Eddie Chambers / Visual Culture

Black British Artists: Celebrating Nelson’s Ships

Later this month we publish Eddie Chambers’ Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present, so in the meantime read this exclusive extract.
Black British Artists: Celebrating Nelson's Ships

Tracing the lives and works of Black British painters, sculptors, photographers, mixed-media installation and performance artists from 1950 to the present day, Chambers’ Black Artists in British Art sheds unprecedented light on a myriad of social, political, historical, philosophical, cultural and artistic contexts. Traditionally, scholarship on the history of British Art has largely excluded or ignored Black artists. Black Artists in British Art then represents a substantial and much needed attempt to create a narrative in which Black artists take up their rightful place in British art history.

Taken from the book’s foreword, this extract looks at how two Black British artists – separated by 200 years – have subverted the image of one of Britain’s greatest heroes, Horatio Nelson.

In 1815 an extraordinary set of prints by John Thomas Smith was produced in London, titled Etchings Of Remarkable Beggars, Itinerant Traders And Other Persons Of Notoriety In London And Its Environs. Within a year or so, the prints appeared in book form, the publication having been given the equally extravagant title Vagabondiana or, Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers Through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable Drawn From the Life. Smith (Keeper of the Prints in the British Museum) produced etchings that were amongst the earliest attempts to depict the poor of London in ways that sought to avoid caricature, and relied to some extent on the artist’s quest to capture the personalities of his subjects as well as the hardships they reflected. As such, the etchings presented ‘a dramatic survey of street folk, blind beggars, cripples, the indigent poor of all kinds and hawkers of trifles, observed with objectivity.’ [1] In this summary, the writer, Simon Houfe, adjudged that ‘Smith had the sense to perceive that it was more important to paint blindness, beggary and poverty than personifications of them.’ [2] Houfe may perhaps have been somewhat generous as Smith, speaking of himself, declared: ‘it occurred to the author of the present publication, that likenesses of the most remarkable [beggars], with a few particulars of their habits, would not be unamusing to those to whom they have been a pest for several years.’ [3]

Vagabondiana presented a fascinating study of contemporary beggary in London, which, Smith claimed, ‘of late, particularly for the last six years, had become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary.’ [4] Smith seemed keen to disabuse his audience of any notion of liberalism or sentimentality on his part, or indeed empathy between artist and subject. He continued his preface with, ‘indeed the deceptions of the idle and sturdy were so various, cunning and extensive, that it was in most instances extremely difficult to discover the real object of charity from the impostor.’ [5] He opined that, as a positive consequence of the required governmental attempts to eliminate beggary, ‘several curious characters would disappear by being either compelled to industry, or to partake of the liberal parochial rates, provided for them in their respective work-houses.’ [6]

‘effigy of Joseph Johnson’

‘effigy of Joseph Johnson’, John Thomas Smith, 1815

One particularly fascinating etching in the series captured Joseph Johnson, a black sailor, with a model of the ship Nelson on his cap. [7] The gentleman depicted in the print was, apparently known as ‘Black Joe’, who had been a seaman in the Merchant Navy until he was wounded and subsequently discharged. At the time that Smith took to the streets of London to document characters such as Johnson, the population of the capital’s homeless and workless was swelled significantly by the large numbers of military personnel demobbed following the recent ending of the Napoleonic Wars. As such, Johnson’s reduction in fortunes was perhaps typical. It was said that he was not entitled to a seaman’s pension, and that other forms of assistance, such as parish relief, could not be claimed by him because he was not British by birth.

To survive, Johnson apparently turned to busking. He was able to draw particular attention to himself on account of his novel head attire – he built and wore a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson on his cap. London had for centuries been home to distinct numbers of Black people, and the little that is known of ‘Black Joe’ actually reveals much about some of the ways in which the free Black presence in the capital was constituted two centuries ago. By building a model of the Nelson, Johnson was not only telling a instantly recognisable and understandable story about his own biography (having been a seaman), he was also utilising a representation of what was one of the most recognisable and celebrated military sea craft of its day. (The building of the Nelson, at the Woolwich dockyard, began in 1809 and the ship was launched in July 1814 in the presence of the Royal Family and a large audience said to have been in excess of 20,000 people.)

This ship bearing the name HMS Nelson, was named to honour one of Britain’s greatest heroes of the time, Horatio Nelson. His fame and status was secured when the Royal Navy, under his leadership, vanquished the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the decisive episodes of the Napoleonic Wars that finally ended in 1815. Nelson was killed during the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, thereupon (or thereafter) becoming arguably Britain’s greatest admiral. Johnson’s rendering of the Nelson was particularly faithful, in that the Nelson was a full-rigged ship, which is to say that it was a sailing ship of three masts all being square-rigged, as depicted by Johnson’s singular head wear. Smith noted of Johnson’s model: ‘when placed on his cap, he can, by a bow of thanks, or a supplicating inclination to a drawing room window, give the appearance of sea-motion.’ [8] Smith’s etching of Johnson shows us a Black man with a walking stick in one hand and in the other, supported by a crutch under his arm, he holds a hat, presumably for the purpose of receiving money in exchange for his busking. In discussing and describing Black beggars in London, Smith claimed, ‘Black people, as well as those destitute of sight, seldom fail to excite compassion.’ [9]

Having modelled the celebrity vessel, and been himself duly recorded, we are perhaps, in Smith’s portrait of Johnson, looking at one of the first documented examples of a Black-British artist (in this case, a sculptor) in London. Two centuries later, another Black artist (if I might designate Johnson as such) undertook to produce another singular work that celebrated another of famous fighting ship associated with Nelson. London-born, Nigeria-raised Yinka Shonibare executed a Fourth Plinth [10] sculpture, unveiled in May 2010, which saw him give his trademark faux African fabric treatment to a scale model of the fighting ship most closely identified with Nelson, the figure who stands as one of Britain’s greatest heroes of empire, whose iconic statue stands only a short distant away from where Shonibare’s commission was exhibited, in the centre of Trafalgar Square, in the heart of London.

Michael McCarthy in the Independent newspaper, in one example of the significant volume of press coverage the commission garnered, wrote:

It is Trafalgar Square, named after the naval battle of 1805, so it might seem fitting that the space on the celebrated empty fourth plinth should be occupied by a memorial of the battle – and, as of yesterday, it is. Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is a 1:30 scale replica of HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson who at Trafalgar defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain in the greatest sea battle of the Napoleonic wars. It has been created by the leading Anglo-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare. But inside its 4.7 m by 2.8 m bottle, is the model battleship, with its 37 large sails made of brightly patterned African fabric, a celebration of British historical power and victory? Or a subtle subversion of it? [11] ■

Black Artists in British ArtEddie Chambers is author of the new book Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin, USA, where he teaches the art history of the African Diaspora. He gained his Ph.D. from Goldsmith’s College, University of London and between 2003 and 2009 he was a Visiting Professor, Art History, at Emory University, Atlanta. Since the early 1980s Eddie Chambers has been organizing and curating artists’ exhibitions in Britain and a range of other countries, including the US, Australia and Jamaica.
1 Simon Houfe, ‘Social Realism 1850–1890’, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800–1914, Woodbridge, Suffolk,Antique Collectors’ Club, 1978: 149.
2 Ibid.
3 Vagabondiana or, Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers Through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable Drawn From the Life. London: Published by the Proprietor and sold by Messrs.J. and A. Arch, Cornhill; Mr Hatchard, Bookseller to the Queen,Piccadilly;and Mr Clark, Bond-Street. 1817, pp. v/vi.
4 Ibid, p. v.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Smith described his subject in the following terms:
The succeeding plate displays the effigy of Joseph Johnson, a black, who in consequence of his having been employed in the merchants’ service only, is not entitled to the provision of Greenwich. His wounds rendering him incapable of doing further duty on the ocean, and having no claim to relief in any parish, he is obliged to gain a living on shore; and in order to elude the vigilance of the parochial beadles, he first started on Tower-hill, where he amused the idlers by singing George Alexander Stevens’s ‘Storm’. By degrees he ventured into the public streets, and at length became what is called a ‘Regular Chaunter’. But novelty… induced Black Joe to build a model of the ship Nelson; to which, when placed on his cap, he can, by a bow of thanks, or black artists 202 in british art a supplicating inclination to a drawing room window, give the appearance of sea-motion. Johnson is as frequently to be seen in the rural village as in great cities… (p. 33)
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid, p. 34.
10 For many years, the fourth plinth at the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square, London, stood empty. In 1999, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) conceived the Fourth Plinth Project, which temporarily occupied theplinth with a succession of works commissioned from contemporary artists Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread. As the RSA’s temporary custody of the Fourth Plinth as a site for contemporary art appeared to be popular with both the public and the media, the Greater London Authority (GLC) assumed responsibility for the fourth plinth and began its own series of changing exhibitions. These included works by Marc Quinn, Anthony Gormley, and Yinka Shonibare, whose Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was unveiled on 24 May 2010. Ship garnered significant press coverage, and Shonibare was the first Black artist to receive a Fourth Plinth commission.
11 Michael McCarthy, ‘Nelson’s ‘Victory’ joins him in Trafalgar Square’, the Independent, 25 May 2010, p. 16

Further Reading:

Black British artists who should be better known
Royal Academy Magazine review Black Artists in British Art


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