Hardeep Singh Kohli visits some of London's museums and galleries to find the paintings of the sailors, slaves and scholars who shaped the city that exists today.
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London is one of the most diverse cities on the planet.
For centuries, people have been coming here and making this city their home.
London has been transformed out of all recognition.
Before photography, the only way to capture the history of the city was through art.
-That isn't Covent Garden Market, is it?
-Yes, it is!
These artworks expose a city that both admired and despised its newcomers.
A city rocked by racism, intolerance, and incredible social change.
It is the earliest portrait of a freed slave and West African Muslim in British art history.
In this programme I'm going in search of the paintings
that tell the story of this amazing city of immigrants.
18th-century London was the world's busiest port, it was the beating heart of the British Empire,
and also THE place to come if you were an aspiring artist.
Not only did the capital offer you a way of making a living,
it offered you the most vibrant, vivid backdrop for your work, and in capturing that backdrop,
artists also captured the lives of the millions of immigrants who came here.
Now, London's immigrant history dates back 2000 years,
the Romans and the founding of Londinium.
I'm starting a little later.
Let me take you to 1733.
At the same time, London's artists were kept busy with extravagant portraits
of the city's elite, surrounded by their most luxurious possessions,
including the accessory du jour in the early 1700s, one's very own slave.
Then one artist, William Hoare, rocked the establishment by painting a freed slave
in the same manner as wealthy white Londoners.
Some people say the portrait I'm about to see is the most important portrait of its time.
You're curator of 18th-century art at the National Portrait Gallery.
You're taking me to see a painting I've heard a lot about.
Tell me why I've heard so much about this.
Well, the portrait we're about to look at, which depicts a man
called Ayuba Suleiman Diallo,
is incredibly important as the first portrait
of a freed slave, and the first portrait of a West African Muslim in British art history.
-And here it is.
-Here it is.
This is my favourite gallery in London,
and I've been here a number of times.
I've never before seen this portrait. Why?
We've had this painting on loan now for about three or four months,
it first came to our attention at the end of 2009...
we knew about Diallo, and we knew this image from an engraving that was produced in 1733...
but we had assumed because it had never been documented or known about that the painting itself
was long ago lost, and in 2009 it came out of the woodwork,
literally, it came up for auction,
we immediately became aware of it, were very excited
and we've had a relationship with this portrait ever since.
The funny thing is, there are now three men
with turbans in this gallery.
Me, Diallo and a sculpture over there.
Images of black people, brown people in this period of art history are incredibly rare.
They are, and they are rarely honorific portraits
in which the subject is portrayed as an individual
and celebrated as a human being, as a man of personality, character and individuality.
Diallo was celebrated by London's elite,
even impressing King George II with his intellect.
He was born in Gambia, West Africa, but was sold into slavery and sent first to America,
and then to London, where he socialised with the city's intelligentsia.
At the same time as he was being asked to sit for this portrait
by his admirers and friends, who were English,
they were also arranging for him to be bought out of slavery
by a sort of public subscription - a posh version
of a whip round. He was described as an African gentleman.
That's always struck me as an oxymoron for the 18th century.
How could an African of whom a nation, a race,
a class of people they couldn't quite perceive on the same levels
as themselves, could ever be called a gentleman?
Remarkably, for such a Christian country, Diallo's devout belief in Islam was embraced and respected.
His Islam is very present.
Apart from the garb which is more of his nation,
there's a Quran around his neck.
He asked to be portrayed in this costume,
the costume of his own county.
And the Quran, very nicely, is supposedly one of his own writing.
He's got beautiful eyes.
He's incredibly charismatic, it's difficult to look away.
For an artist who had probably never painted a black man before
it is the most incredible, subtle, thoughtful rendition.
Diallo left London just a year after this portrait,
but his legacy far outlasted his stay.
This Diallo portrait had two distinct lives.
When it was painted in 1733, it taught London about African culture and religion.
Then, more than 50 years later, after Diallo's death, the painting
became an iconic inspiration for the anti-slavery movement.
At the time Hoare painted Diallo, London's other black faces
were portrayed very differently by the city's artists.
One such artist was William Hogarth,
one of the most prolific painters and satirists of the period.
Many of his works were comments on the state of the nation, and some featured enslaved foreigners.
I'm fascinated by the differences between Hoare's Diallo
and Hogarth's moralising art,
so to find out more I'm meeting art historian Temi Odumosu.
Literally in the same year, you have William Hogarth
representing Africans as they were more commonly understood,
so you have them as servants, usually enslaved.
We have an example here
of William Hogarth's second plate of The Harlot's Progress.
You have all these foreigners in this print that are acting out this
performance of luxury, this black servant is part of that performance.
He's turbaned, he's wearing livery,
also he's got a collar which reminds us he's enslaved.
He's an excess, is not just that he's a servant
who's there to do the linens or cook food.
A Harlot's Progress is a series of paintings
that tells the story of a country girl who went to London
and became a prostitute. Even though the story is fictitious,
the sketch that Temi is showing me shares a lot
with portraits of real people at the time.
The negative images of Africans
which were consolidated through literature and the visual arts,
they really stuck, and that was what entertained 18th-century audiences
both on the stage and also in print culture.
I'm fascinated by the duality between the Hoare and the Hogarth.
What's going on in the London psyche?
This black boy in Hogarth's image is a trope, a metaphor for luxury,
for the expansion of empire, for foreignness,
the invasion of foreign, which Hogarth was averse to,
and the black boy was a familiar part of literature, by that point.
In fact, there's a famous poem, The Character of a Town Miss,
a high-class prostitute, who says that
she always has to have two implements about her -
a blackamoor and her little dog, for without these she would be neither fair nor sweet.
Whereas Hoare's portrait is much more a representation of a real person...who exceeded himself.
In the mid-1700s, London's population was around 600,000,
home to immigrant communities, including Jews, French Protestants and Greek Christians.
At the same time, the rapidly expanding Port of London
brought sailors and merchants here from all over the world.
Artworks showing these transient visitors are rare,
but I've been invited to the Museum of London,
where curator Pat Hardy is opening up the stores,
to show me proof that exotic faces
were part of the scenery, in some areas of the city.
What painting is that, Pat?
This is called Fresh Wharf, London Bridge
and it's by a painter
called William Marlow and it was painted in about 1762.
We know that from all these landmarks.
You can see St Paul's Cathedral here, you've got London Bridge,
which was covered with houses and shops until about 1762.
As they are no longer there, it must be after that.
-That's obviously the River Thames?
-That's the Thames.
But as we move along the canvas, suddenly our eye alights upon
this figure, in oriental dress, here.
Initially he's not hugely conspicuous,
but as soon as you do spot him,
he becomes mesmerising and you can't take your eye off him.
You start to ask yourself questions.
What he is doing there?
Why is this figure in 1762 standing on a wharf in the middle of London?
And what he seems to be doing is unloading,
or supervising the unloading,
of these bails, which had come off on this ship.
Fresh Wharf was in the Pool of London,
the busiest part of the Thames.
By the late 1700s, the quays between the Tower and London Bridge
welcomed thousands of foreign ships every year.
It was obviously a huge conduit for people and goods from all over the world.
This sort of painting shows that this was happening.
We see these little hidden characters,
in hidden paintings, popping up once we start analysing them.
What's interesting about this is he's a regular character
in the painting, he's not editorialised,
-he's not diminished at all. It's reportage, in a sense.
But the merchants didn't just stay by the river,
they traded their goods right across the capital, as Pat is about to show me.
We call these Hidden Paintings. These are properly hidden.
-That isn't Covent Garden market, is it?
-These arches are still there.
And we've got St Paul's Church here.
So, we're looking west towards St Paul's.
-So the piazza's here, right in the middle?
You can see there's a lot of activity going on in the market
and again, as we look more closely, we see a figure who is in
-his own space, so he does stand out somewhat.
-Look at that.
-Who is that?
-Again, we have another Oriental -
possibly sailor, seaman - who is now in the market itself,
having possibly come up from the wharf,
with his goods - possibly fresh fruit or vegetables - for sale.
He's seeing it to the final destination.
What does this guy, again a solitary figure in a massive canvas,
what is his presence telling us?
Because he's not looked at, he's not being treated as some
sort of exotic, or circus or freak show. He is perfectly entitled
to be there. No-one's taking much notice of him and he's just
going about his business, as any London merchant would be doing.
It all seems to be about the river.
It does, but everything ends up in the centre of the city.
Covent Garden was London's busiest fruit and veg market
when Scott painted it, but that's not the only reason
our mysterious foreign sailor might have come here. The square was also home to numerous gambling dens,
brothels and ladies of the night, who were even described in their own guide book -
Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies.
Since Scott put brush to canvas, the market has changed
beyond all recognition and that lone foreign face has made way for millions more.
But of the two paintings that Pat showed me,
it's the first one, Fresh Wharf, that's really intrigued me.
This is where Marlow painted Fresh Wharf.
Things have changed in the 250 years since he depicted it.
This is now the financial centre of London, but back then, this was the heartbeat of the city.
Wharfs like this, up and down the length of the Thames,
were teeming with materials coming into the city,
with produce and, most importantly, with people.
When I asked historian Jerry White to help explain how Marlow's Fresh Wharf
fits in to the story of London, he suggested we take to the river.
Jerry, how different is the London of today to Marlow's, 250 years ago?
Well, of course, it's a much smaller city.
Then it was a city of about 750,000.
You could walk around it from one end to another.
And this river has changed hugely.
It was a working river. This was the lifeblood of London.
At any one day in the 1750s or 1760s, 3,500 vessels would be filling
this river, from London Bridge down to Wapping.
Ships would come to London from every port in the world -
from the West Indies to bring sugar,
from the East Indies to bring spices and tea,
from the Americas to bring tobacco.
You would have had sailors from Bengal,
Chinese sailors, as well, and then there would have been
black sailors from the West Indies and from America.
An almost impossible question to answer,
-but can you imagine London without the river?
-It simply wouldn't exist.
This is a city whose history is based on trade
and the trade was the river, it was London's lifeblood.
The people who sailed the ships that brought things to London
and took things away, they were the people who kept this city running.
Jerry, give me a flavour of what life was like in London,
when all these thousands of people from all over the world
were coming in from all over the world, via the Thames.
You've got, on both sides of the river, particularly in Wapping on the north bank
and around Rotherhithe on the south, you have, in essence,
maritime towns grafted on to London,
catering for every need of the ships and the men who sailed them,
and in those townships, you've got shops, pubs and, of course,
you've got women.
And you've got brothels, bawdy houses, lodging houses,
where the sailors are staying.
These maritime towns were serving the ships and sailors of the East India Trading Company,
which brought goods to London from the Indian subcontinent and China.
The majority of the sailors returned home with their ships,
but a small number of Chinese and Lascar, or Indian, sailors
settled in London for good and founded their own communities here.
The most notorious at the time, was the fledgling Chinatown, in Limehouse.
We know that there was a Chinese presence
in this part of East London by the end of the 18th century,
because we read in the newspapers
of tremendous fights between Chinese sailors and Lascar sailors,
who were from the Indian subcontinent, mainly Bengali,
who are fighting with machetes and knives.
Limehouse Chinatown was home to just 300 people,
but it perplexed and fascinated Londoners.
Newspapers were obsessed with the darker side of the community
and their reports created an image of devilish,
opium-smoking Chinese men,
preying on sweet, innocent English women.
There was a Chinese community in Limehouse until the area
was bombed in World War Two and its residents moved to Soho.
The trade that came down the Thames sparked one of
the biggest expansions the city has ever seen.
New docks, massive engineering projects, sprung up everywhere.
The developers got rich.
But it wasn't just the developers who seized the opportunity.
Somebody needed to build the city and dedicated labour was required.
This led to one of the country's biggest economic migrations ever.
Guess what? The Irish were coming.
As London's artists began to catalogue the changing face
of the city, the Irish labourers who built it
inevitably became part of the picture, too.
I'm back at the Museum of London, where Pat Hardy is showing me how.
This is a wonderful painting, by an artist called James Holland,
of Hyde Park Corner.
Painted in 1833,
it introduces this theme of the whole construction of London
and the demolition of London, which was going on at the same time,
and it was fuelled by this migrant workforce,
which came to be perceived very much as the Irish community.
Where are the Irish in this picture?
We can see a lot of construction going on down here,
where they may have been digging up the road for water mains.
We can see these little patches of red colour, through their hats,
and again that became increasingly perceived to be an Irish worker,
wearing a hat he would have worn in the field, as an agricultural worker,
and it's transported to the city.
-So it's almost like a red hat means you're Irish?
Red hats as shorthand for Irish builders
tells us that they were so central to the development of the city
in the early 1800s that they didn't even need to be painted in full.
But in 1845, the potato famine in Ireland forced a million people to leave the country.
Tens of thousands came to London in search of work,
and as the city's Irish population swelled, their treatment by its artists began to change.
We have the building of St Katherine's Dock here,
in 1827, which is similar to the oil we saw of Hyde Park,
in that a couple of figures are personalised at the front.
Whereas, when we move on
to mid-century, to the late 1860s -
this is the building of Blackfriars Bridge -
the figures are much smaller and not individualised.
So what does that change signify?
It means that the sheer weight of numbers of immigrants
meant that they were increasingly perceived as a threat -
taking up jobs that London-born labourers thought
that they ought to have and they were coming in at cheaper rates,
so it's a much more negative lack of individuality.
This negativity quickly transferred into artworks featuring the Irish.
We do have an example here in the collection,
which is called Two Pats Sitting On A Wheelbarrow, Outside Lothbury in Bank.
It's an extraordinary little drawing, for the period,
of two Irish figures,
again identifiable by their dress, with these hats.
This seems like quite a gentle caricature,
not perhaps the sort of caricature we'd recognise today.
It's not as negative a stereotype as we see coming out the mid-century
in journals like Punch, which had a series of cartoons
depicting the Irish as monkeys, following Darwin's Origin of Species,
which are definitely racialised
and that continued, really, throughout the 19th century.
As their numbers increased, their threat registers.
-There's a change in the art?
-Yes, they're seen
as an economic threat, because they were economic migrants.
How much do do you think these negative images of the Irish,
through popular art, created this racism
we have for the Irish that's abided for the past 200 years?
Because they were perceived to be fact, they're not passive things in their own right -
they are actively informing and engaging with society,
as art stereotypes - so, yes,
because of this negativity, which did solidify from the 1850s,
I think they did have a very powerful effect on perceptions of the Irish,
particularly in London, where they were at their greatest concentration.
Anyone who has lived in London is well aware of the contribution of the Irish community,
but not even I realised quite how much of this amazing city they built with their own hands,
and it's fascinating, when you look at their story, through art,
there is definitely a reaction to their presence.
Clearly, for the Irish in London, there was a price to pay for being here.
Up until this point, we've been looking at art painted about immigrants.
We haven't seen anything painted BY immigrants,
so I need to rectify that.
I've brought myself to a non-descript North London street - I used to live round the corner -
and there's a gallery here specialising in paintings by Jewish immigrants.
Thanks to waves of migration over hundreds of years,
London's Jewish community was well established by the 19th century.
Most artists came from wealthy backgrounds, but the rich also supported
aspiring artists from poorer, recently-arrived families.
The Ben Uri Gallery is the only gallery in Europe
that's dedicated to Jewish art and they've been kind enough
to take works out of storage to show me.
That's amazing, that is beautiful.
It's called Rabbi and Rabbitzin.
The artist was called Mark Gertler. It was painted in 1914
in the East End, probably in his mother's kitchen in Spitalfields.
When Gertler painted this,
more than 120,000 Jews were living in London.
The population was swelled from the 1890s by an influx of Jews
fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe.
They settled around Whitechapel, in the East End,
in an area that quickly became an overcrowded, impoverished ghetto.
When Gertler was born in 1891,
he was the 26th person living in one house
and his early life in the East End shaped his career as an artist.
He was part of a group who became known as the Whitechapel Boys.
They all came out of Whitechapel and were all immigrants themselves or the sons of immigrants.
They had brought with them this very traditional way of life
and the fact that he's executed this work in quite a modern way,
to depict such a traditional way of life, warns you how this way of life is at threat.
The Whitechapel Boys experimented with abstract techniques to express their opinions.
I find that incredibly haunting. You're drawn to the eyes and there's a kind of bleakness
-an emptiness behind the eyes almost.
-I think the eyes are so large,
that you engage with them emotionally and, also,
he deliberately made the hands very large and very workmanlike.
-He wanted to show suffering and a life that had known hardship.
-No sign of luxury.
No, there is quite a lot of tension in the painting
and also, from the modern point of view,
if you look at all the still-life objects,
they're all seen from different angles,
you couldn't actually see them all from those angles at the same time,
so again, he's experimenting with modern techniques of cubism,
post-impressionism, simplifying everything,
and, thereby, making it stronger and perhaps more emotive.
Gertler became one of the leading lights of the modernist movement.
Thanks to an organization called the Jewish Educational Aid Society,
he was able to study at the Slade, one of the leading art schools in London.
But the second painting Sarah and Rachel are showing me was from a very different point of view.
The artist didn't live in the East End.
This is quite different from the last painting. Tell me about this, Rachel.
This is painted by woman artist called Amy Drucker.
It's painted in 1932
and it's a painting of the quintessential emigre.
It's such a classic scene of immigration and we see quite clearly
this was set in the East End, because we have the figure in the background there
of a costermonger, or street seller, of fruit and veg with his barrow -
the classic East End image.
And also, these people are outside, in a murky, gloomy world
and they're excluded from the lovely bright lights and life going on
in the restaurant or pub behind them.
Unlike Gertler, Amy Drucker's family were part of a much earlier
community of Jewish immigrants.
Perhaps that's why, unlike his painting, this one feels like the observation of an outsider.
The title, For He Had Great Possessions,
I think is ironic.
He may have lost possessions in the Depression, but what he has is the greatest possession of all -
his family. And obviously the unit will stay together
and travel wherever they need to.
Well, I suppose there's that sense of movement
because the Jewish story is about never settling,
never being allowed to settle, constantly in search of peace.
The wandering Jew.
This sense of never settling.
I wonder, how much have you and the Jewish community in London
learned through the art of the immigrant Jews?
I think we've learned a lot about the history of the time
and the people and the sort of life they brought with them.
Art from the early 1900s also gives us an insight
into the wealthier sides of the Jewish community.
This 1921 painting
is by Solomon J Solomon,
whose family had been in London for generations,
and were well established in fashionable society.
It is almost unrecognisable as a painting of a Jewish family,
but perhaps that's because the immigrant wave that brought
Solomon's family here had integrated into the city.
Suddenly, they weren't being defined by their immigrant status,
they were being defined by their social status.
My journey ends around the early 1900s.
Our immigrants have become integrated, they are, in fact, now Londoners.
The art I've seen has made a massive impression on me,
from those early signs of foreign sailors in Covent Garden,
to the terrible portrayal of the Irish.
But the one painting I simply can't get out of my head
is the Diallo.
I find it absolutely incredible that,
in a city steeped in more than a century of slavery,
this astonishing man can be painted, captured as an equal,
not defined by his foreignness.
This painting actually managed to influence London and change history
and there are not many paintings you can say that about.
There are thousands of publicly-owned paintings
hidden from view. Now, you can see many of them
on the BBC website at:
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Hardeep Singh Kohli goes behind the scenes at some of London's museums and galleries to find the hidden paintings of the sailors, slaves and scholars who shaped the city. Through the art, Hardeep discovers how the Thames became the entry point for thousands of foreigners in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how they established vibrant docklands communities. He explores how Irish migrants fleeing the potato famine helped build the city we know today but paid a heavy price for moving here, and discovers the portrait that inspired the slavery-abolition movement and helped change the course of history.