The John Blanke Project

Written by Silke Lohmann | 18 October 2021

There is only one black presence in English Renaissance art which can be specifically identified based on written records and literature - it is John Blanke, the black trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. 

The John Blanke Project started with the joint venture of academic Dr Miranda Kaufmann and the independent, so-called autodidact, art historian Michael Ohajuru. They looked at the Image and Reality: Black Africans in Renaissance England and share a common passion in the study of people of African descent in Britain during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Dr Kaufmann, as part of her PhD thesis, had found over 350 persons of African descent in the written records. While Michael studied the black presence in the art of the period with two images dominating his studies - the Black Magus in the Adoration and St Maurice the black Roman centurion.

Through IRBARE lectures and workshops they were able to compare the image of people of African origin from the art of the period with actual people of African origin from the records and the literature of the time.

Michael presented images of two mythical characters - The Black Magus and St Maurice - both were a fabrication and a conflation of myth and Biblical study while Miranda's work presented details of the actual lived lives of real people found in the records of the day.

Ebun Culwin (2018)
John Blanke Re-imagined
Acrylic, gold leaf on parchment
Based on John Blanke in the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll in the College of Arms Collection

There was one person in which their individual interests - image and reality - met, his name was John Blanke, the black trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. There is an image of him in the 1511 Tournament Roll in which he appears twice and he is also documented in court records receiving wages and gifts. 

First to make the link between the Archive and the Art was Dr Sydney Anglo, but today John Blanke's image is acknowledged in Stephen B. Whatley's acclaimed series of murals celebrating the life and times of Henry VIII at Tower Bridge. Stephen depicts John Blanke in his stylised version of the central jousting scene from the Roll.

Interestingly, there are many hundreds of images of the Black Magus and St Maurice from the 15th/16th century, but there seem to be just those two of John Blanke from the Tournament Roll as a person that definitely existed and appeared in Miranda's studies. These two images are, however, caricatures of a black man as the Roll's artist has used identical stock figures for all the trumpeters bar John Blanke, where the artist has simply changed the head for his idea of a black man, but leaving everything else on the trumpeter the same as all the others.

Stephen B. Whatley
Tribute to John Blanke
Charcoal on paper, A4

So if John Blanke's image is not true to life, being only a caricature then just as artists and patrons were free to create their own ideas of The Black Magus and St Maurice, Michael felt that artists should be free to portray John Blanke as they might imagine him from his role and his record. This resulted in historians being invited to comment on John Blanke's presence and significance and Michael does regular workshops where he encourages people to reimagine John Blanke.

The BBC picked up on the project and did an article on the black British history you may not know. In the article they say that "[John Blanke] petitioned for 8d a day. I don't know what the conversion is today, but that showed he knew his worth." He did indeed successfully petition Henry VIII, it was not for 8d per day but for a pay increase from 8d per day to 16d per day. The d was an old penny (before UK currency was converted to decimal in 1971).

In fact, John confidently asked for his wage to be doubled as he was a 'true and faithful' servant who was doing the same job as a trumpeter who had just died. His wage went from 3.3p a day to 6.6p per day making his annual pay go from £12 to £24, at the time a labourer would have been paid £5 to £10 a year, while a skilled craftsman such as a Carpenter £13.

Michael Ohajuru also contributed a chapter to Professor Gretchen Grezina's 2020 book Britain's Black Past. It is titled Before and After the Eighteenth Century: The John Blanke Project, looking at the genesis and how the project has developed over the years and concludes with Michael's ideas on the importance of the humanities and the imagination at the heart of the project.

Part of John Blanke's story has also been dramatised in Ade Solanke's play The Court Must Have A Wife, which premiered in 2018 at Hampton Court.

If you would like to find out more about the project and see how you can get involved, watch the video below and visit The John Blanke Project's website.

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