When you study the past there are sometimes elisions – noticeable gaps which you know make your understanding incomplete. In Victorian literature I’ve talked about the lack of pregnancy bumps, despite the frequent babies. There’s the obsession with sex, without explicit sex scenes. And, while I’ve rejected the idea that novels of this period concentrate only on the rich, servants and poor tenants can, at times, seem like cut-out figures, and our understanding of their lives incomplete.
But one of the biggest elisions – perhaps one of the most jarring distinctions from modern life – is the absence of race. Okay, Bertha Mason, in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre, may be part Creole, and there are multiple other novels which include ‘exotic’ jaunts to Africa or the East, but that doesn’t really cut it when you’re looking for something resembling black subjectivity.
Enter Black Chronicles II, an exhibition presented by Autograph ABP, currently running in London’s Shoreditch. The exhibition brings together studio portrait photographs (most never before on display) of black subjects in the nineteenth century –clergymen and missionaries, servants, former slaves, African princes, ambassadors, and, given pride of place, fourteen members of The African Choir, which toured England between 1891 and 1893. Many of the sitters are as yet unidentified, but what they testify to is the presence of the many black Victorians who history books (and fiction) have largely ignored.
Just how unusual it seems to see photographs of black men and women in top hats or crinolines confirms the exhibition’s importance. In the second room, where over 100 original cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards are on display, there is an audio recording of the late Professor Stuart Hall, whose lecture provides an academic context for the systematic forgetting which plays an important part of the construction of a national history. Rivington Place may not be one of London’s major art venues, but this exhibition is anything but offbeat or niche – it simply puts back what should already be there and forces us to confront the fact that it so often isn’t.
Do you know of any other London exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.