Portrait of an unknown Black Man ?...
A Portrait of an Unknown Black Man, A Portrait of an Unknown Moor, A Portrait of an Unknown African, A Portrait of an Unknown Negro.
On reflection, the earliest painted portraits with these titles and sole individuals include, and are limited to, Portrait of an African Man (Christophle le more?) c.1525, Portrait of a Wealthy African c.1530, Portrait of an unknown African woman holding a clockc.1580.
It is obvious that the presence of John Blanke to be distinguished as a named individual and as a black man on the Westminster Tournament Roll is of great significance and a distinct choice by the artist/workshop during the planning stage. During the 16thcentury, particularly in the court of Henry VIII, there was significant political importance for portraiture in Europe depicting monarchs, nobility, and courtiers. European artists flocked to London as this trend grew and became even more fashionable and affordable as the century continued, resulting in portraits of merchants, wives, and children. Considering this value on portraiture, John Blanke’s ‘individualism’ and his respected position as trumpeter to Henry VIII, I would like to think he once sat for a portrait dressed in his best turban, gifted violet gown, with a trumpet by his side.
But what happened to this portrait of John and of his other black contemporaries? The two depictions of John have lasted on The Roll most likely due to its high status and the fact that 99.9% of people depicted are white nobility/royalty. A conceivable reason why a potential painted portrait of John Blanke did not survive is due to the historical trends of restoration and collecting, both influenced by changing political and social climates.
Like the whitewashing of history which has destroyed and disregarded different cultures, ethnic identities, and diverse communities to propel white dominant privilege, so too has the tradition of conservation and the collecting of art works. Restorers and art collectors for centuries have been important stakeholders in preserving our heritage. They hold special positions determining and upholding what society considers valuable, priority and worth promoting for current communities and future generations. The transatlantic slave trade began towards the end of the 16th century and it was integral to racialize, dehumanise and barbarize black and brown people to the point where most artefacts, collections and institutions are still charged with these legacies of slavery, colonialism, white supremacism and systemic racism which propel the ‘racial superiority’ of white of people. These decisions by homogenously white collectors and restorers had and still have a great impact on society, on our cultural heritage and accurate history which is predominantly still presented to a white audience. So, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, privilege and power for white people, artworks like the proposed portrait of a prominent, talented black man may have purposefully not been chosen to preserve or collect, left to degrade, damaged or destroyed to dull the aspirations and hope of a whole community of people continuously denied their positive and influential history.
The optimistic conservator in me wants to believe that maybe one day someone might discover, while clearing a deserted basement, an old damaged Portrait of an unknown Black Man wearing a turban, draped in a gown of violet cloth, holding a trumpet. For the meantime, some of the artists’ contributions in the John Blanke Project may inadvertently be re-imaging this ‘lost’ artwork; so, for now our acknowledgment, imaginations and interpretations of Black British figures is enough.
Conservation Fellow at the National Gallery, London
Kendall Francis received a BA joint honours degree in Fine Art and Art History from Plymouth University and a PGDIP in easel painting conservation from The Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently a Conservation Fellow at the National Gallery, London and has completed internships in museums and private studios across the UK and Europe. Kendall completed her postgraduate thesis on the materials and techniques of Willem van de Velde the Younger and is currently undertaking a long-term research project looking into the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation in artists’ materials at the National Gallery. Kendall is also enthusiastic about advancing accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in art heritage for disadvantaged young people and black & ethnic minorities. She participates in multiple heritage diversity and inclusion committees including engagement and outreach initiatives. She has also recently published an article on the lack of black and minority ethnic representation in UK heritage conservation and why it is important to include diverse voices.
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