Immigrant Contributions to British Arts

Immigrant Contributions to British Arts

Last week, when the Daily Express emblazons their website with the headline ‘EU Wants Migrants to Take Our Jobs‘ , you know it’s definitely time to cut through this hysteria, and remind ourselves of some of the many enriching contributions that immigrants have made to our country, both throughout history and in more recent times.

This week the focus is on the world of the Arts; from impresarios to impressionists.

We start with an individual whose story is so amazing it could be mistaken for fiction; Ignatius Sancho (nicknamed at the time as ‘the extraordinary negro’). Ignatius Sancho’s story is one of many historical ‘firsts’, a groundbreaking individual and a testament to the possibilities of human achievement from the unlikeliest of beginnings. Sancho was born on a slave ship in 1729 and in 1731 taken to England and put under the care of three sisters in Greenwich, London. Whilst a young man he became acquainted with the Duke of Montague who ended up providing him with an education and a job.

A portrait of Ignatius Sancho
Ignatius Sancho

When the Duke died, he was left with an annuity, with this, and money from a valet job, he opened a greengrocer in Westminster. Alongside this he wrote a book a published A Theory of Music and two plays! He became the first black person to vote in a parliamentary election, and continued to write for newspapers under a pseudonym. When he died he became the first African to receive an obituary in British press. His own memoirs were published two years later, which sold extremely well.

Backtracking through history, we turn to 1526 when painter Hans Holbein first came to England and remained until his death in 1543. Described by the BBC as ‘one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th Century’, he is probably most famous for his painting of King Henry VIII. If you fancy seeing more of Holbein’s work, then head down to the National Gallery to see his painting ‘The Ambassadors’, completed in 1533.

Returning to the 1700’s, a giant of classical music and opera; George Frideric Handel. Born in Germany in 1685, but became a British citizen in 1727. He is often regarded as one of the the greatest composers in history, composing over 40 operas, and was greatly respected in his time as well as through his legacy. Perhaps one of his most famous works, especially as we come up to christmas, will be recognised in the opera ‘Messiah’, and specifically the piece ‘Hallelujah’;

Moving swiftly forward, London 2012 was an unabashed triumph and surely made us all proud to be British and surely part of this was the wonderful Olympic Park. The ‘Orbit’ Olympic tower at 115m tall, is Britains largest piece of public art and despite your own opinion, undeniably, an iconic structure. It was designed by indian born Anish Kapoor who has lived in London since the early 1970’s. Anish Kapoor is one of our most celebrated sculptors and has created public art pieces all over the world.

The Arcelor-Mittal Orbit Tower in QE2 Park, Stratford
The Arcelor-Mittal Orbit Tower in QE2 Park, Stratford

Another of our most celebrated artists throughout the mid 20th and 21st century can be found in Paula Rego. Born in Portugal in 1935, but now a naturalised British citizen, Rego has been the recipient of a plethora of awards including 4 honorary doctorates. She has 43 works in collections of the British Council, 10 works in the Arts Council of England and 46 works in the Tate Galleries. Her works also have strong themes of equality, specifically gender equality, having been strongly influenced by feminist literature growing up.

But of course our rich history of arts in Britain cannot be credited entirely to the artists, but those that helped the scene flourish. With that in mind, our final modern immigrant contributor is not an artist, but a supporter of them. Everyone knows the Saatchi name, and the images created by their advertising firm have been in the background to many of our everyday lives. Charles Saatchi and his family were of Iraqi birth, brought to Britain as children. He has created a legacy in this country with his broad art collection, the Saatchi Gallery and his patronage of the Young British Arts Group which includes artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

This brief highlight reel of British art history has hopefully highlighted how many figures key to our collective history of the arts in Britain have roots as immigrants. Our nation’s ability to welcome individuals and groups and nurture their talent has been something we should all take pride in.

By Oliver Sheldrick

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