William Hoare of Bath
Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, called Job ben Solomon
Oil on canvas
There are are some portraits from art history that just stand out, and in my opinion this is one of them. The skill of the artist and the beauty of the subject combine to give us not only a visual treat, but a kind of resonance with what we imagine to be the depicted person’s spirit and personality. And while the museum that this portrait is currently on loan to gives us a brief biography of Diallo, there are some seriously problematic statements in the second half of the portrait’s description.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was an educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Africa. In 1731 he was taken into slavery and sent to work on a plantation in America. By his own enterprise, and assisted by a series of spectacular strokes of fortune, Diallo arrived in London in 1733. Recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, in England Diallo mixed with high and intellectual society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery by public subscription. Through the publication of his Memoirs in 1734, Diallo had an important and lasting impact on Britain’s understanding of West African culture, black identity and Islam. In the early years of the nineteenth-century, advocates of the abolition of slavery would cite Diallo as a key figure in asserting the moral rights and humanity of black people.
Now, here we have the problematic elements in bold:
Now on a five-year loan to the Gallery, William Hoare’s sensitive portrait of Diallo is the earliest known British oil portrait of a freed slave and the first portrait to honour an African subject as an individual and an equal. Painted at the time when there was a new interest in Islamic culture and faith in Britain, it provides a fascinating insight into the eighteenth-century response to other peoples and religions.
That statement is absolutely absurd, but is often applied to Baroque portraits of Black subjects as “the first of its kind”.
According to the UK government and historical documentation, high-ranking Black guests, musicians, nobles, workers, servants, and other folks have had a tangible presence in the UK since Classical times.
Here you can see in the accounts of James IV of Scotland, money allowed for gifts of clothing for noble or royal guests of the court: “Bertaine clath to be sarkis for the Moris”, as well as an allotment “for lynyn claith and mailyeis to thir four gownis and tua kirtillis”.
In England’s royal court during the reigns of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, the famous trumpeter John Blanke was one of the more handsomely paid trumpeters for royal events and tournaments. We know this because they still have his paycheck stubs.
He is also rather famously depicted in the 60-foot-long Westminster Tournament Roll, as he was an important fixture of the court.
Another interesting note: the British Museum Archive has hundreds of small prints, engravings, sketches and studies of Black people in England from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Early Modern eras. Racist caricatures don’t begin to show up until after 1800, for the most part.
Despite the way the history of racism and global race relations are presented, history is not a linear progression of “worse to better”. The portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is far from the first of its kind, but it may be a glaring exception to the generally derogatory depictions of Black people in European art in the late 1700s and 19th-20th centuries.
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