Petina Gappah on John Simpson’s Head of a Negro
Just been leafing through the latest Tate magazine – one of my favourite bits is the regular feature MicroTate where people from different walks of life offer a brief reflection on something from the Tate collections.
I was gobsmacked by this picture painted in around 1827: John Simpson’s Head of a Negro. It portrays such dignity and yet also such stoicism – above all, it surely points to a common humanity. There shouldn’t be a surprise there – of course. But just consider what was going on in that year (a few very random factlets):
– George IV, the former Prince Regent, had 3 more years left to reign
– Beethoven and artist William Blake died
– Aluminium was discovered (!)
– More significantly, it was 20 years after the British Slave Trade Act (1807) but 6 years before the Slavery Abolition Acts (1833)
So slavery was still a gruesome reality around the British Empire at the time. The famous Wedgwood medallion was still profoundly necessary.
I don’t know whether John Simpson had a model for this portrait, whether he met a real black man who sat for him, or whether he glimpsed someone on the street whose eyes he could not forget, or whether the picture simply came straight out of his imagination. When I look at the painting, I like to imagine what its first viewers saw. Those eyes pull you in without looking at you; you cannot turn away. Did they recognise a common humanity shining from those eyes, those first viewers in the age of slavery? Did they recognise that beauty can come in this form? There is beauty in those eyes, yes, and there is a look of nobility and suffering borne with defiance.
I cannot help but think of the first two verses of HW Longfellow’s poem The Slave’s Dream:
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
The poem about a dying slave’s remembered past life of contented nobility, complete with a dark-eyed queen, kissing children, a powerful stallion and bright flamingos, was written on the other side of the Atlantic, and long after Simpson’s painting, so it cannot have influenced this portrait. There is no possibility of a direct connection, other than in the idea of the enslaved nobleman, a romantic notion that has a strong pull on the imagination. Perhaps it was necessary that those first viewers saw this man as a king in chains in order for them to understand that black slaves were people too. This is ultimately what those eyes demand; a recognition of a shared humanity.
Head of a Negro was presented by Robert Vernon in 1847 and is currently not on display.