The architectural splendour of cities such as Liverpool in Britain or Middelburg in the Netherlands bears witness to the financial rewards of the slave trade, the largest forced migration in global history. The main slaving nations were European powers with coasts on the Atlantic Ocean or North Sea. They were the dominant colonial states of the early modern period: Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands.
However, the organisation of the slave trade was concentrated in relatively few places. In the two decades preceding abolition, Liverpool was responsible for 75% of all slaving voyages across Europe. In France, Nantes sent 45% of all the ships in the slave trade. In Spain, initially Seville and later Cadiz were central to slaving initiatives. In Holland, after the monopoly of the West Indies Company was lifted, the ports of Flushing and Middleburg accounted for 78% of all Dutch voyages. Most of those harbour cities had earlier trading links with the Americas before they became involved in slaving. The specialist slave trade necessitated a comprehensive infrastructure in which shipbuilders, ship-owners and suppliers were all involved. The lucrative voyages were generally financed on credit by consortia of several merchants. The entire mercantile community was involved and the whole region profited from it. There are similarities between the ports.
Slaving merchants built impressive town houses and apartments. Liverpool’s Town Hall is known for its frieze including African heads, elephants and crocodiles. Similar decorations are found on buildings in Nantes and Bordeaux. Street names reflect not only the names of slave traders such as Earle, Tarleton, or Cunliffe in Liverpool, but also in names like Goree (the slave island off Dakar which name is derived from the Dutch Goeree at the time when it was ruled by the Netherlands from 1588 to 1664) and Jamaica Street, and in Bristol again Jamaica Street, Guinea Street and Black Boy Hill.
Although the nature of the trade was triangular and Africans were transported to the Americas where their labour was needed, some people of African descent were brought back to Europe. All slave ports had black populations to varying degrees. Lisbon is estimated to have had 10,000 black slaves in 1620. In England, the largest black population was found in London, probably numbering between 5,000 and 15,000 at the end of the eighteenth century. Bristol has its famous tombstone to Scipio Africanus in Henbury churchyard. Nantes, too, had a significant black population. At the beginning of the Revolution the city was able to raise a black battalion known as ‘les hussards de Saint-Domingue’.
The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery holds a painting dating from around 1785 which is called ‘Broad Quay, Bristol’. The work is attributed to Dutch immigrant Philip Vandyke who had settled in the city and classified as an example of ‘naïve’ art. The label is supposed to imply such qualities as naturalness, innocence and ‘artlessness’. This is a misnomer. The unfortunate term also carries with it associations of the primitive, the amateur, and the non-academic (i.e. lacking formal education). This is a value statement, underlining the inadequacies of our critical jargon. There is no such species as naïve art. Art history, more than any other academic discipline, suffers from the snobbery of its subject and the pomposity of its practitioners. There is probably more waffle in art criticism than there is in psychoanalysis (and that takes some doing).
The study of European art has been suffocated by its long classical legacy and the overwhelming riches of its heritage. Ever since the Grand Tour, which was an education at best and an expression of sophisticated boredom at worst, fine art has become the realm of aristocrats and scholars who have thrown up barriers of taste that persist to this day. However, when it comes to the genre of town- and streetscape, ‘naïve’ painting has made a substantial contribution to its development, influencing artists such as John Atkinson Grimshaw and culminating in the work of L.S. Lowry. They continued a tradition that preceded the cult of individuality and originality that dates back to Romanticism. The ‘naïve’ artist used whatever was available to him, freely lifting details or compositional aspects from various sources, either painted or printed. Technique and virtuosity always remained subordinate to the subject matter of the picture. In order to supply as many details as possible in his townscape, the artist would be totally unconcerned to distort perspective and optical facts in order to enhance the effect upon the mind’s eye.
We have inherited our critical jargon largely from the nineteenth century. In Britain, John Ruskin was the pre-eminent art critic of his time. He provided the impetus that gained respectability for the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1870, he was appointed the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford and then, removing to the Lake District, he helped to start the Environmental Movement out of concern for the deformation of the landscape caused by the cancerous expansion of industry. Ruskin’s linking of art and social reform struck a chord at the time. The tension between two interpretations of art persisted throughout his day. On the one hand there is the theory that claims that creative activity is an end in itself. Art should be independent of all claptrap (in the words of Ruskin’s great opponent James McNeill Whistler); it should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confounding this with such emotions as devotion, pity or patriotism. This stance is opposed by those who regard the creative act as a means, a vehicle for carrying a religious conviction, a social program, or a moral message.
Art serves society. Ruskin’s belief in the power of art to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution led him inexorably into the political arena. The ambition to link aesthetics to public commitment was based on the presumption that a just social order would inspire new depths of artistic expression, and that a flourishing of creativity in turn would deepen the desire for a more ‘beautiful’ society. In this clash of ideas between grand aesthetic ambitions there was no place for the practitioner of naïve art. His work was side-lined, hidden in the dusty attic of amateurism, banned from the glossy magazines of artistic fineries. As an artist, he was doomed to remain an outsider. And yet, there is plenty of aesthetic pleasure and factual information to be gained from the contemplation of such works of art. What these paintings may lack in composition, they gain in observation. There is delight in detail, love for signs and lettering, a keen eye for human enterprise and activity. Many of the urban images are snapshots of the here and now. They do not pay tribute to some grand aesthetic theory or academically defined ideal of beauty. The education of such artists differed fundamentally from what was taught at the academies.
Harp Alley, Shoe Lane, formerly called Harper Alley, was for many years the centre for sign painting and sign-irons (the carved grapes or gilded sugar-loaves that served as pendants). Hogarth loved to visit the sign painting shops in Harp Alley for the purpose of introducing some of their original and unorthodox subjects into his pictures. Sign and coach painting offered aspiring artists an effective training and education in their art and craft. The importance of being educated in the vernacular language of art is exemplified in the careers of a number of academic artists. Royal academician Charles Carton was in early life a coach and sign painter and Robert Smirke, also a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, served his time under a herald painter of the name of Bromley. John Baker, another Royal academician, was well known for decorating coach panels with borders and wreaths of flowers.
George Morland also painted signs. He is credited with sign for the Goat in Boots, an alehouse on the Fulham Road; one for the White Lion at Paddington; and for the sign of the Cricketers near Chelsea Bridge. For Morland painting signs was a way of settling his outstanding bills. In one instance he charged a fee of ‘unlimited gin’. In contrast to this sort of empirical training, art academies focused on correct ways of drawing and on theoretical issues of aesthetics.
Until the Industrial Revolution urban skylines were punctuated by their churches in towns and by their cathedrals in cities. Vandyke’s view shows the town centre of Bristol with the towers of St Mark’s on the left and those of St Michael’s in the distance. Ships were once able to sail right into the heart of the city on a section of the River Frome (which is now surfaced). The shipping in the river reflects the large amount of trade into and out of the docks. Workers are unloading a ship using the dockside crane, and merchants stand discussing business amongst the workmen and shoppers. The depiction of a sled being used for carrying merchandise was peculiar to Bristol: wheeled vehicles were not allowed in the streets of the old city, because their weight could cause damage to the storage cellars just beneath the roads and pavements.
Sleds ‘to carry all things about’ are already mentioned by Celia Fiennes in the journal notes of her visit to Bristol in 1698. The daughter of a Colonel in Cromwell’s army, she had already been travelling England’s roads for more than a decade before she set off on her ‘Great Journey to Newcastle and Cornwall’. She worked up her notes into a travel memoir which she never published, intending it for family reading only (an issue for feminists to comment upon). Robert Southey published extracts in 1812, and the first complete edition appeared in 1888 under the title Through England on a Side Saddle (a scholarly edition titled The Journeys of Celia Fiennes was produced by Christopher Morris in 1947). Fiennes describes commerce, industry, bustling cities, and emerging fashionable spa towns such as Bath. She showed a lively interest in the ‘productions and manufactures of each place’ she visited. Her curiosity in urban economic activity anticipates the claims with which Daniel Defoe would advertise his travelogue A Tour through the Whole Islands of Great Britain (1724/6). Fiennes was a dispassionate observer, but Defoe turned travel writing into a professional enterprise, a formal survey and accounting of the national stock. His book founded the modern genre of ‘economic tourism’. Breaking with the antiquarian tradition established with the 1586 publication of William Camden’s topographical survey Britannia, Defoe highlighted trade and industry as the foundation of the nation’s wealth. He looks to the future, whilst Camden contemplated the past. Patriotic commitment to progress and reform was a staple of this approach.
The Industrial Revolution forever changed the face of the city. Expansion in trade and manufacture required centralized places of production, distribution, exchange, and credit, as well as a system of communication and transport. All these demands led to a vast increase in urbanization. In 1801 about a fifth of the British population lived in towns and cities of 10,000 or more inhabitants. By the year of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the census recorded three-quarters of the population as urban. In the course of a single century a largely rural society had become an urban one. The Industrial Revolution changed every aspect of human lifestyle. The application of coal fundamentally altered social and environmental history. The Industrial Revolution produced more goods for consumption, but in the production process natural resources were ruthlessly exploited, industrial waste polluted both street and soil, and harmful fumes darkened the sky. Factories, warehouses and chimneys blocked out most natural light in cities and towns. Steam was used to power the factory machines and the burning coal produced an ‘ink-sea of vapour, black, thick, and multifarious as Spartan broth’ (Thomas Carlyle). The streets of the industrial cities were covered with greasy dirt. A rise in urban population exacerbated the effects of pollution. Increased consumption in turn led to new levels of waste. City life became unbearable. Industrialized Britain produced a new cityscape, one that was broken by smoking factory chimneys. It took some time for artists to incorporate the grim reality of urban living into their art. It was left to Gustave Doré, a regular visitor to Britain from France, to depict the horror of London’s slums.
Vandyke’s ‘naïve’ view of Bristol, like Fiennes’s travelogue, is an attempt at social documentary. In documenting the development towards urbanization Vandyke and other painters occupied a largely unexplored territory. They had to express new spectacles of city life and urban activity in an idiom without clear precedent. In those days preceding photography, the artist strove for topographical completeness – which is not entirely the same as accuracy – as if creating a document of record. This attempt is illustrated by a telling detail in Vandyke’s painting. From the late 1300s to the mid-eighteenth century, Bristol’s main income was related to seaborne trade, and ship owners were always looking for lucrative new routes and additional business opportunities. By the eighteenth century Bristol was England’s second port, and as a result of growing prosperity a building and investment boom took place in the city. Local merchants lobbied King William III to be allowed to participate in the African trade which was a crown monopoly granted to the Royal African Company. They were given the right to trade in slaves in 1698. From this year to the end of British slave trade in 1807, just over 2,100 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages, amounting to around 500,000 Africans who were forced into slavery on the British-owned islands in the Caribbean where they were put to work on the plantations.
Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade peaked between 1730 and 1745 with the city becoming the leading slaving port. Only a few Africans ended up in Bristol while the trade was active, mostly as servants or as crew on board ships. Vandyke’s painting includes a black figure in a frock coat and wig at the quayside which suggests that these black Bristolians were accepted into the local working class community. The fate of black people in London and elsewhere deteriorated after the arrival of a substantial number of slave soldiers who had fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War (Black Loyalists). These former soldiers were deprived of pensions and forced into beggary due to a lack of work and racial discrimination.
The high visibility of deprived black people in London is evidenced by William Hogarth’s 1738 engraving ‘Four Times a Day: Noon’. Hogarth also seems to suggest a degree of ‘integration’ of blacks into the society of white poor. So much so that in 1768 magistrate John Fielding complained that black slaves who had run away from their owners were difficult to recapture since they gained the protection of London’s ‘mob’. In 1786, botanist Henry Smeathman proposed a plan to ‘remove the burthen of the Blacks from the public forever’. The government adopted his Sierra Leone Scheme in which black people were encouraged to sign a ‘repatriation’ agreement. On 9 April 1787 three vessels left London with 350 black passengers on board. During the voyage itself thirty-five of them died, many others succumbed in the grim and hostile surroundings of their ‘new’ home. By 1791, there were only sixty survivors.