Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn
Etching/Engaving, 16 3/4 x 21 1/4 in.
By the middle of the 18th century there were between 10-15,000 black people living in London. The development of the slave trade from the mid 17th century brought many more African people to the UK. However not all black people at this time were slaves.
Hogarth’s prints of life in London feature black performers in pageants as well as black actresses and dressers. The picture ‘Strolling Actresses in a Barn’ shows a group of touring actresses in various states of undress as they prepare for that evening’s performance of ‘The Devil to Pay’ at the George Inn in South London.
Men at this time could pay to peek at the actresses changing. The figure in the centre of the image looking out at the viewer appears to be performing for us, and casts us as one of these Peeping Toms.
The print also shows the presence of black people in
London at the time: to the right a black woman is darning the stockings of an actress; and on the left, a black actress dressed as Aurora (the goddess of dawn) picks lice off the collar of a kneeling colleague whose costume has a mermaid’s tail.
The engraving shows a seedy, disordered side to a play filled with magic and goddesses, but also illustrates the normality of a black presence in English working class communities.
‘I’d love to be in a period drama – that’s my obsession. But being a mixed-race actress, there aren’t so many roles you’re right for. There are lots of period stories to be told with ethnic people in them, but the stories that are being told are not those ones. And that’s frustrating. No, it’s not an easy industry, but so far I have been lucky, so I will keep going.’ – Antonia Thomas