In the wake of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition Black Atlantic about its founder’s ties to the slave trade comes the Royal Academy’s Entangled Pasts, less of a mea culpa than an examination of conscience by an institution which, although hailed by its first president Sir Joshua Reynolds as an ‘ornament’ of Empire, was innocent of direct links to slavery.
I confess that I was rather dreading this show, which sounded from the pre-publicity like a hollow exercise in Britannia-Rules-the-Waves breast-beating, but from the moment I stepped into the courtyard and saw the posturing Sir Joshua on his plinth upstaged by Tavares Strachan’s life-sized ‘The First Supper (Galaxy Black)’ (2023) – a riotous gathering of black luminaries in bronze and gilt – I realised my mistake. Since the election of Frank Bowling as the first black member of the RA in 2005, the Academy’s ranks have been swelled by artists of Caribbean, African and South Asian descent who have something to say about Empire other than ‘sorry’, and they set the tone for this exhibition. It’s not about raking over the past: it’s about colonialism, but also about change.
It starts from small beginnings in the octagon, hung with examples of the few historic portraits of black sitters, some named, such as Britain’s first black voter, the former slave and man of letters Ignatius Sancho in Gainsborough’s 1768 portrait, others nameless, such as the models for Francis Harwood’s classical ‘Bust of a Man’ (1758) – an emperor without a toga – and John Singleton Copley’s vivid oil sketch,‘Head of a Man’ (1777-78).
The Boston-born Copley is the only Royal Academician known to have owned slaves and the model for the black sailor in his contemporary history painting ‘Watson and the Shark’ (1778) may have been one of them.