England’s African heroes

Historical black personalities from England’s past are the subject of a new exhibition being mounted by English Heritage.

Portraits of six personalities from the African diaspora that made their mark in English history from Roman times to the 20th century have been commissioned from six artists who identify as black of mixed heritage. They are to be seen at six English Heritage sites from June 9.

They are:

  • Septimius Severus (145-211) by Elena Onwochei-Garcia, at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland. Septimus strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and was the only Roman emperor to die in Britain
  • Abbot Hadrian (640-710) by Clifton Powell, at St Augustine’s Abbey, Kent; born in North Africa Hadrian travelled to Canterbury helped shape the theology and rites of the early English church 
  • James Chappell (c.1648-1706) by Glory Samjolly at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire; Chappel was a servant at Kirby Hall who saved gthe life of the estate’s owner, Sir Christopher Hatton
  • Dido Belle (1761-1804) by Mikéla Henry-Lowe at Kenwood, London; she was born a slave but  freed and brought up as part of the family at Kenwood
  • Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) by Hannah Uzor (main image, at Osborne, Isle of Wight; she was Queen Victoria’s god-daughter
  • Arthur Roberts (1897-1982) at Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks, Northumberland by Chloe Cox; Roberts was a hero at Paschendaele in 1917 whose intimate diaries of the time only came to light in 2004.

“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” said Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director. “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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