Between Two Worlds: Vanley Burke and Francis Williams display (V&A, South Kensington, London) Back

The last couple of years have witnessed a series of important changes, spurred on by both the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic on marginalised groups, when many organisations not only in Britain but across the global north and south, began to scrutinise how colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade have shaped and framed their policies and practices. Museums, schools, universities, and the Church, to name a few, have been seeking ways to uncover and communicate the hidden stories of colonialism and slavery, often as part of a wider strategy to decolonise and dismantle the systemic and structural inequalities embedded at the heart of our institutions. While some have questioned the extent to which contemporary exhibitions or the rewriting of museum narratives can change the structures of empire that remain central to many societies, the V&A’s display ‘Between Two Worlds: Vanley Burke and Francis Williams’ (2023) underscores the need to uncover the forgotten and often overlooked stories of the peoples and objects hiding in plain sight, especially in 2023; the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush. (Adams, M. A. (2017), Lonetree, A. (2012), Onciul, B. (2015)). Telling the stories of unheralded peoples and objects enables us to break these silenced voices artfully. As the BSECS annual conference’s Special Plenary Roundtable, ‘Eighteenth in the Twenty-First Century’ has shown, finding connections and resonances between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries can be of merit and encourages reflexivity. The V&A’s display makes enigmatic and valuable contributions to the debate.


Francis Williams consulting a book beside a globe.

Francis Williams, the Scholar of Jamaica, unknown artist, about 1745, Jamaica. Museum no. P.83&A-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Located in two separate but adjacent rooms, the notions of space and time, separation and interconnection, are at the heart of the V&A’s ‘Between two Worlds’ display, signalling the sense of being ‘in-between’, a third identity, that those who are part of the Jamaican diaspora in Britain often experience; as the writer and editor Deniz Nazim-Englund explains, ‘not completely British or Caribbean […], but something in between.’ (‘An Ocean Apart’, V&A Magazine-Summer 2023, 52-54 (54)). That sense of interconnection and separation is underscored by the title of the display, ‘Between two Worlds’, and is explored through the archive of personal objects, photographs and paintings selected to represent not only the history of the Jamaican diaspora, but also the lives of two men; the contemporary archivist and photographer, Vanley Burke (b.1951), and the 18th century scholar and writer, Francis Williams (c.1690-c.1782). By placing the archive of these two men alongside each other, the display invites reflections on identity, racism, and colonial legacies. As the displays are in galleries used for temporary exhibitions, found at the end of the dazzling Silver Gallery, or from connecting galleries of large landscapes and genre paintings or early modern miniatures, they also interact with a wide range of British art and collections and, as a result, spark further thoughts on historical values and status.

Vanley Burke is known for his photographs of local communities and his collection of everyday objects that record and celebrate Black British history. Since he moved from Jamaica to Birmingham in 1965, Burke has used his work to fill in the lack of documentation recording the daily lives and lived experience of the local Black British community. As he has observed, Burke began his work because ‘there was nothing that indicated we existed-and if it did, it was very negative. […] I thought we must participate in writing our own history’. (V&A Magazine, 52).

The black and white photographs exhibited in the room centred around the work of Vanley, demonstrates the power of telling your own stories of peoples and objects and of writing your own life and those of your community into the centre of the pictorial and historical frame. One series of photographs, depicting Brimingham’s Handsworth Park, captures the multiple purposes a park facilitates; they are spaces of leisure, protest, and celebration. Parks are also liminal spaces, where communities are both together and yet separate, functioning simultaneously as individuals and as familial and nonfamilial communities. This and other series of photographs on display in this room are situated alongside the objects collected by Burke, such as Selvon’s groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), and together they underline a core aim of the curator of the display, Christine Checinska, to ‘trouble our expectations of who is allowed to be seen as a scholar’. (V&A Magazine, 52).

The need to problematize what are still seen as normative notions of who can be seen and depicted as a scholar, is reinforced by the adjacent room devoted to Francis Williams. If the section of the display devoted to Burke is characterised by abundance, of the peoples and objects and stories as told from Burke’s perspective, the room devoted to Williams is, conversely, about absence, signalling the lack of information about Williams, his daily life, and his lived experience, in Jamaica and in London. These gaps in our awareness of Williams’ personhood are highlighted by his full-length portrait (c.1745), painted by an unknown artist.

In the portrait, Williams is posed in what is believed to have been his study, standing proudly at the centre of the pictorial frame, in front of a bookcase, with his left-hand gesturing to the book-filled case behind him. Meanwhile his right-hand rests on a large volume, ‘inscribed Newton… Philosophy’, which the author of ‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’, produced as the part of the display, surmises ‘may be a commentary on the mathematician’s works that Williams is cross-referencing’. Surrounding Williams in this European-style room are a wealth of objects, signalling that this is a study belonging to an eighteenth-century scholar, while the navy-blue broadcloth coat and breeches in which Williams is dressed highlight his social status. The two globes and the mathematical instruments on the desk as well as the portable set of architectural instruments surrounding him, also point to his wider humanistic learning. Meanwhile the quills and inkstand, also on the desk, indicate his work as a scholar and a writer. The inside of Williams’ study, then, is about his British/European identity. Conversely, the view of Spanish Town, Jamaica, visible outside through the window behind him, ‘possibly Spanish Town by the river Cobre.’ ‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’

As Burke observed about Williams, when working on the display with Checinska, ‘He seems to be a person between two worlds.’ (V&A Magazine, 52) For the author of ‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’, the view from the study-room window ‘and the terrestrial globe on the floor, turned to show the ‘Western or Atlantick Ocean’, place Williams in Jamaica – just as his library communicates his cosmopolitan learning. For Braithwaite, meanwhile, Williams’ liminal state is reiterated further by the location of Williams’ feet on the black and white titled floor; with one foot on a white title, while the other is poised on a black tile. (Braithwaite, Rediscovering Black Portraiture (2023), 62.) The carefully selected objects in the room, the celestial and terrestrial globes, instruments, and books also reference those in the painting, reinforcing Williams’ learning, ‘legitimising’ his place within a display in a museum located in the heart of London. Meanwhile, the 1960’s radiogram, a sign of contemporary cross-cultural interaction between European and Caribbean music traditions, stands in the first room to signify the community revealed by Burke’s photography.

The notion of Williams as a scholar between two worlds is also emphasized by how little we know about his biography. Born in 1690, Francis Williams’ father, a man born into slavery, had managed to acquire enough money only 10 years after being freed, to secure property in Jamaica and to educate his sons. (Braithwaite, 62.) Evidence also exists to indicate that Williams was educated partly in London, perhaps at Cambridge University and ‘became a member of Lincoln’s Inn […] in London on 8 August 1721. According to an anonymous editorial comment in the Supplement to the Gentleman’s Magazine 1771, Williams was also admitted to Royal Society meetings, but this scientific organisation denied him full membership ‘on account of his complexion’. (‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’, V&A). Williams returned to Jamaica shortly after the death of his father John in 1723, where it appears that he spent the rest of his life, running a school in Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica until 1872, and teaching Black students reading, writing, Latin and mathematics. (Braithwaite, 62.)

On the death of his father, Williams returned to Jamaica, and became a free and wealthy Black man, who fought against proposed restrictions on the rights of free Black people and opened a school for Black children. He also continued to keep enslaved labourers on the estate he inherited from his father. (‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’, V&A) As his portrait reveals, to know the ‘real’ Francis Williams, is to acknowledge the complex and nuanced histories of enslaved and freed peoples at the heart of our colonial legacy.

But this exhibition raises as many questions as it answers. As noted, we do not know who painted Williams’ portrait; was it commissioned or is it a self-portrait, as suggested by its elongated and distorted perspective? We know he was a writer, but what did he write? All we have on display is an extract from one of his verses, written in Latin, in honour of a British governor of Jamaica, and translated into English by Ronnick. The extract speaks to William’s brutal lived experience of colonialism, racism and marginalisation and I cite it in full below, while painfully aware that in transcribing it in the translation to make it accessible all readers, I am adding another layer of silence to Williams’ own voice.

     Virtue itself is colourless, as is wisdom. There is no colour in the soul,

     nor in art.

     Why do you fear or why do you hesitate, my very black muse, to climb

     up to the lofty house of western Caesar?

      Go and greet. Let there be no reason for you to be ashamed that you

      have a pure (white) body in a black skin.

As the display stresses, everything else we know about Williams is from the perspective of others; specifically, in A History of Jamaica: or, General Survey of the Ancient and Modern State of that Island (1774) by Edward Long, ‘notably the absentee plantation owner and colonial administrator who was a vocal advocate of slavery’. In the book, ‘Long devoted a derisive chapter of his book The History of Jamaica, published in 1774, to Williams, whose status as a free, educated Black man defied Long’s racist ideology of the inferiority of Black to white people’ (‘Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer’, V&A) Even in a room devoted to Williams, his own voice is virtually erased.

As the exhibition acknowledges, the display marks the beginning of a conversation about Williams. According to Nazim-Englund, when the portrait of Williams was given to the V&A in 1928 by Long’s descendants, ‘the V&A displayed it in the furniture galleries as a reference for colonial design.’ (V&A Magazine, 54). As a result of recent research, some of which is shared in the display, and the ‘employment of permanent curatorial staff focusing on Africa and the diaspora’, it is evident that the V&A are working to ensure that the hidden voices of peoples and places are given space to tell their own stories in their own voices. As Checinska notes, ‘Between Two Worlds’ ‘speaks to our desire to tell richer stories around the interweaving of Caribbean creative excellence within British culture’. (V&A Magazine, 54).

In Cultural Identity and Diaspora (1990, 401), Stuart Hall refers to identity as a process of ‘becoming’. With plans to remount the portrait of Francis Williams in the British Galleries, it is hoped that the V&A will make space to provide an opportunity for the story of Williams’s personhood and his lived experience in both Jamaica and England to begin that process of ‘becoming’, and as a result of the museum’s attempt to tell more diverse stories from an intersectional perspective.