Portraying a Black African scholar at Oxford in the 1870s — and reimagining those portrayals today

from Pamela Roberts

Images from the Bodleian Library collections: left, John Johnson Collection Minstrels 3 (18d); right, John Johnson Collection Minstrels 3 (2); with a caricature image of Christian Cole in the centre, MS. Eng. a. 2033, fol. 3.
Images from the Bodleian Library collections: left, John Johnson Collection Minstrels 3 (18d); right, John Johnson Collection Minstrels 3 (2); with a caricature image of Christian Cole in the centre, MS. Eng. a. 2033, fol. 3.

‘This is the only image of Cole’. That’s the caveat I append to the caricature image of Christian Frederick Cole, the University of Oxford’s first Black African Scholar in 1873, when I use the image (above, centre) to illustrate a lecture or write an article about him.

Last year the picture was widely used in media promotion of the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Cole, at University College, to honour him and his achievements. Every time I saw a press piece about the plaque with the image of Cole as a ‘minstrel’ adjacent to it, I cringed. Then I started to wonder, why is this caricature, along with other caricature images, the only portrayal of Cole? Who produced it, and for what purpose?

Progressing from these questions and thinking more broadly, I considered Cole’s presence in Oxford, fifty years after the introduction of photography in 1839. Is there a photograph or portrait of him? I considered why Cole’s achievements were portrayed publicly in the form of parody when his contemporaries were commemorated through portraits or statues.

My initial thoughts, reflections and questions about Cole’s imagery developed into a detailed study delving through archives and photographic catalogues of cartoons, caricatures and 19th-century portraits. One collection I looked at was the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, held at the Bodleian Libraries. This is one of the largest and most important collections of printed ephemera in the world, and reflects types of ephemera produced from all periods, especially from the 19th century to the Second World War. I looked at the section on ‘Minstrels’ as the caricature of Cole has a strong resemblance to ‘negro minstrels’ popular at the time. The collection provided a fascinating source of contextual and background information.

This research forms the foundation for the Re-Imagining Cole symposium  which takes place on Saturday 20th October at the Weston Library, from 10.00am – 4.00pm. The symposium will examine the background, context and depictions of previously unseen caricatures of Cole, exploring why Cole and his historic achievements were only portrayed in the form of parodies. The symposium will also examine the broader issues of race and representation in caricatures and portrait art. Finally, the symposium will pose the question, ‘Should Cole’s image be re-imagined?’ A display of items connected with Cole will be shown on the day.

The event will include art historians, artists and academic featuring Dr Temi Odumosu (Malmö University), Dr Robin Darwall-Smith (University College, University of Oxford), Robert Taylor (photographer of ‘Portraits of Achievement’), Colin Harris (cataloguer of the Shrimpton Caricatures collection, from which the caricatures of Cole are taken) and Pamela Roberts (Founder and Director Black Oxford Untold Stories).
The event has also been supported by the Art Fund and the Social History Society. Tickets for the event are £5.00 (£3.00 students, unwaged) and can be booked at:
https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/upcoming-events/2018/october/reimagining-cole

Pamela Roberts at work.
Pamela Roberts at work.