:: Article

Model Unknown

By Anna Aslanyan.

You can read Aslanyan’s original piece about Angel House, written last year, here

  

Photos courtesy of Aslanyan.

A year is a long time in London life. As the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining pace on both sides of the Atlantic, Londoners responded to the global events variously by making, proposing or opposing changes to the fabric of the city. Some monuments to the dark past have now disappeared, others are on their way out; some have received a fair amount of scrutiny, others not so much. Calls to redress historical injustices have been heard from both ends of the political spectrum, with suggestions varying from the total erasure of racist legacies to their contextualisation and reinterpretation. The diversity of London’s public realm is under review; proposals have included a museum of slavery and a monument to the unknown slave.

A year is also a long time in the life of a writer who has just finished a book and is looking for a new subject. In April 2020, I wrote here about a London building that had piqued my interest. Angel House first caught my eye because of four decorative roundels on its facade, one of which proved especially intriguing. A sailing ship, a steam boat and a train were all par for the course with a warehouse, but if it had originally been designed to store tobacco, why did the fourth plaque feature a black man with a basket of cotton? Over the past year, I’ve managed to piece together the story – or at least enough of it to keep me interested.

The building was initially intended for Messrs Blundell, a firm trading in home furnishings and suchlike ‘fancy goods’. A turn in their fortunes meant that instead of moving to the new warehouse upon its completion in 1930, they took their business elsewhere, letting the premises, complete with the now irrelevant cotton motif, to International Tobacco. The more I learned about the history of the building, the more convinced I became that it deserved to be told. I began searching for the artist who had made the roundels, and after a few dead ends found a lead. My art historian contacts, based outside of London, promised to have a proper look at the plaques once able to travel again. Alas, their chances of identifying the artworks have now been reduced by a quarter.

Passing Angel House the other day, I looked up, excited at the opportunity to revisit the images whose origins I’d got so tantalisingly close to uncovering, and saw that one of them was no longer there. The cotton picker, his basket, the surrounding fields and mountains – everything had been painted dark blue. Staring at me was an empty circle the colour of biro ink; something that can be found in a book whose owner couldn’t be bothered to read it and covered the pages with doodles instead.

  

Photos courtesy of Aslanyan.

To change things you have to examine them first; to deface them, all you need is a lick of paint. The black labourer – a portrait of an unknown model by a not-yet-known artist – was never much noticed to begin with, and now he has been blued out altogether. This knee-jerk attempt to cancel history in one go has nothing to do with anti-racism and everything to do with tokenism. Historical amnesia relies on people’s tendency to paint the exploited and their exploiters with the same brush.

London has many more targets for virtue signallers. While waiting for the owner of Angel House to comment on their rash initiative (their response to my query has so far been limited to a circular email flogging their other properties), I’d like to make a modest proposal vis-à-vis the remaining roundels. They should all be removed as depictions of exploitation. The ship is sailed by a ragged crew, the officers working them hard to ensure prompt delivery of colonial goods. The steamer, also laden with plunder, will be unloaded by starving dockers. The train, its furnace tended by an exhausted stoker, is carrying yet more spoils from lands suffering under imperialism. These monsters must fall. By the same logic, London should also get rid of its numerous statues of window cleaners and shoe polishers, deal porters and fire inspectors, and indeed any workers portrayed in the process of being exploited by their capitalist bosses. Such symbols of oppression have no place in a democratic, diverse, unprejudiced and equal society.

A century is a short time in London life. Researching Angel House, I kept thinking of its – and, by extension, London’s – ability to absorb the past, changing yet not changing as a result. The building’s freshly vandalised look, resulting from an awkward attempt to sweep things under the carpet, will take a while to get used to. The roundel was, for those willing to look, a tribute to the unknown slave; an invitation to rethink art, architecture, colonialism, history. The blank circle left in its place is nothing but a monument to ignorance, its inky blue as dense as doodles in an unread book.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Photo courtesy of Aslanyan.

Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator from Russian. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and other publications. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is out with Profile in May 2021.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 26th, 2021.