Black servant becomes master in English Heritage’s historic portraits

A black servant has been reimagined as a master in a portrait which will hang the stately home of his former employers as part of English Heritage project depicting historical figures from the African diaspora.

The heritage charity has commissioned six portraits of historical figures from African descent who played a role in British history to give greater attention to stories which are “not well known”

James Chappell, an 18th-century servant who worked at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, has been depicted wearing lavish clothes of an aristocrat in a portrait which will be hung at the property of his former employers.

Painter Glory Samjolly explained her work, saying:  “There is not enough representation of African Europeans in historical galleries or textbooks, and most often when they are represented it is as slaves, servants or abolitionists.”

Chappell worked for the Hatton family and saved Kirby’s owner, Christopher Hatton, from the rubble of an explosion on Guernsey, and he was presented with an annuity of £20 a year for the remainder of his life.

The newly imagined image of the servant has been created alongside other depictions of historical figures in African diaspora for the Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England project.

Elena Onwochei-Garcia with her portrait of Septimius Severus.

Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who hailed from what is now Libya, will be displayed at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall.

The 8th century churchman Abbot Hadrian will be commemorated at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, First World War soldier Private Arthur Roberts at Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks, and mixed race British heiress Dido Belle with at Kenwood House.

The project was launched in 2020 with an image of Queen Victoria’s goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta which was commissioned for display at Osborne House

All of the paintings have been created by artists who identify as black or of mixed heritage.

Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, said: “African figures from the past have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but many of their stories are not very well known.

“Placing their portraits on the walls of those sites is one way we hope to bring their stories to life and share them with a wider audience.

“We are also delighted to be working with these brilliant artists and seeing how they engage with the past, with all its complexities, is inspiring.” — 

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