Ira Aldridge
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'Unusual' painting of 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge discovered in tea chest

Fresh insights into the celebrated 19th-century black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge can be drawn from a portrait of him dating from the 1820s which has been newly discovered just as a dramatization of his life is set to open at the Tricycle Theatre.

The acclaimed black Shakespearean actor, is causing a stir amongst art experts and social historians – and it’s stumping them too. 

To date no-one has been able to accurately pinpoint the play it depicts in order give the work its proper placement in black history, and now the owner of the piece, Birmingham-born art enthusiast Stephen Howes, who found it in his late mother’s garage, is appealing to art historians to help solve the mystery.

“We know Ira Aldridge performed in Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the UK, Russia and continental Europe, but we believe this scene could be from one of his non-Shakespearean roles.

“To identify the play would be to give the piece and the actor their rightful place in the history of ethnic culture in Britain.”

One of the principal reasons art critics are hailing the piece as “incredibly special” is that it shows Aldridge ‘in action’ on stage as a central character, unlike most known paintings of him which are portraits.

“It’s clear from the setting that he’s acting, and with him being in the centre of the work, it suggests he’s the principal character. This is hugely significant as it illustrates one of the 19th century’s most important black actors at the height of their international fame,” says Mr Howes.

“Very few contemporary paintings of black actors of the time exist, let alone ones in which they’re performing.  As such, this work is a document of black heritage.”

Mia Morris OBE, the founder of, says: “Ira Aldridge was a renowned actor who was admired for his work and his elegance and has left a legacy which anyone would be proud of. This new found image of him will do more for putting him rightly back on the map.”

Since the painting was discovered its owner has received numerous calls from European and American art collectors with an interest in theatrical pieces and/or black history.  However, Mr Howes says he’s “committed to keeping it in the UK and until all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

Art or theatre historians who may be able to identify the picture or artist can contact Stephen through the contact page.

Ira Aldridge painting


Contact Stephen Howes through our ‘CONTACT’ page.

Ira Aldridge picture 48x40cm. Not including the frame