The Hidden Treasures of Diversity in the
National Portrait Gallery
By Kimberley Daanje, Journalism exchange student
The National Portrait Gallery. An art gallery in London where one easily gets lost in the seemingly endless corridors which predominantly feature portraits of middle-aged white males who were important once upon a time many years ago.
It is a place where one can also get lost in the eyes of history staring back at you and the stories that they share. Amidst these portraits there are hidden treasures of diversity to be found. True enough, the story of Pocahontas - not to be confused with the romanticised version Disney is quite proud of - can be found somewhere in an almost hidden corner of one of these aforementioned corridors.
Pocahontas, daughter of the tribe Chief, was captured by the English and held for ransom. During this time she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. That tells a much different story than painting with all the colours of the wind and starting a forbidden romance with Captain John Smith.
There is also the story of Ira Frederick Aldridge, a black actor who made a long lasting impression during his portrayal as Othello at the Royal Theatre in the east end of London. Reviews were mixed, as people were not sure what to think of a black actor in the nineteenth century. He kept going, shaking the bad reviews off as if he were channeling Taylor Swift’s banger of a song, and toured through Britain and Europe only to become one of the highest paid actors in the world.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an educated man taken into slavery and sent to work on a plantation in America. After Diallo arrived in London in the eighteenth century, he was recognised as an educated man and mixed with high and intellectual society. Advocates of the abolition of slavery would later cite Diallo as a key figure in asserting the moral rights and humanity of black people. His portrait is the first to honour an African subject as an individual and an equal.
These are but a few examples of the small treasures that can be found in the National Portrait Gallery. One would have to search carefully for these stories; for all the so-called eye catchers are white men staring back at you with somewhat haughty expressions that nearly scream they think they are better than the rest.
The paintings in favour of diversity are not flashy nor are they taking up the entire wall as the other paintings might do. They hang there subtly, waiting for curious people to find them amongst important British figures who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. The less privileged also lived, could be successful, and have their stories to tell.
They are mostly overshadowed by the other paintings, which sounds oddly familiar. Racism, sexism and bigotry are very much things of the present and this is mainly because other races or sexes are not well-represented in our society. People of colour, women, the LGBTQ+ community and more groups are forgotten in favour of the powerful white male. Contrary to popular belief, there is power in representation and it makes the world less of a dull place. The world would look much paler if diversity did not exist.
Whenever one gets tired of looking at the same faces with - admittedly - great facial bone structure painted on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, they could challenge themselves to find stories of diversity and look into a different moment in history that is less known to the general public.
National Portrait Gallery London. Photo by Herry Lawford
Pictured is Ira Fredrick Aldridge_ thought to represent Aldridge in the role of Othello. Photo by Kimberley Daanje