Ira Aldridge as Othello in ‘Othello’ by William Shakespeare
An 1820’s oil painting of Ira Aldridge, the famous 19th-century, black Shakespearian actor, which has been hidden away in a tea-chest for decades, is “an important discovery” and a “document of black history,” a leading art historian reveals.
The untitled, unsigned work shows Aldridge, one of the few successful black actors at the time, on stage as the central character in one of his rare non-Shakespearian roles.
Michelle Linger, a respected art historian explains: “This piece is significant on many levels. It is unusual as it shows Aldridge actually performing, probably at the height of his fame as he is clearly the principal lead in the production, whereas most paintings of him are portraits.
“And it is clearly not a Shakespeare play – and most people would have known him for his roles in Othello and The Merchant of Venice – which adds to the work’s singularity.
“Also, and perhaps crucially, it is very rare to find contemporary [19th century] paintings of black performers – and particularly of this quality. It’s an important discovery.”
Despite being one of the great stage actors of his time, there are remarkably few paintings of Ira Aldridge, who, although born in New York, is named as one of the ‘100 Great Black Britons’, as at 18 years old he worked his passage to Liverpool as a ship’s steward.
Linger continues: “One of the best known paintings of Aldridge is The Captive Slave (1827) by British portraitist John Philip Simpson (1782–1847), which was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago for an undisclosed sum in 2008.
“Curiously, in the recently discovered picture, Aldridge is wearing extremely similar deep red-orange clothing as in The Captive Slave painting.”
“Not only does this compelling work, found during a garage clear-out, combine aesthetic and technical sophistication, it’s a document of black and social history.”
Mia Morris OBE, the founder of Black History Month UK, says: “Ira Aldridge left a legacy which anyone would be proud of. This new found image of him will do more for putting him rightly back on the map.”
The 40 x 60 cm oil on board painting was discovered by Birmingham-born art enthusiast Stephen Howes, who found it in his late mother’s garage.