Images of black people feature among the collections at Surrey History Centre but often require a detective trail to try and identify them. Four fascinating sketches of black people among the papers of the Vaughan Williams family (SHC ref 6536) provided just such a challenge and are a perfect example of the wonderful, unexpected finds that can be discovered in archive collections.
All beautifully drawn, three of the sketches are quite small and depict a woman holding a baby, a man in a turban and a man smoking a clay pipe; a fourth larger sketch shows two men, in patched, ragged clothing, smoking clay pipes. The drawings were among a vast quantity of family papers which came to us from a descendant of the Vaughan Williams family, in the late 1990s. The collection contains personal and business papers of many family members including Surrey’s famous composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. The family travelled widely and there are many sketches, watercolours and early photographs of people and places they visited, ranging from market traders in Krakow to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
The sketches come with no other provenance which makes cataloguing them in detail very difficult. Providing an accurate catalogue description is vital – it is the means by which our users identify whether an item is relevant to their research and can make the difference between an overlooked source and a hidden gem. To achieve this, Surrey History Centre staff followed a detective trail to discover more about these fascinating drawings, contacting some of the UK and America’s largest and most specialist research institutions.
‘CR’ or ‘RC’ – who was the artist?
All sketches are in the same hand and the largest sketch carries an artist’s monogram ‘CR’ or ‘RC’ written in between the date ‘1863’. There is no member of the family or person mentioned in the papers with those initials, although intriguingly, there is a pen and ink sketch annotated ‘drawn by Walty Williams in 1879 and given to CAR April 1888’ but we do not know who ‘CAR’ is. Were they themselves an artist and is he or she is the ‘CR’ of these sketches. A couple of family members were keen amateur artists but none of their work matches the style or date of those in question.
After rigorously searching online catalogues, artist reference works, and liaising with other institutions, including the Black Cultural Archives, British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), we still have not been able to identify the artist. Whoever the artist was, their drawings are expressive, confident and well-executed.
The sketches are all on wove cartridge paper (not ribbed or watermarked) and although originally drawn in charcoal and pencil, may actually be the product of some form of lithographic printing process. However, a conservation test on them has proved inconclusive.
Experts at Tuskegee University in Alabama suggested that they may well be book illustrations and this theory is perfectly plausible given the literary and artistic connections of the Vaughan Williams family. The sketches are similar in style to those featured in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories (published in book form in 1881). The work of artist Frederick S Church, who first illustrated Uncle Remus, is most similar, along with Edward W Kemble’s illustrations for Mark Twain. Perhaps an artist working contemporaneously employed the same style?
Who were the subjects?
The facial features of the black men are expertly drawn but seem a little exaggerated. The man wearing the conical-shaped hat in one of the smaller sketches also features in the larger sketch, showing him in conversation with another man, both of them wearing ragged, patched clothing. This second man looks to be wearing a US Confederate soldier’s coat and both are wearing very distinctive clog-style boots. The 1863 date of this sketch puts it right in the middle of the American Civil War. Slavery in America did not end until December 1865, so were these men plantation slaves?
No UK or American institution that we contacted has similar sketches in their collections; even a search of the British Library’s Vaughan Williams collection did not prove successful. However, analysis of the clothing by our own historic costume expert and that at the V&A posed the possibility of the subjects all being 19th century African American workers on a cotton plantation or Jamaican sugar plantation workers. Indeed the following links show men and women wearing similar hats and head scarves http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/pictures/coton-plantation-united-states-paris-national-library-news-photo-535796055 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Jamaica#/media/File:Cane_cutters_in_Jamaica.jpg
African American plantation worker, slave or freed slave seems to be the mostly likely identity for the people in these sketches. According to the archive catalogue Lewis Vaughan Williams was in America in 1862-64 and travelled in the south (see 6536/348) so maybe he had the opportunity to acquire these images? If you have any information which might help us identify these sketches further we’d be delighted to hear from you: [email protected]
With thanks to the following people for their help with this research: Jane Lewis, Surrey Heritage costume expert, Louise Cooling, Assistant Curator, Paintings, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Dr. Jontyle T. Robinson and Jean R. Belt, both of Tuskegee University, Alabama,
Sketches of ?African American people from the Vaughan Williams family papers (SHC ref 6536/458 (1-4))
Tuskegee University Library http://www.tuskegee.edu/libraries/about_the_libraries.aspx
Victoria and Albert Museum online collections search can be found at http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/t/the-collections/?gclid=CIS5yc-5184CFQYSGwod5C8EdA whilst the National Art Library can be found at http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/n/national-art-library/
Black Cultural Archives http://bcaheritage.org.uk/
The complete list of Vaughan Williams correspondence held at the British Library can be found at http://hviewer.bl.uk/IamsHViewer/Default.aspx?mdark=ark:/81055/vdc_100000000286.0x000012 whilst the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (folk song collection) can be found at http://www.vwml.org.uk/browse/browse-collections-full-english/browse-rvw2
Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian http://www.aaa.si.edu/