Art Fund kick-starts National Portrait Gallery appeal to save first British portrait of a Black African Muslim and freed slave

  • 7 July 2010

The Art Fund has given a grant of £100,000 to kick-start an appeal by the National Portrait Gallery to acquire the earliest known British oil painting of a freed slave and the first portrait that honours a named African subject as an individual and an equal.

The Gallery, which has also secured an HLF grant of £333,000 towards the acquisition and a project to cover costs for its conservation, display, interpretation and regional tour, now needs to raise a further £100,000 by 25 August 2010 to reach the £554,937.50 needed to secure this important painting for future generations.

Never before seen in public, and currently on display at the Gallery, this 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (known when he was in England as Job ben Solomon), shows the sitter painted in his national dress and wearing his copy of the Qur’an around his neck. The portrait, was sold at auction in Christies in December, and is now under a temporary export bar.

Among the appeal’s supporters are writers and broadcasters Bonnie Greer and Gus Casely-Hayford; Baroness Lola Young; artist Faisal Abdu'Allah and Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, says: ‘This portrait is of exceptional historical and sociological importance. Art Fund members have kick-started the campaign with a £100,000 grant and we now urge members of the public to help the National Portrait Gallery acquire the work for everyone to experience.’

Broadcaster and National Portrait Gallery Trustee, Zeinab Badawi, who is supporting the Appeal, says: ‘This portrait is a rare example of a painting of an eighteenth century African in Britain. This portrait would be a vital and powerful addition to the Collection at the National Portrait Gallery for its representation of Britain's diverse cultural heritage.’

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘This engaging portrait of Diallo offers a more complex history of the eighteenth century – it is a vital acquisition.’

History of the portrait

A high status African from a prosperous family of Muslim religious clerics, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born in the Gambia. At the age of 29 he was captured as a slave and transported to work on a plantation in America. After being imprisoned for trying to escape, he met the lawyer Thomas Bluett who after becoming aware of Diallo’s high birth, intellect and education took an interest in him and arranged to bring him to England in 1734, where he mixed with high society and had a lasting impact on Britain’s understanding of African culture, identity and religion.

During this time, he was received with great enthusiasm by aristocrats and scholars including the Duke of Portland and Sir Hans Sloane, who he helped with Arabic translations and his interest in the Qur’an. Sloane also arranged for Diallo to be presented at the Court of George II and later to be elected a member of the Gentleman’s Society at Spalding. His supporters also arranged for him to sit for this portrait, which is also the earliest known painting by the artist William Hoare of Bath. The conflict experienced by the sitter is recorded in a contemporary account which not only indicates the affection in which Diallo was held but sheds light on the practice of portraiture in England and other cultures:

‘Job’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr Hoare.’ (Bluett, Memoirs, p.50)

The artist has responded sensitively to Diallo’s personality by depicting him, at the sitter’s own request, in his national dress and carrying his copy of the Qur’an around his neck. The painting appears not to have been exhibited in public before, although it was engraved in 1734 and a version was published again in 1750.

Donations to the National Portrait Gallery Ayuba Suleiman Diallo Appeal can be made online at http://www.npg.org.uk/support/donation/diallo-appeal.php or by contacting:

Stephanie Weissman on 020 7321 6645 or sweissman@npg.org.uk 
Susie Holden on 0207 312 2454 or sholden@npg.org.uk.

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