Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England

  • New portraits go on display in June
  • English Heritage Exhibition at Six Historic Sites Across England

From 9 June, new portraits depicting six historic figures from the African diaspora with links to English Heritage properties will be unveiled at six sites for a new nationwide exhibition. Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England will portray people connected with English Heritage sites and whose stories – many of which are not widely known – the charity now wants to bring to life and share with its visitors. From Roman Britain to the 20th century, the lives of these different individuals span the centuries and their portraits will shed new light on the long history of African people in England. Commissioned by English Heritage, the paintings will be displayed at the forts, abbeys, historic houses and barracks where these individuals lived, visited or worked.

The six individuals from the past include Septimius Severus, an African-born Roman emperor who strengthened Hadrian’s Wall, and James Chappell, a Black 17th-century servant at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire who saved the life of the then owner, Sir Christopher Hatton. Painting our Past will also see the return of the portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter, to Osborne, Victoria’s seaside home on the Isle of Wight.

Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s Curatorial Director, said: “African figures from the past have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but many of their stories are not very well known. Placing their portraits on the walls of those sites is one way we hope to bring their stories to life and share them with a wider audience. We are also delighted to be working with these brilliant artists and seeing how they engage with the past, with all its complexities, is inspiring.”

English Heritage has commissioned the new portraits from artists who themselves identify as Black or mixed-heritage. The portrait subjects, the historic sites at which they’ll be displayed and the artists are:

• Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211) at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland by Elena Onwochei-Garcia
• Abbot Hadrian (640-710) at St Augustine’s Abbey, Kent by Clifton Powell
• James Chappell (c.1648-1730) at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire by Glory Samjolly
• Dido Belle (1761-1804) at Kenwood, London by Mikéla Henry-Lowe
• Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) at Osborne, Isle of Wight by Hannah Uzor
• Arthur Roberts (1897-1982) at Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks, Northumberland by Chloe Cox

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England will open on 9 June 2021 (subject to government guidelines, these timings may change – please check the English Heritage website for up-to-date details).

Find out more about the artists and their subjects here.

For more information about Black and African lives across the centuries in Britain click here.

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