The puzzle of portraits: Francis Williams and Vanley Burke

"It's really important to us, as a museum, to lean into what is not known" – Dr Christine Checinska, 2023

This film explores two important portraits separated by three centuries: one of 18th-century Jamaican scholar and writer, Francis Williams, the other of artist Vanley Burke, the godfather of Black British photography.

At present it's a mystery as to who made Williams' portrait, why it was created, and for whom, leading us to question its purpose, meaning, and how truthful it really is. Although Vanley Burke has had full control over his portrait, both gentlemen appear to be caught 'between two worlds'.

Follow Curator Dr Christine Checinska as we place these powerful portraits in conversation, and examine new scientific research. Hear Vanley Burke's response to the Francis Williams painting, and discuss the influences behind his own work – as well as reflections on the ongoing quest for personhood and the impact of colonial legacies.

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The two portraits are on display in Between Two Worlds at V&A South Kensington until 31 December 2023.

Find out more about Francis Williams.

Header image:

Self-portrait, photograph, by Vanley Burke, 2023, Birmingham, England. © Vanley Burke