A Head Turning Figurine
I was recently asked to choose an object from the extensive V&A ceramics collection to be displayed in a cabinet alongside the choices of my comrades and studio mates at Studio Manifold. It was to be a piece that I found inspiring or intriguing, an object that in some way represented ideas or thoughts behind my own work. When searching through the vast array of wonderful pieces I came across a Staffordshire figuring Uncle Tom and Eva.
Upon first glance this piece stopped me in my tracks and instinctively provoked an uncomfortable reaction, an automatic shudder. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the man in the piece is minstrel-esque. The blacker than black skin against his exaggerated red lips provide an instinctive unease. The fact that there is a young white girl stood on the man’s lap confuses, this clearly isn’t the man’s own daughter, unless he is a white man in make up. This situation clearly requires further investigation.
I am ashamed to say that until I saw this object I had no knowledge of the book to which it relates – Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe . For those of you as ignorant as I when it comes to extremely important American history, this book was seen as a catalyst in the start of the American civil war. When Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”At the time that it was published as a novel (it had already been previously published as a series in an anti-slavery Newspaper The National Era) the book sold a record 10,000 copies in it’s first week of print in the U.S and went to sell 3 million copies in the first year and in the U.K it sold 1.5 million copies in one year. The book was translated into 60 different languages and was popular across the globe. For the mid 19th century, this was no mean feat.
In the plot, the main character of the story Uncle Tom is sold to Mr Haley, a less empathetic slave trader than his original master. During Tom’s transportation on a boat to his new owner he meets a young girl Eva. They become close friends. Tom saves Eva when she falls into the river and Eva’s father, indebted to Tom buys him and so he is taken to live with this family where he becomes even closer friends with Eva and they together both develop devout Christianity. Eva becomes very ill and eventually dies. Eva’s death has a massive effect on many of the characters including her father who decides that he wants to free Tom but before doing so gets stabbed and killed in a brawl.
Tom ends up being sold to another plantation where the owner is cruel and has a sex slave whom Tom helps to free. Tom is increasingly disliked by his owner. As a consequence of refusing to whip one of his fellow slaves Tom is beaten. As a result Tom dies a martyr and as he is dying forgives the violent master and the overseers.
Throughout the book there are a variety of different characters with a broad range of opinions about slavery and black people. The character Ophelia opposes slavery but is still deeply racist, then there are characters who sympathise with the slaves but feel they have no power to change things and therefore accept it. There is an uncomfortable thread that runs through the novel, which I fear was a reflection of many attitudes at the time and that is that slavery is wrong but there is still a huge distance and difference between white and black people. It is written in sympathy and not in empathy with a notion that black people should not fight back, they should forgive then in heaven they will be given eternal happiness.
Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, shortly after it’s release published a scathing review of Stowe’s novel, he said that Stowe had double standards and that she had a romanticised view of black people. In the novel itself Stowe wrote “the negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in heart a passion for all that is splendid, rich and fanciful.” This idea of difference, this exotic, romantic, ‘sit back and take it’ characteristic was something that Garrison strongly opposed. Perhaps the reason for this was Stowe’s lack of first hand experience of black people. Garrison was offended by the idea of non-resistance as a way of responding to the dreadful treatment of slaves.
There is no doubt that now we can read the book and see the awful racial stereotypes that were shamefully repeated time and time again. But it can’t be ignored that it played a huge part in the abolition of slavery. Through this sentimental vision of the kindly harmless Christian gent, this gentle hero who was willing to die before fighting Stowe played on the emotions of the romantic dewy-eyed Victorian reader. Seeing a poor victim who dies a Christian martyr perhaps helped move the audience more than if it was a battle of strengths, the shame of the under dog dying by our own hands is a difficult pill to swallow.
This Staffordshire figurine, this souvenir of popular culture in the V&A that inspired my original line of enquiry and journey of mixed attitudes and emotions is undoubtedly offensive. The way it is painted is probably a result of attitudes and thinking at the time. I can’t imagine that many of the people designing and painting the enamels in the Staffordshire Potteries had too often come across a black person, their references would have mainly been from literature and entertainment.
The piece has a resemblance to an earlier Staffordshire figurine of Jim Crow which can also be found in the V&A. Inspired by a man who apparently based his act on a black man who was a crippled street entertainer. Jim Crow was a character brought to life by Thomas D Rice, a white man who would blacken his face with a burnt cork and entertain the masses singing comedic songs reflective of current affairs and in between dancing in a twisted way replicating that of the arthritic man who originally inspired the act. So this figurine, which ironically is initially slightly less visually obscene to a contemporary viewer, is in fact a symbol of racism at it’s extreme. Whereas although Uncle Tom and Eva induces an impulsive reaction of unease, in fact upon closer inspection the story behind the piece can be said to have played a part in changing American life as we know it. At the time of the figure’s production it may have been no different to having a film poster of 12 Years a Slave on your wall (which admittedly would be a questionable choice of interior decoration). But the importance of it’s background is more relevant than one would ever had expected.
This idea of an object inducing certain emotions and these emotions being changed as we look closer is something that has always been of underlying importance in my own work. Something that may initially make you feel unnerved or moved in one way or another perhaps needs closer analysis. Always asking why has to lead to more interesting and intriguing things.
Uncle Tom and Eva can be seen in our cabinet ‘Shelfie‘ in the Ceramics department until tomorrow, but is also a part of the permanent V&A collection.