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Black British Women and the Eighteenth Century Art World

By Liberty Paterson, Birkbeck, University of London and National Portrait Gallery Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student


Joseph Nollekens by Lemuel Francis Abbott, c.1797 (NPG 30)


Louis François Roubiliac by Adrien Carpentiers, 1762 (NPG 303)

The National Portrait Gallery’s Collection includes a number of works by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, who is regarded as one of the best British sculptors of the late 1700s. What many people do not know is that he also offers a portal into eighteenth century black British history.

Elizabeth Rosina Clements worked for Nollekens as a maidservant for decades and was well known amongst artistic circles, as well as with the shopkeepers of Oxford Market where she was a regular presence. As a black woman, her skin colour was often highlighted by these groups who called her ‘Bronze’ and ‘Black Bet’. These names serve as a reminder of the way in which others defined Clements by her racial difference in this period.

When John Thomas Smith wrote a biography of Nollekens in 1828, he relied heavily on Clements’ testimony, calling her his ‘informant’.[1] In this sense, Clements’ insights and anecdotes helped to shape much of what we know about Nollekens today. Smith’s book also became an important record of the late-eighteenth century art world, and remains a key biographical source for scholars of Nollekens and the period more broadly.

The warts-and-all account of Nollekens’ life gives a sense of Clements’ playful yet astute character amidst the challenges she faced as a black working-class woman in eighteenth century London.[2] She had to contend with Nollekens’ miserly and cruel nature, whilst also catering to his whims and offering him companionship, especially in the years leading up to his death in 1823. In his will, Nollekens left Clements 19 guineas, but it is unclear whether she received the money, as he amended his will multiple times. To his disappointment, Smith (who had briefly trained with Nollekens, and whose father also worked with the sculptor) was only left an executor’s fee, and his unflattering portrayal of Nollekens that followed seems to have been partly motivated by this. The reliability of Smith’s narrative is therefore difficult to establish, and it is likely he used Clements’ accounts of life in the Nollekens household selectively for his own ends.

Smith noted that Clements went ‘gray in his [Nollekens’] service’ and suffered from alcoholism.[3] In her old age, he likened Clements to the ghostly ageing maidservant in William Hogarth’s painting of The Heir (1734) from his series A Rake’s Progress (1732-4; Sir John Soane’s Museum Collection, London), which seems an unkind comparison that overlooks her race, but does illustrate the marginal space that she was seen to occupy by Smith. This was an attitude that was mirrored socially, as Clements would have had little option other than being a domestic servant given her gender, class, and particularly her race. She worked for Nollekens during a period in which transatlantic slavery was an integral part of Britain’s colonial economy, and its legality in Britain remained unclear despite landmark court cases. Britain’s free black population were often living in the shadow of slavery because of this, with their prospects limited as a result.  

Smith’s biography shows that Clements was not the only black woman working for a prominent sculptor of the period. When recounting an anecdote about the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, Smith described his black housemaid, Mary. In this account, Roubiliac noted that Mary worked for him for five or six years before her untimely death from smallpox. There is a sense that Roubiliac was fond of Mary, but even so he appears to have treated her with disregard by forgetting that she had been laid out in his spare bedroom following her death.[4]

Despite both working for artists, there are no known portraits of Mary or Elizabeth Rosina Clements. Yet, knowing their proximity to the works of Roubiliac and Nollekens allow these pieces of art history to be reframed. Peter Fryer first highlighted their stories in 1984, and Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina explored Clements’ life further in 1995, but research into these women is still limited and they are often left out of art historical accounts of the artists they supported.[5]

What do these fragments of black British women’s stories from the 1700s tell us? Even the glimpses into the lives of Elizabeth Rosina Clements and Mary that have survived remain mediated by other narrative voices that may have sought to shape their stories in line with their own agendas. If nothing else, they remind us of the presence of these women whose lives intersected with significant art historical moments and objects. The way in which their stories have been manipulated or overlooked speaks to the process of history writing and serves as a reminder of narrative privilege.


Footnotes:

[1] John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times, ed. by Edmund Gosse (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1828), p. 116.

[2] Smith, pp. 57–58; 98; 100–102; 113–17; 201–2; 224–26; 291; 307; 310; 336; 339; 342; 356–58; 364–67.

[3] Smith, pp. 357; 364.

[4] John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times: Comprehending a Life of That Celebrated Sculptor; and Memoirs of Several Contemporary Artists, from the Time of Roubiliac, Hogarth and Reynolds to That of Fuseli, Flaxman and Blake (London: Henry Colburn, 1829), ii, p. 92.

[5] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984), p. 78; Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), pp. 80–87.

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