What evidence is there of a black presence in Britain and north west England?

Othello, the Moor of Venice

James Northcote, RA (1746-1831), 1826
Oil on canvas

Object number 1882.2
Purchased by the Royal Manchester Institution, 1827

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Othello, the Moor of Venice

This portrait shows the young black American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, in the character of the jealous Moor, Othello. This role made him a household name throughout Europe in the late 1820s and 1830s. However, his first role on the British stage was as a slave, Oroonoko, in The Revolt of Surinam or A Slave's Revenge, at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London in October 1825.

The appearance of a black man on stage was a novelty which produced mixed reviews, some of them openly racist. Although the Globe found his voice 'distinct and sonorous', the Times reviewer complained that he could not pronounce English properly 'owing to the shape of his lips'. The racist commentaries of London-based theatre critics increasingly prevented Aldridge from performing in London, though he toured provincial theatres, including Manchester, Sheffield, Halifax, Newcastle, Liverpool, Hull, Sunderland and Belfast, to great acclaim. He was generally regarded as an exceptionally talented actor and also appeared in several white roles, including Shylock, Macbeth and Richard III.

Ira Aldridge first came to Manchester in 1827, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Peter Street. In the same year, this portrait was bought by the Royal Manchester Institution, later to become Manchester Art Gallery. The Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts was formed in the early 1820s, to counter accusations that Manchester was a place of industrial philistinism. The wealthy and influential businessmen of the city raised £23,000 to build a new 'temple to the arts', determined to show that Manchester could be a centre for culture and the arts as well as commerce and industry. This painting was the first to be acquired by the newly-formed institution, and it has been suggested that it was prompted by Manchester's central role in the anti-slavery movement.

This information was provided by curators from Manchester Art Gallery.