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Stunning images of life of black Britons before the Windrush

AN EYE-opening photographic exhibition in London is offering a compelling insight into the life of black Britons before the Windrush generation.

While it would be easy to trace Britain's rich Afro-Caribbean cultural history back to 1948, in fact people of colour from all walks of life were living and thriving in the UK well before immigrants came over to help rebuild the nation after World War Two.

An important display of photographs, which will reveal some of the stories of black and Asian lives in Britain from the 1860s through to the 1940s, opens in two weeks at the National Portrait Gallery in partnership with Autograph ABP .

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948 will bring together some of the earliest photographs of black and Asian sitters in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

These will be exhibited alongside recently discovered images from the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images. The display of over 40 photographs will highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first group of Caribbean migrants to Great Britain.

Renée Mussai, curator and head of archive at Autograph ABP, said: “We are very pleased to share our ongoing research with new audiences at the National Portrait Gallery.

"The aim of the Black Chronicles series is to open up critical inquiry into the archive to locate new knowledge and support our mission to continuously expand and enrich photography’s cultural histories. Not only does the sitters’ visual presence in Britain bear direct witness to the complexities of colonial history, they also offer a fascinating array of personal narratives that defy pre-conceived notions of cultural diversity prior to the Second World War.”

Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe of the African Choir, by the London Stereoscopic Company 1891 [Photo credit: ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

The exhibition will highlight new acquisitions including a series of portraits by Angus McBean, of Les Ballets Nègres, Britain’s first all-black ballet company and a selection of photographs of the pioneer of classical Indian dance in Britain, Pandit Ram Gopal, by George Hurrell.

Individuals with extraordinary stories, from performers to dignitaries, politicians and musicians, alongside unidentified sitters, will collectively reveal the diversity of representation within 19th and 20th century photography and British society, often absent from historical narratives of the period.

Eleanor Xiniwe, of the African Choir, by the London Stereoscopic Company 1891 [Photo credit: ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

They will include the celebrated portraits by Camille Silvy of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, one of the earliest photographic portraits of a black sitter in the Gallery’s Collection. Born in West Africa of Yoruba descent, Sarah was captured at the age of five during the Okeadon War. She was thought to be of royal lineage and was presented to Queen Victoria, as if a gift, from King Gezo of Dahomy. As Queen Victoria’s protégée, Sarah was raised among the British upper class and educated in both England and Sierra Leone. In 1862, she married the merchant and philanthropist James Pinson Labulo Davies.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, London added: “We are delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with Autograph ABP and present this important display - bringing together some of the earliest photographs from our Collection alongside new acquisitions and striking images from Hulton Archive’s London Stereoscopic Company collection.”

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