Editorial note: this piece was written in 2017 and does not reflect the range of artworks on the site that have been added thanks to Art UK's sculpture project. Additionally, as of 2020, we are actively working with collections to change the problematic and racist titles of artworks, and ultimately working on ways to help find and surface these artworks that isn't via a search for racist or outdated terms.
Art UK is the database of the nation's public art collection and, as of 2017, in particular its paintings. These artworks are to be found in civic buildings, local and national galleries, universities and other institutions across the UK. The vast majority of these images are of oil paintings. Oils were, for centuries, the pre-eminent material for painting important works.
The question is – who are these oil paintings of? Who were the artists behind them? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about the relative homogeneity of the subjects of this art? In other words – how can we account for the apparent lack of ethnic diversity in national collections?
How to look
At the time of writing, in 2017, there were over 200,000 works on the Art UK database, dating from as far back as the 1400s.
While there have certainly been people of African descent in the UK since the Roman era, and of Asian descent for many centuries, they existed in relatively small numbers until the British Empire came into being. Even then, the proportion of BAME people in the UK was tiny compared to today, where around 13% of the UK population is recorded as being of black, Asian or minority ethnic descent.
Equally, the majority of pre-Second World War era BAME Britons would have been among the working class, who were least likely to be painted – although there were some notable royal, royal-adjacent (such as favourites or servants) military and cultural figures.
It's worth noting that other early visual art forms in the UK featured black subjects, such as the Tudor Royal court musician John Blanke, who is featured on the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll illuminated manuscript (believed to be by the workshop of Thomas Wriothesley). This work is now held by the College of Arms.
But how would a visitor to the site find these images and who or what would they find? For this study, I started by searching the Art UK website by certain key terms – African, Black, Asian, Indian, Negro, Caribbean, Chinese and Arab.
The largest number of entries was for 'Indian', which included Native American and West Indian people, as well as many British colonial and military figures with some kind of relationship to India. 'Africa' was next, with lots of paintings of flora, animals, British explorers and colonials, amongst depictions of African peoples, and a lovely sketch of Degas' Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, a portrait of the celebrated mixed heritage acrobat in action.
'Asian' only brought up images relating to South Asia, and included landscapes and copies of cave paintings alongside a few Indian artists, as well as images of people of the subcontinent.
The search term 'Chinese' led to images that illustrated the seventeenth- to nineteenth-century fashion for Chinoiserie, a European colonial version of 'Chinese' style, as well as portraits and artists of the Chinese School. 'Arab' referenced lots of paintings of mainly men in social spaces, painted in what we presume are their countries of origin. 'Negro' brought up a small number of works, the last of which is from 1978 – a rather archaic use of the term even then. 'Black' mainly leads to images where black objects – scarves, hats, and coats – are described in the work's title, or where black forms are the subjects themselves. The twenty-first-century researcher is reminded of the need to consider how these terms have been used at different points in the history of this country.
Oil painting in the UK
Firstly, lets go back and consider the history of oil painting in the UK, which until the British Empire was in full swing was a pretty isolated island. Whilst the revolutionary Renaissance was taking place in mainland Europe in the 1500s – changing the face of painting forever – Britain was not as developed in terms of its visual art. Instead, the fields of literature and scientific exploration were areas where these islands were making significant contributions to world knowledge. For visual art, particularly religious history paintings and royal portraits, the innovations were rising out of the Netherlands and Italy.
It took migration to bring the magic of oils to the UK.
Dutch master Jan van Eyck was a pioneer in the use of stable oil paints, experimenting by mixing raw pigment with oils, boiled bones and other materials – a marriage of art and science that allowed the artist to depict the effects of light with greater subtlety and freedom. You can see his mastery of the medium in his most famous painting, The Arnolfini Portrait (full title Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, often referred to as the Arnolfini Marriage).
Others built on Van Eyck's work, including Antonello da Messina, Leonardo da Vinci and Peter Paul Rubens who, with his pupil Anthony van Dyck, bought oils to the UK in the 1630s when he was commissioned to paint portraits of King Charles I and his family. The King was a keen art collector, adept at using painting as a form of soft power, cementing the status of the royal family. He also convinced Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter, the celebrated painter Artemisia, to settle in England.
Van Dyck also provided us with one of the early black subjects in Art UK's database.
From this point British artists eventually began to utilise the medium in ways that become more culturally distinct: from William Hogarth's decidedly British, lively, earthy subjects from among all stratas of British society – including black members of the English working class – to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and George Stubbs in the eighteenth century and the Pre-Raphaelites in the nineteenth century.
The portrait, or: who is worthy of remembrance?
To help us to consider what stories the Art UK database tells us about the UK, it's worth considering the function of the most popular forms of these paintings – the landscape and, in particular, the portrait. Who was able to commission portraits and for what purpose?
In the 1500s, royalty could afford to commission an artist working in oils. As we move forward in time, an expanded aristocracy and moneyed class of wealthy landowners, philanthropists and merchants (many of whom would have gained their wealth from the enslavement and exploitation that the characterised empire overseas) and the clergy hierarchy were also able to afford the prohibitively expensive cost of such a commission.
As we move through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we can certainly find more BAME subjects in the Art UK database, as the size of their populations in the UK grew, and also as a result of colonial expansion – as shown through images of Africans, Asians and Caribbeans in the colonies and the UK. There is a suite of paintings of Indian military figures on the database, for example. Painting was also used as a tool by the anti-slavery movement – presenting images of the real people behind the debates, and also in the form of portraits of notable anti-slavery campaigners such as Olaudah Equiano.
Moving into the twentieth century, we do see some BAME subjects – in the interwar years in particular. By now, the commission is no longer the necessary origin of a work – artists are painting for their own ends.
The collection also features a small number of works by artists of South Asian heritage (for example works by Bhupen Khakhar), and in the late-twentieth century some early works by artists who came of age on the 1980s UK Black Arts Movement, such as Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper as well as a couple of works by Chris Ofili.
Meanwhile, some of the most common contemporaneously commissioned oil portraits are of mayors, who are usually white men.
I think it is fair to say that oil painting is no longer perceived to be the revolutionary medium it was 500 years ago. Contemporary artists are more likely to work with a range of materials including installation, video, sculpture, performance and painting with a variety of materials. While oil painting is no longer reliant upon a secret recipe – or indeed is no longer prohibitively expensive – it does require sufficient space and ventilation to make it a safe material to work with. It will be interesting to see what influence the inclusion of a greater number of sculptures on Art UK has on the visibility of BAME artists and subjects available on the database.
Might these reasons – and many others – also go some way to explaining why the more contemporary works in the Art UK collection also do not feature a greater number of BAME artists and subjects? The works available are predominantly in a medium that is no longer the primary aspirational medium for contemporary artists (although there are many artists making wonderful work in oils). The types of oil paintings commissioned reflect the reality of who is elected to high civic office, or historically who has belonged to the aristocracy, military or royal family.
In that respect the oil paintings available via Art UK reflect the ruling class' historical view of whose lives were important enough to record visually, and the contemporary artistic competition oil painting as a medium faces. But if we know how to look, examples of how complicated the nation's history truly is can be found.
Sonya Dyer, artist, writer and PhD candidate at Middlesex University