Friday 28 June 2019

Review: Black Americans in Victorian Britain

I'm sure a good number of you own the catalogue from the 2005 exhibition Black Victorians and have marvelled at the number of people of colour that populate nineteenth century art, from the lovely Fanny Eaton...

Fanny Eaton (1860) Simeon Solomon little Prince Dejatch Alamayou...

Basha Felika and Dejatch Alamayou (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
...and much like women's history, our appreciation of black history is getting the long overdue attention that is needed. I was delighted and intrigued therefore to be sent a copy of Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green.

Recently, my daughter asked me when slavery ended in the UK, and we spent rather along time saying 'well, that's a complicated question...' but on the face of it, within the UK, slavery had ended by the time Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 (with the caveat of the Indian Slavery Act of 1843). American slaves had to wait until 1865 before they saw any change in their position (again, even then it is very complicated).  Maybe then it isn't surprising that escaped slaves such as Moses Roper travelled to the UK to lecture on their experiences and publish books on the subject. 

The extraordinary Ellen Craft
The story of Ellen Craft is remarkable - she and her husband, fellow slave William, escaped Georgia in 1848, with her dressed as a white man and her husband pretending to be her servant.  They finally settled in England in 1869.  These true stories of heroism and survival make Green's book both harrowing but also heartwarming that the brave and resourceful Crafts could share their stories where so many were denied the chance.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1866) Edwin Longsden Long
Of course, black American narratives were not unknown to the British reader (after a fashion), with the massive popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin of 1852 and the resultant paintings, plays, and even ornaments celebrating the wise and patient Tom often with the cherubic Eva. The full pervasiveness of the novel can be seen in Rossetti's nickname for William Morris, 'Topsy', a character in the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book is that Green  makes you look at something that you thought you knew from a different angle.  I spend a fair amount of time reading about Merton Russell-Cotes, founder of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, but at the same time as Merton was being a somewhat colourful character in Bournemouth, in Boscombe (now a part of Bournemouth) a gentleman called Thomas Lewis Johnson wrote and published Twenty-Eight Years a Slave.  He died the same year as Merton and was apparently as well known as the Russell-Cotes family.  Previously when I thought of the Bournemouth of the turn of the twentieth century, I had never considered that it would include such an important figure, and now have to find out if he and Merton ever met.  That is a pretty decent book that makes me want to do more research.

The American Slave (1862) John Bell
Like most Pen & Sword publications, this is an eminently readable and detailed book, with some good illustrations and further reading suggestions.  While I have written about the Victorian imagery surrounding slavery (often a bit dubious and featuring a lot of bosoms), it is refreshing and sobering to read accounts of people who escaped to our country to educate us, then become an important and appreciated part of our society. It was also interesting to read how the Victorians greeted such refugees from slavery and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the levels of respect paid, and quite rightly so.  It is a pleasure to end the week on such an enlightening note.

Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green is available from Pen and Sword Books and all good books shops.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Clementina Margaret Hull

 Today's post is by way of gathering some research in one place to help others.  The subject of this post is Clementina Margaret Hull, a now-forgotten watercolourist, but while researching her, I have found some interesting things about her and her family. It all started when Mr Walker showed me a painting and I asked 'And what do we know about the painter?' Flap all, apparently...

The Thief (c.1860-70) Clementina Margaret Hull
 I'll come to the subject of this rather smashing watercolour in a moment but first of all, here is the story of Miss Clementina Margaret Hull and her family. 

Dr George Montgomery Hull (1794-1878) had been born in Ayrshire before training in medicine and surgery at Edinburgh.  He was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh but headed south, possibly looking to specialise in diseases of the wealthy.  He met the lovely Susanna, fifteen years his junior, and they married around 1840.  The life of a young doctor involved a bit of travelling around, as their first children, twins Agnes and Susanna (named for her mother) were born in the outskirts of London in the early months of 1843. Clementina was born a year later, followed by Mary Ann (1845), George (1847) (all born in Surrey) Caroline (1849) (Norfolk) and William (1851).  By this time the family had been living in Tonbridge Wells in Kent but the medical practice was doing so well that George moved his family to Kensington, to 1 St Mary Abbot's Terrace, a stone's throw away from Lord Leighton's House (or what would be).  Just the sort of place to find lots of ill rich people...

The success of Dr George Hull was probably what inspired his son and namesake George junior to become a doctor. Mind you Dr George jnr did not exactly have a long and happy life.  He married Isabel Ogle (splendid name), the daughter of John Connell Ogle, an artist from Essex. Isabel and George jnr moved to South Africa, where they married in 1875.  Tragically, in 1878, the following report appeared in the newspapers back home - '12th August,thrown from his horse and killed in Queenstown, South Africa, George Askew Hull MRCS, son of George Hull MD 89 Holland Rd, Kensington'.  He might be dead but rest assured his father has a house in Kensington, so that's okay.

Back to Clementina, and she decided that the artist's life was the one for her.  In the 1861 census both she and her older sister Susanna were attending art school, and she got an honourable mention in the press reports of the Dudley Gallery exhibition in 1866.  In 1872, the London Daily News mentioned that Clementina had received an award at the South Kensington School of Art prize-giving for her paintings of flowers and watercolours from nature.  We don't seem to have a date for The Thief above but it is an obvious display of her talent for painting from nature, as that is a rather lovely magpie.

Susanna, however, did not follow her sister into the artistic profession after her training.  Her twin Agnes became a teacher of literature and music, teaching in St Aubyn's School in Weymouth before marrying a train engineer and settling in Hampshire.  Susanna possibly was inspired by her twin to get into teaching but it was the education of deaf children that interested her. In 1880, she was one of the British representatives at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan.  Susanna opened her own school for deaf children at the family home in St Mary's Abbott Terrace in Kensington, moving to Warwick Gardens in 1869.  Clementina continued to live with her sister and so I wonder if she taught art at her sister's schools. By 1901, Clementina was living on her own but in the census she is listed merely as 'living on her own means' so it is possible that her ambitions as an artist had ceased.  She died in a nursing home in Guildford in 1911, aged 66.

So, what is The Thief all about?  The painting comes with a subtitle - 'Then it chanced in a nobleman's palace, that a necklace of pearls was lost.'  These words are from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline: A Tale of Arcadie which tells the story of two lovers who are separated only to find each other at the end of the man's life.  What's all that to do with a jewellery-obsessed magpie?  Well, actually the bird appears in a story told by a notary in the poem proving how God is just even if men are not.  What Clementina Hull painted is actually the scene that we do not witness in the poem.  As the subtitle says, in a nobleman's palace a necklace went missing.  The maid was blamed and hanged for the crime in the shadow of a giant, ironic statue of Justice.  After her death, God struck the statue with lightening and there in the ruins was a magpie nest with the necklace in it.  As Clementina was a painter of nature rather of literary subjects I wonder if she just fancied painting a magpie and found a fancy quote to go with it.  Whatever the reason, I would love to know more of the mysterious Miss Hull and see more of her work...