Edwardian portrait photography
This is a photograph of Amy Barbour-James, who was born in London in 1906 to parents John and Caroline. The family relocated to London from British Guiana (present-day Guyana) in 1905, while John worked in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) from 1902 to 1917, spending his time on leave in London.
The photograph was taken in England and shows Amy as a toddler posed on a couch in a photographer’s studio. Although personal and portable cameras were in circulation by the Edwardian period, for the majority of the population, family photographs were taken in photographic studios, which existed in most major towns in Britain and in the colonies. The photograph of Amy’s mother Caroline in For the classroom gives an even clearer idea of a studio, with plants used as props to create the setting for the image. Amy is dressed in her best outfit and holds us with her serious gaze. The impact of time on the photograph is shown by the worn edges.
Photographs are vital sources for this period in history, but they need to be interrogated with the same rigour as text. Photographs were important markers of respectability and sitters, or in this case a sitter’s parents, could choose how to present themselves. Not only were they seized upon by all communities as a chance to record their family for posterity, but in the colonial period - at a time of racial inequality - photographs presented an opportunity for self-representation. Increasing numbers of photographs of colonised peoples have come to light recently, defying conventional ideas about the Victorian and Edwardian periods in particular. These collections reveal much about the large number of middlemen, such as the Barbour-James family, working in the service of the British Empire across the world.
Amy’s path within the movement for equal rights in Britain was inspired in large part by the work of her father. John Alexander Barbour-James was born in 1867 in British Guiana on the Caribbean coast of South America. He rose up the ranks of the postal service and spent his spare time trying to improve agricultural conditions amongst the Afro-Guianese, the communities descended from those who had been forcibly brought by Europeans to work on slave plantations. Wishing also to support the lives of agricultural communities in the Gold Coast, he took a post there in the early 1900s while his family settled in London in 1905. Through his networks in the Caribbean, London and Africa, he worked actively to promote agricultural and educational opportunities for the Gold Coast. After retiring in 1917 he devoted himself to promoting black achievements in Britain through lectures and participating in various societies and leagues. He remained loyal to the Empire, but highly aware of his ancestral links to West Africa and the Caribbean.
Barbour-James’ aims are made clear in the letterhead for his African Patriotic Intelligence Bureau founded in 1918: ‘Objects: to broadcast the appreciation by the African and African-descended peoples, of their contact with Great Britain, and the mutual benefits thereby conferred; to advocate the reasonable claims for opportunity for all men and women’. He was determined to demonstrate to Britons at large what is summed up by his words to a white audience in 1929: “…there is no difference between you and my kinsmen”. He was very involved in the League of Coloured Peoples , established in 1931. This group was the best known black civil rights organisation in the first half of the 20th century, devoted to improving the living and economic conditions of black people in Britain who were subject to discrimination in housing and employment. The League also worked to counter the stereotyped image of black people in the media. Barbour James and his second wife Edith visited the Caribbean in 1938 and did not return due to the outbreak of war. He died there in late 1954.
Amy’s work and recording of her family history
Amy joined the civil service and was active in the League of Coloured Peoples and other campaigns throughout her life. She became the League’s secretary in 1942, which was particularly significant given that she was a woman. She died in 1988. She kept much of her correspondence and photographs which record the ongoing campaigns by black people working within the system and remaining proudly British and loyal, yet also exposing inequalities and demanding improvements. The archive that she gave to historian Jeffrey Green and the interviews now in the black Cultural Archives are critical in ensuring these histories are preserved.
Two articles on the life of John Barbour-James by historian Jeffrey Green (1)
Two articles on the life of John Barbour-James by historian Jeffrey Green (2)
The League of Coloured Peoples
Information on Amy Barbour-James and the make-up of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942.
Extract from BBC dramatisation of Amy Barbour-James’s correspondence
black Cultural Archives
black Presence in Britain
Website about black British history
The Image of black
Website about the history of African representation in western culture.
100 Great Black Britons
Miranda Kaufmann: black presence in Europe
The historian Miranda Kaufmann regularly writes about the long history of the black presence in Europe.