New Sculpture in Recognition of Ira Aldridge

A new public artwork has been revealed on the former Ikea building. CovSoc founder member Paul Maddocks writes:

Landmark” was a recent television series on Sky Arts. The series featured various artists from around the country competing to get a commission to build a ‘Landmark work of art for Coventry’ as part of UK City of Culture year.  The young artist Favour Jonathan was the winning sculptor and this week her work was unveiled on television. The new sculpture is of Ira Aldridge holding up a fob watch. This sculpture is now on one of the lower roofs of the old Ikea building in Coventry.

I was involved in the selection process. I am a volunteer tour guide at Coventry Cathedral and in May this year I was asked if I would like to be involved with the judging for Sky Arts on a new show, the final of which will be hosted in the Cathedral. They said that they would love some community members/volunteers to be involved in the decision making process. We had to keep it a secret, but I took a few photos and got told off by the security guard.

Paul’s illicit photo of sculptor Favour Jonathan with the mock-up of her sculpture of Ira Aldridge.

So who is Ira Aldridge and why is he holding a watch?

Watch first: the sculpture is facing Spon End and the famous watch making area of Coventry, and is an honour to its memory, plus it is near the Coventry Watch Museum in Spon Street.

Ira Aldridge came to Coventry in 1828, where he was made manager of the Theatre Royal, becoming the country’s first theatre manager of colour before he had even reached the age of 21. Coventry had sent many petitions to parliament to try and get slavery stopped. So when Ira came to Coventry he was in safe company and was allowed to talk about the horrors of the slave trade in various talks within the city. The Theatre he was manager of was called ‘Theatre Royal’ and stood where the old BHS store stands now.

The Theatre Royal was the first permanent theatre in the city. There had previously been temporary canvas touring theatres and various performances has been held at St. Mary’s Guildhall. It was Coventry Mayor Sir Skears Rew (1761-1828) who had the theatre built. The Theatre Royal opened in 1819, optimistically with ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’. It immediately began to attract audiences of ‘beauty, elegance and fashion’. In 1820 Edmund Kean appeared at the theatre as Shylock and as Richard III. The new stage was later to bring many prominent theatrical figures to Coventry, among them John Braham, the singer, Mrs. Elizabeth Rebecca Edwin, Barry Sullivan, the brothers Osmonde, and Edmund Tearle. (A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick).

But by 1828 the Theatre Royal was not doing very well when Ira Aldridge, an African American who had come to Europe to act, took over. Sir Skears Rew the owner died about a month and a half later.

Aldridge’s first night as manager was a disaster, so he got rid of the old actors and replaced them with new better ones, which improved things greatly. It does show Skear’s mindset at the time, taking on a black man in such a position. We don’t know if Sir Skear was involved in the abolition movement, but there were many anti-slavery meetings in the city at that time.

Ira arrived in Britain in 1824 and was the first black actor to play Othello, a role that proved controversial with the critics but was welcomed by the audiences. At this time slavery was still legal in British colonies and the USA. The Coventry Herald newspaper said of his performance “his display of intellectual power”…. “gives the negative to those physiologists who argue for the inferiority of dark races”. He played in many cities with strong abolition of slavery sympathies.

Aldridge also toured Continental Europe and especially Germany where he was told by a journalist that “he understands like no other how to portray… the full bitterness the Jew feels”.

Aldridge wrote an open letter to the people of Coventry when he came to the city. ‘I might have feared’, he wrote then, ‘that, unknown and unfriended, I had little claim to public notice did I not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

The Theatre Royal stood where the old BHS store stands how on Market Way. Many years ago it would have been next to the entrance to the Army Barracks. There are two plaques on the building. The first commemorates the fact that the Salvation Army commenced its mission in Coventry at the Theatre Royal on 17th February 1878. The second commemorates Ira Aldridge. The plaque reads “Ira Aldridge (1807 – 1867) African American actor was Manager here of the Coventry Theatre1n 1828 during the struggle to abolish slavery“.

The plaque was erected in 2017 as part of a special event called “Handing over the Keys” organised by the Belgrade Theatre and the University of Warwick to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Ira’s death. The organisers had been looking at old newspapers that when listing theatres around the country had put the city or town first then the name of the theatre – so it would have read Coventry Theatre Royal etc. Unfortunately they read it as being called the Coventry Theatre so the details on the blue plaque are wrong and I told the young black artist Favour Jonathan that she needs to get the theatre name right as I think she is going to win.

The large mural at the side of the Belgrade Theatre is also of Ira Aldridge. There is another plaque to Ira Aldridge which was erected in 2007 by English Heritage at Upper Norwood, London, where he lived for a time.

Painting of Ira Aldridge at the Belgrade Theatre

Paul Maddocks

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