And he worked in the service of the Hatton family

  • until the death of Christopher Hatton in 1706. And at that point he was given a pension which

  • enabled him to setup home in the local area, and indeed the stories say that he became

  • the landlord of the local pub. I went on a historical trip to Kirby Hall

  • where James Chappell actually lived and it was really inspiring. I love being in the

  • presence of where these historical figures actually existed.

  • The fact that he could look back at his life and be proud of his service to the Hatton's…

  • I just want people to look at him and see like a stoic figure, someone who was proud

  • of his life. He is in these 18th century aristocratic clothing,

  • probably a tailcoat with a cravat, he has an afro

  • He's in this lovely baroque chair, lovely ornamented chair, with the curtains draping

  • behind him… I wanted to give him the presence that, like,

  • he wanted you to know he's there, he's not just a hidden figure anymore, he's coming

  • out and he's going to be among all of those other characters.

  • He's part of the story! He's not just going to be hidden for any longer. There might

  • be many more. I'd love to bring their story to life through portraiture, through a painting.

  • All these unnamedthey don't have any historicalvisual references, I'd love

  • to give them a name and a face.

  • 'Painting our Past' is perhaps an unusual exhibition in so far as it's spread right

  • across England in these six wonderful places. But what better time has there been to see

  • these fantastic sites, these locations, and to look at these wonderful, arresting portraits

  • and to understand more about the impact of the lives of people from Africa in England's

  • story. The exhibition opens on 9 June and you can find out much more information about

  • the artists and about the individuals portrayed in the portraits by following the links below.

'Painting our Past' is a new exhibition of portraits, six portraits each depicting an

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B1 painting historical black hadrian forbes wanted

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England | Starts 9 June

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    Summer posted on 2021/06/09
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