You are here: Reports » Phase 1: media » Reviews » The Black Eighteenth Century

The Black Eighteenth Century (BBC 4)

Narrator: Cathy Tyson
Producer: David Okuefuna
Director: Helen Scholes
Date: Monday 3 July 2007
Time: 7.30pm

The programme aims to reveal the presence and status of black people in England during the eighteenth century. It argues for the acceptance of the presence of influential black people far before the arrival of the SS Windrush. The programme assesses the ways in which black people were depicted in English eighteenth century art and thereby their representation in society and history.

Featuring interviews with well-respected historians and commentators including, David Dabydeen and Simon Schama, the programme contextualises the images of black people throughout the 1700s in artistic representations. The Black Eighteenth Century illustrates the nature of Britain during the period, a society which is depicted in the programme as largely unaware or apathetic regarding the brutalities of the Atlantic slave trade. Drawing heavily upon Dabydeen's own work regarding eighteenth century British representations of Africans, the programme examines several well-known portraits; Frances Barber, as depicted in Reynold's 'Portrait of a Black Man'; Zoffany's 'Dido and Lady Elizabeth Murray'; and 'Portrait of Ignatius Sancho' by Gainsborough. With each portrait the meaning and effect of depicting a black man or woman is examined. The programme uses these images to emphasise the multi-faceted nature of eighteenth century society and thereby reflect upon our own time. The portrait of Frances Barber is particularly prominent in this respect as the programme features one of his descendants speaking proudly of him. The descendant standing by the portrait remarks on the quirks of nature by explaining that though his forbearers were black, his family since his grandfather had been white. Barber who was born enslaved and who gained freedom through the bequest of his original owner joined the household of Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 1750s serving until the latter's death in 1784. Barber is shown in the programme to have been treated kindly by Johnson to the extent that he was left a substantial legacy. Similarly, Gainsborough's depiction of Ignatius Sancho is also examined as evidence of areas of equality within Britain. The portrait of Sancho is described by Dabydeen as the portrait of an 'English Black' a status reinforced by the fact that he was sitting for the renowned Gainsborough. The painting is considered to show 'him as a gentleman. No difference between him and a white sitter: a sensible man in an age of sensibility.'

Whilst the programme aims to make the black individuals in the portraits, 'trailblazers of Britain's multicultural future', the nature of their enslavement is occasionally all too easily obscured. Although initial comments regarding the depiction of black people in eighteenth century art as 'possessions' or 'living jewels' appears to address their enslavement, the emphasis is all too often placed on equality rather than the prejudice which many black men and women faced. The portrait, 'Dido and Lady Elizabeth Murray', is used for instance to highlight the existence of a young black woman in the upper-classes in the eighteenth century. Zoffany's painting is interpreted as a portrayal of cousins, equal in beauty and status. Whilst Dido's standing as a member of the aristocracy is assumed, far less attention is given to the necessity felt by her uncle the prominent Lord Mansfield to grant her freedom at his death. The question of Dido's actual status is not given sufficient consideration. That Dido had to be given her status as a freewoman rather belies the efforts made by the commentators to interpret her as a figure for modern Britain. Contradiction and hypocrisy are thereby neglected in the programme as it seeks reconciliation and to reassure. This absence in the commentary is compounded by the unstructured nature of the programme, which moves from one subject to the next without a coherent framework.

Black people are interpreted in these portraits as having 'moved out of the shadows', thereby becoming 'symbols of potential civilised qualities', which is believed to have aided the cause of abolition and emancipation. By focusing on the portrayal of black people in Britain however the image of the plantations, of capture, of enslavement, of rebellion and resistance are all neglected. The programme does provide both a valuable insight into the lives of black people in eighteenth century Briton and a means to consider our own society. In its grasp of easy answers however the complexities of both enslavement and multicultural societies are marginalised.

Reviews | back to the top