For the past three years Caroline Bressey and I have been researching interwar Black history in relation to London’s art world. The African and Asian presence in Britain in this period is fascinating and crucial to our understanding of modern British history, yet it has been systematically neglected within British historiography. Those who have worked to combat this neglect include Hakim Adi, who has published several important books reflecting on anti-colonial, Pan-African and communist politics in relation to the African diaspora in the early twentieth century; Rozina Visram, who has published pioneering works on Asian history in modern Britain; and Susheila Nasta, who led the recent Making Britain project.
In our work, we have explored how artists, anti-colonial and Pan-African activists, writers, musicians, performers and others from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds interacted with each another. Our focus has been on exploring the lives and biographies of artist models and artists of African and Asian heritage. Some of these stories can be seen until 4 October 2015 in the Spaces of Black Modernism display we co-curated at Tate Britain. The highlighting of Black histories in national museum and gallery spaces, such as the Tate, is vital yet remains relatively uncommon within the permanent collections of Britain’s national heritage spaces.
As part of the Spaces of Black Modernism programme, The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern symposium was held at Tate Britain in conjunction with Tate Public Programmes in February 2015. This symposium included talks on a range of subjects, focusing on African and Asian histories and visual representations in British art, and included talks exploring representations of black people in the domesday abbreviato, African and Asian subjects in art of the early modern period, and the life stories of African and Asian heritage artist models. As part of the day, I curated a temporary display with the Tate Library and Archives, focusing in part on the archive of the Jamaican artist Ronald Moody. In Spaces of Black Modernism, the work and life of Ronald Moody is highlighted through his personal archive and his 1930s sculpture. Moody is a key figure in any understanding of black interwar life and black artistic expression in London, in interwar avant garde art and in African diasporic identity. Ronald Moody’s archive is housed in the Tate Archives, thanks to the care of Moody’s niece Cynthia Moody, who was a trustee to his archive and who also wrote about his life and art in articles published in Third Text and Transition.
Ronald Moody was born in Jamaica in 1900 and migrated to Britain in 1923 to study as a dentist at the Royal Dental Hospital, King’s College, London. His brother Harold Moody, a medical doctor, was already living in Peckham and was a prominent anti-racist campaigner. Harold experienced various forms of racism living in London, including professionally. As David Killingray writes, Harold was ‘rejected for a hospital post at King’s College Hospital because of his colour, he set up a medical practice in Peckham, south London, where he remained for the rest of his life.’ Harold went onto found the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, an organisation, which campaigned against racism, organised community events bringing together different communities, and published its own quarterly journal The Keys. Those who played a prominent role in the League included Jamaican feminist poet and activist Una Marson, who lived in London in the 1930s. Marson’s 1937 poetry book, The Moth and the Star, includes reflections on her experiences as a black woman in 1930s London, and this as well as the transcript of an interview with Moody by Marson, features in Spaces of Black Modernism.
In migrating to Britain to train as a dentist, Ronald joined a number of students of African and Asian heritage. Exploring shipping returns, student publications such as the Indus (the journal of The Indian Students‘ Union and Hostel) or Wãsù the West African Students’ Union journal, educational publications and student registration forms, reveal the diversity of the black student population at this time. In 1926, fellow students studying alongside Ronald at the Royal Dental Hospital included H.S. Wan from China and R.M. Postwala from India. Rustam Muncherii Postwala went onto settle in London and set up a practice in Willesden around 1928. Caribbean students training at King’s College Hospital at the same time as Ronald Moody included H.H. Brown and T.V. Crichlow. Students of African and Asian heritage lived in shared houses and hostels, but were subject to racism when trying to find private accommodation. Racism in housing was one of the key issues Ronald’s brother, Harold, campaigned against within the League of Coloured Peoples.
Although Ronald initially studied dentistry his career was to follow a different direction after he developed a passion for both philosophy and sculpture. In the words of Cynthia Moody, ‘in London, he took advantage of the cornucopia of books available to him and became passionately interested in philosophy, progressing from Plato to gnosticism and the metaphysics of India and China.’ He also began socialising with artists and writers and visited art galleries and museums. It was in the late 1920s after contemplating the Egyptian sculpture in the galleries in the British Museum that Ronald decided he wanted to become a sculptor. He recalled this significant turning point in several interviews. In a 1950 interview for the radio programme ‘Anything to Declare?’ he said ‘When I was studying dentistry I had no thought of turning to sculpture, although the knowledge of anatomy that dentistry requires has proved extremely valuable. It was while in the Egyptian Room at the British Museum that a sudden revelation came to me and I felt that sculpture was my real medium.’ The British Museum was a significant social and educational space for many people of African and Asian heritage in London in the early twentieth century, particularly the reading rooms which were used by activists including Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay.
Ronald Moody qualified as a dentist in 1930. By this time he had also started sculpting and soon decided to make this the focus of his career. From the start his sculptures reflected not only his love of art but also his interest in mythology and philosophy. Setting up a studio in his greenhouse at the back of his flat near Regent’s Park, Ronald started to work in woodcarving. He completed the carvings Wohin in 1935, Johanaan in 1936, Midonz in 1937 and Tacet in 1938. Cynthia Moody believed that in each of these three pieces was manifest ‘Ronald’s passionate concern with the exploration of the inner life of man and the possibility of evolution through self-awareness.’ During 1938-1939 he produced twelve sculptures. Tacet is now on display in the National Gallery of Jamaica, as part of their permanent collection.
Ronald took part in a number of key international exhibitions in the 1930s. His artwork was included in the 1935 Adams Gallery, Pall Mall Place exhibition on ‘Negro Art’, which included contemporary and historical artworks from people of African heritage and artworks from ‘English artists’ inspired by African cultures. He also exhibited in Liverpool at the Walker Art Gallery in 1936-1937, going on to hold two solo shows, first in Paris in 1937 and then Amsterdam in 1938. In a 1943 radio interview with Una Marson for ‘Calling the West Indies’, he spoke of his Paris show, where he exhibited ‘fifteen pieces, of which nine were carvings, two bronzes and four portraits’. Ronald then decided to stay in Paris where he ‘continued exhibiting at various annual shows, including the Salon d’Automne and the Tuilerios.’ It was here that he married his partner, Helene Coppel-Cowan, an artist and someone he had known for many years while living in London.
Ronald was producing his work at the time as the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, where in the United States African-American writers, editors, musicians and artists in New York but also cities such as Chicago, were creating works reflecting on personal and political explorations of identity, race, gender, African culture and traditions and challenging American racism and white racial supremacy. African-American scholar, philosopher and art critic Alain Locke documented this process in his publications. Within the context of creating knowledge and links about artists of African heritage working within the diaspora, the New York-based organisation the Harmon Foundation were interested in the work Moody was undertaking in Europe. In August 1938 Evelyn S. Brown, the Assistant director of the Foundation, sent a letter to Honorable James S. Watson, asking about Moody. The letter, a copy of which is in the Ronald Moody archive, states:
‘For a number of years the Harmon Foundation has been interested in improving race relations through recognition of the achievements of Negroes, particularly in the field of art. In this connection we have been accumulating information about Negro artists in this country and have been keeping records of their work.
We recently heard of a Mr. Ronald Moody, sculptor, of Jamaican, W.I., ancestry and would like to find out more about him if possible. Mr. Elmer Carter, Editor of Opportunity*, suggested that you might possibly be able to help us.’
Evelyn S. Brown eventually managed to make contact with Moody while he was living in Paris, via the writer and critic Marie Seton, who was a friend of Moody’s. In October 1938 Brown wrote to Moody asking him if he would be interested in including his work in the Harmon Foundation’s co-organised exhibition on the work of ‘Negro Artists’, due to take place at the Baltimore Museum of Art the following year. For this exhibition entitled ‘Contemporary Negro Art’, Moody sent over twelve pieces of work. Included in the archival material at the Tate display is the correspondence from the Harmon Foundation on this exhibition; some of the other artists who took part included Aaron Douglas, Palmer C. Hayden, Louise E. Jefferson, Richmond Barthé, Jacob Lawrence, and Archibald J. Motley.
With the beginning of World War Two, it became difficult to secure the return of the pieces. Acting on Moody’s behalf, Marie Seton managed to get eleven pieces back to London, but due to its size, Midonz was not returned and was never sent back to Moody. Cynthia Moody recalled, ‘over the course of my research, I came to realize how much Midonz had meant to Ronald, and that he had never really reconciled himself to its loss.’ After much research, she eventually managed to track down Midonz and it was returned to Britain. In 1993 Cynthia located the sculpture in Virginia at Hampton University Museum and discovered the Foundation had loaned it to the museum in 1958, and for the last twenty years it had been kept in storage. It is now part of the permanent Tate collection and can be seen in the current display.
When the Second World War broke out Ronald and his wife Helene, who was Jewish, were living in Paris. After the German invasion, the couple had a traumatic escape from France. The Harmon Foundation contributed to a fund set up to get Ronald and Helene out of France and again in October 1940 the Harmon Foundation wrote to the ‘Emergency Rescue Commission’* in New York asking for help in getting them both out of Marseilles. Cynthia Moody describes how ‘every organisation and individual likely to be able to help was importuned on their behalf: the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the Governor in Jamaica, the American Embassy in London, the Red Cross in Geneva and the Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. All to no avail’.
Ronald reflected on his escape in the 1943 interview with Una Marson, stating that he and Helene had left Paris two days before the German army arrived. They managed to get a train to Tours and then eventually managed to get to Bordeaux. Thereafter, they continued to travel south, mostly walking, to Marseilles. Ronald remembered that ‘for days we walked miles and miles, sleeping under hedges.’ He thought they would be there for a just a few weeks but Helene did not escape for another nine months. Ronald was in France for fifteen months after the invasion, having to change address every few weeks, hiding from the authorities.
When in France and also in London after escaping, Moody reflected on his experiences of war in poetry and short stories. In his archive at Tate there are several examples of poetry he published in the Royal Dental Hospital magazine. The war and post-war writings were, as far as I am aware, never published, but they sit in his archive collection and illustrate an important aspect of his artistic, philosophical and creative work, reflecting how his experiences of war shaped his ideas and philosophies on life, and in turn, his art.
Spaces of Black Modernism runs until 4 October 2015 at Tate Britain
Ronald Moody’s art and life was explored in the 2014 A Fusion of Worlds exhibition co-curated by the author and Debbie Challis. An online educational resource based on the exhibition will go live on the Equiano Centre website in early summer 2015.
*Opportunity was one of the key African-American periodicals of the time.
*The name of this organisation was the Emergency Rescue Committee, see here
Students from other Countries in The Universities and University Colleges of Great Britain and Ireland in October 1926, London: Universities Bureau of the British Empire
‘Calling the West Indies’ Ronald Moody interviewed by Una Marson, 31 January 1943, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
Typed script, Interview with Ronald Moody, “Anything to Declare?”, Compiled by Robert Buckland, Edited and produced by Alfred Dunning, Broadcast 1950, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
Poems by Ronald Moody published in the Royal Dental Hospital Magazine, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
Copy of typed letter from Evelyn S. Brown, Harmon Foundation, to Honorable James S. Watson, 18 August 1938, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
Copy of typed letter from Evelyn S. Brown, Harmon Foundation, to Ronald Moody, 6 October 1938, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
Copy of typed letter from Mary Beattie Brady, Harmon Foundation, to The Emergency Rescue Commission, 22 October 1940, Ronald Moody Collection, Tate Archives, TGA 956
R. Postwala in the British Phone Books, 1880-1984, via ancestry.co.uk
Killingray, David. ‘To do something for the race’: Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples in Schwarz, Bill (ed.) West Indian intellectuals in Britain, Manchester University Press, 2003.
Moody, Cynthia. ‘Midonz’, Transition, No. 77 (1998), pp. 10-18.
Moody, Cynthia. ‘Ronald Moody: A man true to his vision’, Third Text, Volume 3, No. 8-9 (1989), pp. 5-24
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Gemma Romain, The Equiano Centre (@EQCentre), University College London
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