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Edmonia Lewis, the first African American sculptor to win acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, lived her final years in Brook Green.
She is best known for portraying themes linked to black people in the neoclassical style popular in the late 19th century.
Born in upstate New York on 4 July 1844, she claimed Native American descent on her mother’s side and African Caribbean on her father’s. She was initially known as ‘Wildfire’.
Orphaned at the age of nine and raised Catholic by two aunts who lived near Niagra Falls, she sold baskets and moccasins to tourists, using her Native American name.
When she was 12 (and by then christened Mary Edmonia Lewis) she went to a school run by an order of black nuns, where classes included drawing, Latin, French and public speaking. After college, she took up sculpture in Boston, staging her first solo exhibition at the age of 20 and concentrating on busts of celebrated slavery abolitionists.
At 22, she sailed to London, travelling on through Paris and ending up in Italy where her sculpting style developed, absorbing the classical art she saw all around her. She paid for the voyage by selling one of her marble busts, a Civil War officer who commanded an African-American infantry division.
She visited Florence, then became a popular sculptor in Rome, where – with a more enlightened view of people of colour – she found more freedom to work, study and exhibit. She was a distinctive figure in Roman society. There were few enough female sculptors, but no others in the Italian capital who were black and just 4ft in height.
One of her most acclaimed works was Forever Free, a sculpture of an African American man and woman breaking their bonds of slavery – a powerful work which was one of several commanding impressive prices at the time.
Around the same time, and drawing on her Chippewa tribal descent, she sculpted the leading characters in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, the poem which also inspired violinist and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to write his best-known work, a trilogy of cantatas called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
In 1876, at the age of 32, she exhibited a two-tonne work, The Death of Cleopatra, at a major show in Philadelphia as wealthy American art collectors, and the press, began to take an interest in her sculptures.
The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed: “A black sculptress is rarer than a black swan,” while the Atlanta Constitution paid tribute to the work of “a struggling genius”.
A remarkable work which took her four years to complete, it depicted the lifeless queen on a decorative throne. The Death of Cleopatra was rediscovered in the 1980s – gaudily painted and badly damaged – in a shopping mall. Now fully restored, it occupies a prominent place in the Smithsonian collection in Washington DC.
In 1877, former president Ulysses S Grant commissioned her to do his portrait.
In an interview with the New York Times after its unveiling, Lewis said that she had felt forced to the leave the States for Europe “to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my colour. The land of liberty had no room for a coloured sculptor”.
In 1901 she moved to London, settling first at 4a Earls Court Road, then moving to 154 Blythe Road in Brook Green, a terraced four-storey townhouse near Olympia.
Her neoclassical style had fallen out of favour, and she lived her last years quietly in Hammersmith.
A staunch Catholic, she regularly attended Our Lady of Victories church in Kensington, a half-mile walk from her home and, at that time, the most important Catholic church in England (it was destroyed in a bombing raid during the Second World War, but was rebuilt in 1959).
Lewis died on 17 September 1907, in the Hammersmith borough infirmary in Goldhawk Road. The cause of death was Bright’s disease, a kidney inflammation. She was 63.
She is buried in St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery in Harrow Road, Kensal Green; her grave (number C350) is topped by a simple black marble slab… a recent crowdfunded addition, belatedly recognising her importance.
Biographers and art historians have, in recent years, reassessed Lewis as a pioneering artist who helped pave the way for other female black creative talents to thrive.
In her career, Hammersmith’s adopted daughter produced more than 100 sculptures. Regrettably, many of them are now lost.
We hope that this article helps to ensure we don’t forget Edmonia Lewis' name and her outstanding contribution to arts and culture.
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