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Racist undertones of Britain’s jazz age explored in exhibition: Video

Maev Kennedy attends an exhibition about the fascination with jazz in 1920s England and specifically focuses on the racist undertones found in some of the exhibits. She talks to the show’s curator Catherine Tackley and tells the story of the painting “The Breakdown” by Scottish painter John Bulloch Souter which shows a black musician sitting on a shattered statue of Minerva, playing to a dancing naked white woman, and which was taken down after five days at the Academy’s summer exhibition in 1926 because of complaints that it was “considered to be obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population”. 

London show includes a version of The Breakdown, a painting that caused outrage in 1926. Versions of a painting that caused such outrage in 1926 that it was taken off the walls of the Royal Academy on the orders of the Colonial Office will go on public display in an exhibition tracing the glamour but also the racist undertones of the jazz age in Britain.

The exhibition, Rhythm & Reaction, opening on Saturday at Two Temple Place in London, has loans from museums and private collections showing how the exciting new music spread for the first time by radio and recordings.

The displays include a drum with a painting of a chicken that laid giant eggs as the highlight of the act, textiles and tea sets that brought the jazz age into suburban homes, posters of glamorous dancers in jazz clubs, record collectors’ club magazines and a glorious pair of golden dance slippers with diamond heels.

However, the exhibition also looks at the reaction to music seen by some as “primitive” or even “savage”, including the saga of The Breakdown, by the Scottish artist John Bulloch Souter, taken down after five days at the Academy’s summer exhibition.

It showed a black musician sitting on a shattered statue of Minerva, playing to a dancing naked white woman. According to the Royal Academy’s annual report, the letter from the Colonial Office said the subject “was considered to be obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population”.

The exhibition’s curator, Catherine Tackley, professor of music at the University of Liverpool, said: “In many ways the reaction to the painting epitomises the response to this new jazz music. Huge popular enthusiasm – and an undercurrent of suspicion that this was a dangerous new art form subverting decent society.”

News of the painting went around the world: one US paper, the Boston Evening Transcript, under the heading A Racial Outrage, commented: “It lays itself out to horrify decent people and yet has somehow contrived to come inside the limitations laid down by the hanging committee.” In South Africa, the Cape Argus headed its account “Problem Pictures of 1926 – Negro Supersedes Minerva”.

When Tackley wrote a book published in 2005 on the origins of jazz in Britain, she used a black and white illustration of the painting from the Royal Academy catalogue, which she believed to be its only surviving image.

Souter, who later worked on portraits and commissioned copies of Old Master paintings, said in one interview: “It wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Aberdeen.” He insisted he had completely destroyed the painting, but in fact he had kept his original drawings. Ten years before his death in 1972, evidently still haunted by the episode, he painted a new version. All the versions, now in private collections, are included in the exhibition.

The first introduction to jazz for many in Britain was a tour in 1919 by the Original Dixieland jazz Band, but Tackley traces its roots in the country much further back, through ragtime music during the first world war and the hugely popular minstrel shows and banjo bands of the Edwardian era.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Arts Society, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its director Florian Schweizer, himself an enthusiast recently excited to learn that Django Reinhardt once played in a tiny jazz club yards from his London home, said: “This was the first musical art form that everyone could hear, captured in contemporary recordings. We at the Arts Society like art cropping up in unexpected places.”

Rhythm and Reaction, the Age of Jazz in Britain, Two Temple Place, free, daily except Tuesdays until 22 April 2018

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