Roman Emperors and Soldiers: Portraits shine light on forgotten African figures in the North East

The little-known role of six African, historical figures in English Heritage, is being highlighted in new art displays across the country.

Berwick and Corbridge are two of the sites that chosen to exhibit the historical figures' portraits, shedding light on their often forgotten stories in English history.

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England opened today (9 June). The artwork will be displayed at the forts, abbeys, historical houses and barracks where these individuals lived, visited or worked. 

Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks will be home to the image of Arthur Roberts (1897-1982) - a man of Trinidadian heritage, born in Bristol and brought up in Glasgow, who aged 20, enlisted with the King's Own Scottish Borderers Regiment in February 1917. The regimental base was in 18th century barracks in Berwick and, English Heritage says those within the regiment would have felt a strong affiliation with the barracks as both operational and emotional home. Arthur fought during the First World War and survived the Battle of Passchendaele. Chloe Cox, from Birmingham and of Caribbean heritage, is the artist behind the portrait. 

Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian's Wall will host the portrait of Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211), born in Leptis Magna which is now known as Al-Khums in Libya. Septimius travelled to Britain in AD 208. He strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reoccupied the Antonine Wall with a view to expanding his empire. The artist of this piece is Elena Onwochei-Garcia - inspired by her Spanish, German and Nigerian heritage, she uses a figurative style of working with oils.

Elena Onwochei-Garcia with her portrait of Roman emperor Septimius Severus Credit: English Heritage

The works have been commissioned by English Heritage and have been painted by artists who themselves identify as Black or mixed-heritage.

 The full collection of portraits and their artists include:

  • Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211) at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland by Elena Onwochei-Garcia

  • Arthur Roberts (1897-1982) at Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks, Northumberland by Chloe Cox

  • Abbot Hadrian (640-710) at St Augustine’s Abbey, Kent by Clifton Powell

  • James Chappell (c.1648-1730) at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire by Glory Samjolly

  • Dido Belle (1761-1804) at Kenwood, London by Mikéla Henry-Lowe

  • Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) at Osborne, Isle of Wight by Hannah Uzor

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