John Blanke By Jeffrey Green
Until photography and the inexpensive Kodak camera, there were few images of most Britons. Paintings and sculpture were long dominated by the Christian church. Later secular portrait paintings were financed by patrons who flaunted their wealth and status by occasionally including servants – some were black. Images of black Britons who are named and whose lives have been traced are rare. In some cases – the man sometimes thought to be Olaudah Equiano, in the Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, for example – there are doubts about identity, and the Reynolds’ portrait of Francis Barber of 1767 is not supported by evidence(1). The case of John Blanke is clearer and earlier.
He is pictured in an early 16th century manuscript, and is mentioned in royal court documents. King Henry VIII paid for Blanke’s wedding clothes in 1512.
There are earlier images but not in England – with the 13th century statue of St Maurice in Magdeburg cathedral in Saxony (eastern Germany) being just one of many located in Germany. There are fleeting glimpses and images in Britain, such as the bowls of tobacco pipes carved as Africans and the use of ‘Black Boy’ as a name for ale houses or pubs (there were two in Tottenham, London, in 1690) but long after John Blanke. The East Sussex hamlet of Blackboys is thought to have that name from the now-extinct charcoal industry, and the Atlantic slave trade led to African images on coats of arms such as John Hawkins (died 1595).
Blanke’s presence suggests other black people, not working for the English monarchs, and like the mass of Britons, obscure, were out and about five hundred years ago. It is an intriguing challenge to historians.
(1) Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber Yale University Press, 2015, pages 216-217.
13 July 2017