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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Maqdala 1868: At Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery

Last week I went to London to be a witness at a wedding of a couple. It took place – post fire evacuation of Wandsworth Town Hall – just after 10am. After the wedding brunch and more photos, I found I had a few hours to play in London. And so sauntered off via bus to Tate Britain to see The Rosettis exhibition, which on the whole I enjoyed immensely until it became the usual Dante Gabriel paintings of immense pouting women with scant information about the later works of Christina Rosetti, though she continued writing through the 1870s and 1880s. Before being immersed in big haired feme fatales, I spotted a watercolour by Date Gabriel that I’d only seen reproductions of previously.

Colour watercolour of a male female couple walking on a beach from the mid nineteenth century
Museum number 1886,0607.14 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The watercolour 1858-9 Writing on the sand shows (Sir) Richard Rivington Holmes and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal walking on a beach and blown by the wind. Although the woman does look more like Fanny Cornforth – or even the actress Ruth Herbert, who the painting appears to have belonged to – than Siddal, as the label points out. It is in the British Museum, who bought it from the art dealership Colnaghi in 1886. Colnaghi was the same family that vice-consul and photographer Dominic Colnaghi belonged to, who worked with Charles Thomas Newton. Siddal was Rosetti’s partner and later wife, while Rivington-Holmes had been an assistant at the British Museum since 1854. The writing on the beach implies ‘love is as fleeting as the sand’ according to the label. Perhaps it did for Dante Gabriel, who appears to have muddled up his girlfriends. Siddal, of course, suffered more from love with a future stillbirth and infamous stories posthumously obscuring her artistic work for decades.

Ten years after this watercolour was made, Rivington Holmes would join the military expedition to Maqdala as the British Museum’s representative to take part in the planned plunder that did not go to plan, with tragic consequences for the Ethiopians. My colleague Lucia Patrizio Gunning and I have published on the small but significant involvement of Charles Thomas Newton in having a man from the museum sent on this expedition. Staring at the painting and looking up the link at the British Museum on my phone, I reflected on the interweaving of connections involved in the provenance and painting of one small watercolour in the 1850s and the consequences for all the people involved.

A black and white photograph of singer David Bowie projected on a  white wall.

After leaving Tate Britain, I decided to check out the reopened National Portrait Gallery, where I once worked and, after leaving in 2007, gave freelance talks / lectures for some time. The Ziggy photographs of David Bowie dramatically brought the entrance to life as I entered and I took to the stairs to the first floor to go and look at some whiskered Victorians, as I knew them. Much to my surprise and delight, there were less whiskery men and many more women on display as well as people of colour. The impact of empire was well documented and folded into the narrative of the Victorian period.

Seeing people pictured who were affected by the empire, whether it was a photograph of Paul Bogle who was hung by the British after the Jamaica Uprising in 1865 or the Africans photographed by Livingstone for use in his missionary talks, made the humanitarian consequences clearer, for me at least. Nowhere is this truer than in the display of two carte-de-visits

Small photograph of a young Black boy in a suit and holding a hat from 1868

showing Prince Alamayhou of Abyssinia, the little boy taken by the British army after the Maqdala expedition. Alamayhou is photographed with his supposed protector and rescuer Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy, both in full Ethiopian dress and then as a public-school boy. In each his expression is hauntingly sad, the look of a child failed by the state, exploited by the British Empire and not ‘looked after’ or ‘cared’ for; these latter terms are all euphemisms used to describe children fostered or in the social care system today – as Lemn Sissay points out in this moving podcast episode from the series Stuff the British Stole.

In a forthcoming paper for Museum International, Lucia and I write about the impact his story has made on us as museum and heritage professionals to try and not just see but to feel the human and humane in ‘objects’ and ‘human remains’ taken through empire or economic privilege. The archivist historian Ann Stoler has written on how the Dutch colonial archives illustrate the meddling of the state in 'affections and attachments - familial and otherwise' and that these documents are not ‘dead matter’ (2008, pp. 2-3). Portraits of the people involved in imperial expeditions of all kinds, or the objects and the human remains taken and left in mausoleums or museums, are not dead matter either. All have been meddled with and these peoples' legacies live on, all around us.

Further Reading:

Heavens, A. 2023. The Prince and the Plunder. How Britain Took One Small Boy and Hundreds of Treasures from Ethiopia. London: The History Press.

Stoler, A. L. 2008. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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