My Favourite Painting: Floella Benjamin

Baroness Floella Benjamin chooses her favourite painting, a striking portrait which 'proves that talent and determination can transcend all barriers.'

Baroness Floella Benjamin on her choice, Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice by James Northcote

‘Recent events have shone a spotlight on black history, revealing many fascinating and untold stories. One such story is that of Ira Aldridge, the celebrated 19th-century Shakespearian actor. When I first saw the mesmerising portrait of this elegant, handsome and charismatic man, I was overwhelmed.

‘I felt emotionally connected to the obstacles he must have had to overcome. For a black man to become such a highly acclaimed international actor before slavery had been abolished is remarkable. His imposing posture and defiant demeanour fills me with hope and pride.

‘To me, it proves that talent and determination can transcend all barriers.’

After becoming a household name in the 1980s as Britain’s best-loved children’s television presenter, Baroness Floella Benjamin has gone on to a become an author, presenter, businesswoman and life peer.

John McEwen on Ira Aldridge and James Northcote

Lady Benjamin’s choice is pertinent; the black American actor Ira Aldridge (1807–67) is the subject of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, first performed at London’s Tricycle Theatre (now The Kiln Theatre) in 2012 and revived at the Barbican in 2019. This year, black actress Jodie Turner-Smith will play Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of Elizabeth I, in a period drama on Channel 5.

Aldridge was educated at the African Free School, founded in 1787 by the New York Manumission Society, which was led by such Founding Fathers as John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. ‘Manumission’ means ‘to release from slavery’ and the school was a pioneering charity to educate the children of slaves and un-enslaved black citizens. The staff included black teachers and many alumni became leaders of the African-American community in New York.

Aldridge, aged 17, was the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain, although his identity as the Moor Othello in Northcote’s portrait was not established until 1983. In 1833, he made his West End debut in the part and proceeded to take such leading roles as Lear, Macbeth and Richard III.

Success included Europe: he became the highest-paid actor in Russia and, when he died in Poland, he received a state funeral and was entombed in the Old Cemetery, Lodz. Aldridge is the only black actor to be accorded a plaque at Stratford-on-Avon’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

The academician James Northcote was born in Plymouth, the son of a watchmaker. He was a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds and completed his training in Italy. He painted historical and animal subjects, as well as rivalling contemporaries Opie and Fuseli as a fashionable portraitist.