Ira Aldridge

Private Collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ira Aldridge

after James Northcote
oil on canvas, circa 1826
30 in. x 24 7/8 in. (763 mm x 632 mm)
Lent by a private collection, 2012
Primary Collection
NPG L251

On display in Room 18 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • James Northcote (1746-1831), Painter; pupil and biographer of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Artist or producer associated with 104 portraits, Sitter associated with 23 portraits.

This portraitback to top

In 1825, James Northcote painted Ira Aldridge an American actor who was the first black actor to play Othello in Britain. This image is a copy of James Northcote's portrait of Aldridge which was bought by Manchester Art Gallery shortly after Aldridge's performance as Othello in Manchester. It is thought to represent Aldridge in that role.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 65
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 57
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 169
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 464
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 131 Read entry

    Ira Aldridge was the first major black actor on the British stage. He arrived from America in 1824 and first appeared in London in 1825 playing the part of Orinokoo in The Revolt of Surinam, or, a Slave’s Revenge at the Royal Coburg Theatre (now the Old Vic). Reviewers were surprised by his American accent and light complexion. Yet even though audiences were enthusiastic about his acting, Aldridge was relegated to playing in regional theatres. This portrait depicts him as Othello in Manchester.

    Aldridge was finally able to make his West End debut, in the same role, in 1833, two weeks after the actor Edmund Kean had died. But Kean had dominated such tragic roles and there was much hostility to a real black man acting as Othello alongside a white Desdemona, with the result that the production quickly closed.

    After this false start, Aldridge cultivated roles beyond the standard repertoire and revived Shakespeare’s rarely performed Titus Andronicus, turning the Moor Aaron into an unlikely tragic hero. After several Continental tours in the 1850s and 1860s, he developed a significant following in Europe and died in Poland in 1867.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1826back to top

Current affairs

Riots break out in Lancashire against the use of the power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright. The looms were gradually being introduced across the country, replacing large numbers of manual workers.

Art and science

Thomas Telford's Menai Straits and Conway Suspension Bridges open, the largest of their kind at the time.


Carl Weber arrives to live in England after his opera Der Freischutz is the hit of the London season.

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