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Drawing over the colour line

By news editor, on 22 October 2012

Florence Mills by Alexander Stuart-Hill, 1927.

Written by Henry Green, intern with UCL Communications

For the uneducated, and I would very much plonk myself in that sprawling mass, awareness of the story of black and Asian people in the UK is patchy at best: jumping from slavery to post war immigration without too much in between.

As such, it was a real treat to attend this lecture, in which Dr Caroline Bressey (UCL Geography) ably used photographs, artwork and letters to illuminate the role that Black and Asian people played in the changing social, cultural and political scenes emerging in interwar London.

Her research has made full use of UCL’s gargantuan collection of paintings, collages and sketches, and some of these works featured on beautifully printed postcards distributed outside the lecture theatre. These were a welcome change from the usual bundle of black and white lecture notes and set the tone for a fascinating and visually stimulating hour.

One of the starting points for this research was the increasing diversity of models used by the Slade in the ’20s and ’30s. Researchers are hoping that looking at these people, who would have modelled to supplement their earnings, will teach them more about black and Asian people in London at the time.

But art is far more than a source of archive material to this project.

Dr Bressey and her colleague Dr Gemma Romain are interested in how the artist’s studio became a place for cultural exchanges between people of different colours, and the driving role that art and popular culture played in the development of a black identity in Britain.

Perhaps the most influential figure in the growth of this identity was Florence Mills, an American entertainer who achieved widespread fame in the UK in the ’20s following a series of successful London shows. Such was her popularity that the then-Prince of Wales is reputed to have seen her Blackbirds show more than 20 times.

Mills was, by all accounts, an extraordinary individual who crossed cultural boundaries, and Dr Bressey ably brought this to life. My favourite anecdote was about her performance of ‘Eli, Eli’ at a concert for Jewish schools, which was described by a rabbi as “the most wonderful” he had ever seen.

She reached a level of fame and popularity that was virtually unheard of for a black woman in Britain and her importance to the black community is best demonstrated by a letter thanking her for showing that “we can stand side-by-side and beat them [white people] at their own game”.

She was also an outspoken advocate of civil rights and it was interesting, if not surprising, that her colour was such an issue during her time in Britain.

Entertainment unions, outraged at her all-black cast, successfully forced theatres to use an all-white, British cast for the show’s first half and Mills and co. only in the second.

The unions’ position is somewhat undermined by their lack of complaints about all-white German, French or American shows. It was also interesting to note the presence of race politics even in positive correspondences to Mills, including a male admirer who humbly refers to himself as a “white poor man” and a female admirer who closes her letter “always your slave…”.

For all the illustrative powers of these sources, there is one gaping hole in our collection of all things Mills – nobody has been able to find a single recording of her performances.

It is in this search for lost treasures that the project’s work is at its most vital and exciting.

Dr Bressey ended the lecture by imploring us all to check our attics for an undiscovered gem. Mine was full of old Christmas decorations and an ageing portrait of myself, but I would implore you to check yours and grab the chance to take this fascinating research to the next stage.

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