The John Blanke Project
The John Blanke Project is the result of my work with the historian Dr Miranda Kaufmann and the murals at Tower Bridge by the artist Stephen B. Whatley.
The project has its genesis in Image and Reality Black Africans in Renaissance England - IRBARE - a joint venture between an academic historian, Dr Miranda Kaufmann and myself an independent, so called autodidact, art historian. We share a common passion in the study of people of African descent in Britain during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Dr Kaufmann as part of her PhD thesis had found over 350 persons of African decent in the written records. While I studied the black presence in art of the period, two images dominated my studies that of the Black Magus in the Adoration and St Maurice the black Roman centurion.
Through IRBARE lectures and workshops we were able to compare the image of people of African origin from the art of the period and the reality of actual people of African origin from the records and the literature.
I presented images of two mythical characters - The Black Magus and St Maurice - both were a fabrication and a conflation of myth and Biblical study while Miranda’s work presented details of the actual lived lives of real people found in the records of the day.
There was one person in which our individual interests -Image and Reality - met, that was of John Blanke, the black trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. There is an image of him in the 1511 Tournament Roll in which he appears twice and he is also documented in court records receiving wages and gifts, first to make the link between the Archive and the Art was Dr Sydney Anglo.
Today John Blanke's image is acknowledged in Stephen B. Whatley’s acclaimed series of murals celebrating the life and times of Henry VIII at Tower Bridge. Stephen depicts John Blanke in his stylised version of the central jousting scene from the Roll.
It occurred to me that there are many hundreds images of The Black Magus and St Maurice from the period which I study but just those two of John Blanke from the Tournament Roll from Miranda’s studies. And those two images are caricatures of a black man as the Roll’s artist has used identical stock figures for all the trumpeters bar John Blanke, where the artist has simply changed the head for his idea of a black man leaving everything on the trumpeter the same.
So if John Blanke’s image is not true to life , being only a caricature then just as artists and patrons were free to create their own ideas of The Black Magus and St Maurice so artists should be free to portray John Blanke as they might imagine him from his role and his record and historians have been invited to comment on John Blanke's presence and significance.
That in summary is The John Blanke Project.
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All images from the College of Arms, Westminster Tournament Roll. Reproduced by permission of the Kings, Heralds and Pursuivants of Arms.
Licence 8th Oct 2015