NPG Appeal to Secure Historic Portrait

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 11, 2010

Press release from the NPG in London:

Appeal to Secure First British Portrait of a Black African Muslim and Freed Slave
National Portrait Gallery needs £100,000 to acquire first British oil painting of a freed slave, never seen in public

William Hoare, "Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon," oil on canvas, 1733 © Christie's Images Limited

The National Portrait Gallery today launches, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Art Fund, an appeal to acquire for the nation the earliest known British oil painting of a freed slave, and the first portrait that honours a named African subject as an individual and an equal. Never before seen in public, and currently on temporary display at the Gallery, this portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701-73), known when he was in England as Job ben Solomon, shows the sitter painted in 1733 in his traditional dress wearing his copy of the Qur’an around his neck.

The portrait, from a private collection, was sold at auction in December, is now under a temporary Ministerial export bar following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The Gallery needs to have raised £554,937.50 to secure this important and compelling painting for future generations by 25 August 2010. Art Fund members have kick-started the campaign with a £100,000 grant and the Heritage Lottery Fund has pledged £333,000 towards the acquisition and a project to cover costs for its conservation, display, interpretation and regional tour to Leicester, Liverpool and the North East Museums Hub. In addition to the funds the Gallery is able to contribute to the purchase, it is now launching a campaign to raise £100,000 to complete the target. . . .

A high status African from a prosperous family of Muslim religious clerics, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born in the Gambia. At the age of 29 he was captured as a slave and transported to work on a plantation in America. After being imprisoned for trying to escape, he met the lawyer Thomas Bluett who become aware of Diallo’s high birth, intellect and education and took an interest in him, arranging to bring him to England in 1734. After his arrival, he mixed with high society and had a lasting impact on Britain’s understanding of African culture, identity and religion.

During this time, Diallo was received with great enthusiasm by aristocrats and scholars including the Duke of Portland and Sir Hans Sloane, whom he helped with Arabic translations and his interest in the Qur’an. Sloane also arranged for Diallo to be presented at the Court of George II and later to be elected a member of the Gentleman’s Society at Spalding. His supporters additionally arranged for him to sit for this portrait, which is also the earliest known painting by the artist William Hoare of Bath (ca.1707-72). The conflict for the sitter is recorded in a contemporary account which not only indicates the affection in which Diallo was held but sheds light on the practice of portraiture in England and other cultures: “Job’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr Hoare.” (Thomas Bluett, Memoirs, p.50)

The artist has responded sensitively to Diallo’s personality by depicting him, at the sitter’s own request, in his traditional dress and carrying his copy of the Qur’an around his neck. Until its appearance on the art market in 2009 it was believed lost and was only known through Bluett’s description of Diallo’s sitting and engravings. The portrait is not signed but carries identifying inscriptions on the reverse (on the lining ‘PORTRAIT OF / JOB: BEN: SOLOMON.’ and on the stretcher ‘PAINTED BY WILLIAM HOARE OF BATH IN 1733′). The identification of the sitter and the attribution of the artist given in this inscription are confirmed by the existence of two contemporary engravings after this portrait, one published as the frontispiece to the Memoirs of the Life of Job (1734) and the other published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1750. The publication and wide-scale dissemination of these engravings in the eighteenth century also demonstrates Diallo’s fame during the period. The painting, however, has descended in the same family since at least 1840 and has never been exhibited in public.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “This engaging portrait of Diallo offers a more complex history of the eighteenth century – it is a vital acquisition.”

Wesley Kerr, Chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund London Committee, says: “This  remarkable portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo tells so many stories about our past and captures so well the intelligence, intensity and religiosity of an eighteenth-century African. HLF was delighted to offer £333,000 to help keep it here in the UK available for everyone to see, savour and learn from, through an imaginative programme of special exhibitions and studies. Diallo, as a high born African who was enslaved and taken to America, was one of millions of victims of the brutal Triangular Trade. But he triumphed to cut an impressive figure in the salons of literary and royal London, and succeeded in returning to West Africa a free man. In Hoare’s picture, Diallo’s bright eyes follow you round the room and our centuries-old diversity is brought to life. We very much hope that the National Portrait Gallery succeeds in raising the rest of the money to make this hugely significant painting free to all.”

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, says: “This portrait is of exceptional historical and sociological importance. Art Fund members have kick-started the campaign with a £100,000 grant and we now urge members of the public to help the National Portrait Gallery acquire the work for everyone to experience.”

Donations to the National Portrait Gallery Ayuba Suleiman Diallo Appeal can be made online at www.npg.org.uk/diallo, or by contacting either Susie Holden on 020 7312 2454 / sholden@npg.org.uk or Stephanie Weissman on 020 7321 6645 / sweissman@npg.org.uk

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (also known as Job ben Solomon) by William Hoare of Bath is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Room 15 until 30 July 2010.

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