St James’s Church Piccadilly to commemorate forgotten figure in history of Black Britain
A new plaque commemorating the 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano at St James’s Church will be dedicated on 20 August 2023 during the Sunday service. Cugoano was one of the most prominent abolitionists of the time and a significant but largely forgotten figure in the history of Black Britain. In addition, a new permanent artwork will be unveiled in the church on 20 September 2023.
To mark the anniversary, Trinidad-based artist Che Lovelace (pictured) has been selected to create a commemorative work to be installed in the entrance of the church. Seen by all visitors to St James’s it will be the first permanent art commission to commemorate Cugoano’s life anywhere in the world.
Quobna Ottobah Cugoano described his personal experience of being trafficked at the age of 13 to work on a plantation in Grenada and bought by a merchant to England where he gained his freedom in 1772, in his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery published in 1787. His baptism, in 1773, was an act which promised his ongoing freedom; however he didn’t live long enough to see slavery abolished by the UK Parliament. With his exact dates of birth and death unknown, Cugoano’s baptism on 20 August 1773 at St James’s is the only place and date that is clearly and verifiably part of his story.
The Church of England and the Church Commissioners have recently published research outlining the Church’s deep implication in the transatlantic chattel slavery, setting aside funds for investment today in the light of this history.
As a central London parish church in the Church of England, St James’s acknowledges its own part in this history, and wants to learn about its past, better to understand the present. In commissioning Che Lovelace to commemorate the baptism of this significant abolitionist, St James’s intends to draw attention to his legacy as one of the first formerly enslaved people to call for the total abolition of the slave trade worldwide. Cugoano’s book, rooted in his Christian faith, is considered one of the most radical of the era in its arguments and has remained in print for most of the intervening years.
Lovelace paints the intersecting lives of the people, flora and fauna of his native Trinidad. Infused with rich colours and bold shapes, his paintings straddle the boundary between magical realism, abstraction and the beauty of the natural world.
Artist, Che Lovelace was selected by a process led by curator Ekow Eshun and involving members of the church’s congregation and clergy. The commission is supported by generous donations from international lawyer and philanthropist Dr Tai-Heng Cheng and his husband, gallerist Mr Cole Harrell, both American Friends of St James’s Piccadilly. The commission is part of St James’s cultural programme overseen by Creative Director Richard Parry, previously Director, Glasgow International.
The commission is the cornerstone of St James’s programme of events commemorating Cugoano’s baptismal anniversary year, which will launch with a special service on Sunday 20 August.
For over ten years St James’s has developed a reputation for presenting surprising, challenging, charged creative work that engages audiences in subjects close to the Church’s values, for example Justin Butcher’s installation for Bethlehem Unwrapped (2013), Arabella Dorman’s Flight (2015) and Suspended (2017), Glasgow-based Iranian artist Iman Tajik’s installation Radical Welcome for the 2022 Embark Festival, and Jesse Darling’s commission Miserere (2022), ahead of the artist being shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize.
Considered “The Artists’ Church”, the relationship between St James’s and the Royal Academy is long and deep. The Rector, today the Reverend Lucy Winkett, is Chaplain to the RA and the church hosts the annual Varnishing Day service following a procession along Piccadilly marking the opening of the Summer Exhibition.
Che Lovelace, born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1969, joins St James’s history of connection with artists and creatives. Considered amongst Sir Christopher Wren’s finest churches, and housing a remarkable reredos carved by Grinling Gibbons, St James’s is the place where Angelica Kauffman, one of the founders of the Royal Academy, was married in 1767. Caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) and portraitist Mary Beale (1633-1699) were buried in the courtyard. William Blake (1757-1827) was baptised in the Grinling Gibbons font and Mary Delany (née Granville 1700–1788), an artist who created intricate ‘paper mosaiks’ of botanical specimens, has a memorial (although sadly only recognising her as a daughter and wife and not for her creativity).
Describing the newly commissioned work:
Che Lovelace said
“Having the opportunity to be part of the legacy of Ottobah Cugoano is truly significant and meaningful. To see St James’s Church, Piccadilly honour his name and what he stood for, is also to bear witness to an evolving story; one where our societies acknowledge and account for, not only the traumatic episodes of our shared histories; but also finds spaces and moments where the human potential for renewal, growth and transcendence is given importance and is truly celebrated.”
Lucy Winkett, Rector said
“The baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano at St James’s Church Piccadilly in 1773 is one of the only places and times that can with confidence be ascribed to this influential abolitionist. It is therefore our duty and honour to mark the 250th anniversary with art commissions, commemorative events and gatherings. More importantly though, in learning from the complicities of the past, to work for the change that Cugoano could see so clearly, which is still needed today.”
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, said
“Cugoano is finally being given the recognition he has so long deserved at the place of his baptism. His contribution and commitment to the abolitionist movement has never been given due recognition, and it is a joy to see him commemorated in this way.
“Today, the Diocese of London is committed to having racial justice woven into every aspect of what we do, and we are focused on taking practical steps towards building communities and cultures that are inclusive and fair for all. Our attempts to right this wrong will never be enough, but understanding and responding to our past can help us create a positive and lasting legacy to serve communities impacted by slavery.”
Ekow Eshun, said
“Quobna Ottobah Cugoano is a significant figure in the evolution of Britain as a society that speaks with many voices and from many perspectives. This new commission by Che Lovelace underscores the important role that art can play in addressing the complexity of our shared past with nuance, insight and creative ambition.”
Cole Harrell said:
“We both feel a deep connection to the St James’s Church and are honored to be a part of this exciting project. We hope the new commission by Che Lovelace will help to shed light on Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, his monumental legacy, and allow us all a moment of reflection, not just on past traumas, but also on our potential for growth and empathy.”
Tai-Heng Cheng added:
“We were moved by the long-standing commitment of St James’s Church to being a place of solace and inspiration to people of all backgrounds and faiths, which is so needed at a time when societies around the world seem more brittle than before. We hope that the installation of Che Lovelace’s commission commemorating Cugoano will not only benefit those who can come to the church, but serve as an example of how religious institutions can help bring communities together and celebrate both our differences and common humanity.”