The National Portrait Gallery in London is due to close its doors starting June 29th, 2020. The Inspiring People gallery redevelopment works will take three years. The gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. In preparation for this long break, DailyArt Magazine would like to take you for a trip around the world inspired by the works available in the gallery’s extensive online catalog. We’ll visit all continents and meet a host of fascinating people through their amazing portraits.
This time we are going to travel through Africa. I think we all miss sunny, warm days by now (at least those of us in the northern hemisphere!) so this should be a pleasant respite from winter. We will also meet a lot more women artists, travelers, and adventurers than in previous parts of this series. I wonder if it was easier for European women to play a significant part and make a name for themselves in Africa then it was in Europe. Maybe this was due to a lack of stiff social rules that tend to be relaxed during travel. Who cares about social norms when adventure beckons! Let’s continue our trip around the world with the National Portrait Gallery.
Ida Kar – Egypt
Ida Kar (1908-1974) was a photographer born in Tambov, near Moscow, of Armenian parents. She studied at the prestigious Lycée Français, Alexandria, Egypt before traveling to Paris where she first experimented with photography. After the Paris period of her life, Kar established her photographic studio ‘Idabel’ in Cairo with her first husband, Edmond Belali, in 1933.
She moved to London in 1945 with her second husband, the artist and critic, Victor Musgrave. With the opening of Musgrave’s Gallery One in Soho, Kar photographed and exhibited Forty Artists from Paris and London (1954). However, the height of her success was her well-received Whitechapel Gallery one-person-show in 1960.
It was the first of its kind held in a major public gallery in London. Kar, therefore, made a significant contribution to the recognition of photography as a form of fine art. Her most celebrated portraits document the bohemian social circle of artists and writers in which she moved.
Amelia Edwards – Egypt
Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) was a journalist, novelist and, Egyptologist. Unusually for Victorian women travel writers, Amelia Edwards was already a successful novelist before she started traveling. Her most successful literary works included the ghost story The Phantom Coach (1864), the novels Barbara’s History (1864), and Lord Brackenbury (1880). In the 1860s she embarked on a series of expeditions to Europe and Egypt. Her account of this latter trip, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, was the first general archaeological survey of Egypt’s ruins. It made her name and changed the direction of her life. Edwards was also central in founding the discipline of Egyptology, setting up the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. She left her library and collection of antiquities to University College, London, as well as a bequest that established the first English chair in Egyptology.
1873 was certainly an interesting year. It was in that year that the public entertainment center Alexandra Palace, designed by architect Owen Jones (associated with the Crystal Palace) in North London, burned down within sixteen days of opening. The palace was quickly rebuilt. It later became a transmission center for the BBC and a musical entertainment venue.
That same year, inspired by prospectors’ demands for better quality trousers during the 1850s Gold Rush, Levi Strauss developed a trouser made with twilled cotton cloth from France called serge de Nimes, later known as denim. In 1873, he patented the process of putting rivets in the trousers for strength thus introducing blue jeans to the world.
Napoleon – Saint Helena
Benjamin Haydon was a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte. He painted dozens of pictures of him, bought his death mask, and tried on one of the emperor’s hats, which, to his delight, fit perfectly. Haydon’s Bonaparte is contemplative, reflective, and musing on his fortunes and misfortunes, the phenomenal energy stilled, the glory faded. This is one of 23 recorded replicas and variants listed by Haydon, the last being for the window shutters at Chatsworth. His first Napoleon picture was painted for Thomas Kearsey in 1829 and was exhibited at the Western Exchange in 1830 as Napoleon Musing After Sunset. Sir Robert Peel commissioned a whole-length version entitled Napoleon Musing at St Helena. Others include Napoleon Meditating at Marengo, Napoleon Meditating on the Sleeping King of Rome, Napoleon in Egypt Musing on the Pyramids and Napoleon Contemplating his Future Grave.
As you can see, Haydon not only admired Napoleon, he also decided that Napoleon did a lot of contemplating and mediating. This may have been true in the period when he was on St. Helena, an island that really is in the middle of nowhere. However, I cannot imagine Napoleon doing much meditating or contemplating in the earlier phase of his life, he clearly had too much unspent energy for that. How else could he pretty much conquer Europe?
Martha Ricks – Liberia
Martha Ricks (1816-1901) was born into slavery in eastern Tennessee. She was bought out of it by her father, also a freed slave. In 1830 she and her family emigrated to Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society’s work. It supported the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. Ricks earned a living as a crop grower and farmed turkeys but she also harbored a lifelong ambition to meet Queen Victoria.
On 11 July 1892, aged 76, she arrived in Liverpool aboard the Calabar from Monrovia with a hand appliqued quilt that she intended to present to the Queen as a gift. The quilt, made from silk and cotton, took her 25 years to complete. Its striking design featured the Liberian Coffee Tree with over 300 green leaves, as well as coffee berries in red.
Through a series of chance encounters beginning with shipping magnate Alfred Jones who used his many contacts to help the Liberian visitor, she traveled to London. Word spread of her arrival, the British press took an interest in the story of the lady who traveled 3,5000 miles to meet the Queen. The London Standard printed an interview with her. Five days after her arrival she was granted a Royal audience with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Her visit made her popular. She was presented with numerous gifts and received an honorable send-off at the dockside by a substantial crowd of well-wishers.
Rosita Forbes – Libya
Rosita Forbes (1890-1967) was an English travel writer, novelist, and explorer. In 1920–1921 she visited the Kufra Oasis in Libya as the first European woman, in a period when this region was closed to Westerners. She dressed as a Muslim woman, ‘Khadija’, and took photographs with a concealed camera. She journeyed by camel-train with an Egyptian explorer, Hassanien Bey. Though her account, The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara (1921) reduces his actual role. ‘Khadija’ then visited Yemen.
In 1925 Forbes published From Red Sea to Blue Nile: Abyssinian Adventures. In 1937, Forbes was the second Westerner and first Western woman to visit places from Sahara to Samarkand. (Which today are in Libya to Uzbekistan.) Forbes had a gift of the genuine traveler. She lived and mixed with the locals, and bonded well with the natives although she was, most of the time, the only woman during the journey. Her travelogue called The Sahara to Samarkand describes this journey.
Forbes tarnished her own reputation in the 1930s however, by describing walking through a flower garden with Adolf Hitler, and her meetings with Benito Mussolini. She published a book of interviews in 1940, These Men I Knew, insisting that she was only reporting their politics, not endorsing them. Forbes also lectured in support of the British war effort in Canada and the United States. Soon after, with her husband, they went to live in the Bahamas to avoid further controversy.
Barbara Bodichon – Algeria
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was an English educationalist, artist, and a leading mid-19th-century feminist and women’s rights activism. Born illegitimate to radical parents, she was artistic from an early age, taking lessons from painters and visiting J. M. W. Turner in his studio. She took a passionate interest in the role of women in society. Her Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women contributed towards the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, giving wives greater financial protection. Bodichon belonged to the Langham Place Circle, a group of forward-thinking women artists who developed the English Woman’s Journal. During the 1850s, this group fought for women’s education, employment, property rights, and suffrage.
In 1857 she visited Algiers to paint and met her future husband, a French anthropologist Dr Eugène Bodichon. They spent most of the winters in Algiers (who can blame them!). Though back in London, she had many creative friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’). She played a major role in founding Girton College, Cambridge.
In 1859, Bodichon, along with many female artists including Eliza Fox, Margaret Gillies, and Emily Mary Osborn all signed a petition demanding access for women to the Royal Academy School. Their request was denied, however, stating that it would require the Royal Academy to develop “separate” life classes. In 1860, Laura Herford, fighting for access, submitted an application to the school using only her initials. As a result, and much to the embarrassment of the Academy, her application was accepted. Herford’s enrollment was thus permitted, and gradually more women artists were accepted in subsequent years.
Mary Henrietta Kingsley – Angola
Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900) was a traveler and writer. An explorer who greatly influenced European ideas about Africa. Kingsley’s ethnographic studies drew attention to the importance of looking at West African societies from the inside out. After the death of her parents she began travelling. She financed herself by carrying cloth that she traded for rubber and ivory. She also collected insect, plant, reptile, and fish specimens for the British Museum. Another area of interest for her was studying the culture and religion of the Fang people. Her travels brought success with her books Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). In 1900 she volunteered as a nurse to Boer prisoners of war but would die of fever only three months later. Here you can see her as she must have looked on her travels.
As Mary Henrietta had this picture taken the Paris International Exhibition of 1900, attended by more than 50 million people marked the heyday of Art Nouveau.
Dixon Denham – Chad
Dixon Denham (1786-1828) was a soldier and traveler. He fought in the Napoleonic Wars and received the Waterloo medal. In 1821 Denham volunteered to join one of several expeditions sent by the British government to explore the African interior. After difficulties with the Pasha of Tripoli, the expedition struggled across the Sahara becoming the first Europeans to see Lake Chad in 1823.
Denham’s publisher, John Murray, likely commissioned this portrait for his gallery of literary celebrities. It was used as the frontispiece to Denham’s account of the expedition published in 1826. In the same year Denham was appointed ‘superintendent of liberated Africans’ in Sierra Leone. In 1828, Denham became governor but died of fever only five weeks later.