Black British aristocrats of 17th century finally brought to life through art

Stephen Nartey April 05, 2023
Roman emperor Septimius Severus/Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The assumption among many millennials is that the aristocratic class during the 17th century in the United Kingdom was the preserve of the white majority. If people of African descent came into the picture, the notion that readily presented itself was that they were enslaved or belonged to the commoners. This gap in black representation of nobility is what artists like Glory Samjolly, are working with the English heritage to address. There was a pool of black aristocrats during the medieval era who were simply ignored or hidden. 

One of such notable black aristocrats Glory featured in her work is the story of Chappell, who served a 17th-century aristocrat in rural England. He was 15 years old when he was brought to life with the Kirby Hall’s family, the Hattons, in 1663. His status was elevated after he saved the life of his owner, Christopher Hatton, from a blaze in Guernsey. When he went on pension, he was given £20 every year. It is for reasons like this that stories of Chappell are being told to inspire the current generation, the guardian reported.

The Black Aristocratic art project, which began in 2007, has been documenting the experiences of these personalities, and is seeking to archive their significance in the historical sheet. The hope is that young people will learn about these black British figures using art to hold their attention and engage their thoughts.

Dubbed “Painting Our Past,” the project also highlights historical figures such as the black Roman emperor – Septimius Severus, the princess orphan – Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who became Queen Victoria’s protege, and the life of Dido Belle, a mixed-heritage woman raised in an aristocratic family in Georgian London.

Though the objective of the project was to raise the black consciousness in the public’s eye, events including George Floyd’s death have given it a boost. Matt Thompson, head collections curator at English Heritage, is of the view that the time is due for these suppressed histories to be unearthed. If the story of England is being told, it shouldn’t come from a narrow perspective, It must incorporate the larger picture and role played by black aristocrats. If this story is not told, according to Matt, it will erode the importance of this social reality. 

 What is being done to give it a wider appeal among its audience is to place by focusing the art on positive stories about these places the black figures lived in. As much as the actors of these projects believe not everyone will embrace their work, they are excited that, irrespective of their sentiments, it is based on research, knowledge, and scholarship.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 5, 2023


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