In the late 1920s, Laura Knight joined her husband Harold in Baltimore USA where he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the John Hopkins Hospital’s Dr Baer. Baer gave Laura permission to go on the segregated wards to paint the patients. She was greeted sceptically, the patients afraid that she would simply stereotype them. The nurse Pearl Johnson had faith in Knight’s intentions and helped her become accepted by the patients would then paint them with integrity and dignity. Juanita was one of the patients. All lives matter – whatever colour
It was here that she painted Juanita in 1928.
Pearl Johnson befriended Laura, and this is a pastel of Pearl. In addition to helping Laura gain the trust of patients, Pearl also took Laura to various civil rights meetings and events, thus introducing Laura to the prejudices that African-Americans were confronted with in the USA. Laura considered her own preconceptions of African-Americans and was shocked to see ‘a hatred of the race that defies description.’
We can see a confident and clever woman in Pearl. It is one of the only two portraits in the Penlee House & Museum Penzance Cornwall exhibition where the principle subject is actual engaging us in her stare, challenging us to identify with her and her situation. We find it hard to turn away.
NB: the above images have been copied from public domain social media and not the Penlee House Gallery’s exhibition where photography was righty forbidden owing to the private ownership of many works.
The text has been adapted by the faultless prose in the brochure accompanying the exhibition by AloÏse Sauthier, Citizen Curator.
In the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge hangs a portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) of ‘Mrs John Ashton’ (1769-1771). A traditional and uninspiring realistic portrait and one would normally simply nod to its existence and move on, but upon reading the accompanying text, a pause for reflection beckoned.
“‘Elizabeth Ashton’ (1710-1778), widow of John Ashton (1710 – 1759) of Liverpool, a salt merchant who profited by the investment in enslaved people. He invested in the Sankey Canal, which facilitated the transport of coal to his salt works. Their son Nicholas Ashton (1742-1833) inherited the business and the family’s wealth grew considerably.” (Source: adapted from the text accompanying the portrait)
Indeed, wealth built upon slavery of the African trade and also in essence probably of the exploitation of local people in the building of the canal and in the salt works.
But is that so? The answers need research, but the important thing is that the questions are asked.
Because if the contemporary ‘cancel culture’, prevailed, this portrait may be removed from the Fitzwilliam’s walls, and the questions would not exist, would not be formulated and asked and the debate negated.
All lives matter – whatever colour
Acknowledge the past and deal with it, don’t air-brush it aside. Nothing to be learned in that approach. The power of art to raise these issues.