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The First Asian and Black Parliamentarians

The history of black, Asian and ethnic minority Parliamentarians probably begins with David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, who was of mixed Indian and European descent. In 1841 he was elected MP for Sudbury, Suffolk. However, he and the other Sudbury Member quickly lost their seats due to discrepancies during the campaign. The next minority ethnic MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected in 1892. The first person of colour to sit in the House of Lords was the Indian lawyer and politician Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, who was raised to the peerage as Baron Sinha of Raipur in 1919.

It wasn’t until 1967 that the first black Peer, Lord Constantine, entered Parliament. The first black MPs Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, and Paul Boateng were not elected until 1987. Keith Vaz was the first Asian member elected for nearly sixty years when he was elected alongside his colleagues in 1987.

This online exhibition looks at works of art depicting these first BAME members of both Houses of Parliament.

Use the buttons below to slide through the portraits and find out more about the artworks and sitters.

Pioneers: The First Asian and Black Parliamentarians

Baroness Amos, Painting by Paul Benney © The Artist’s Estate, Photo Credit Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6386

Head and shoulders portrait painting of Dadabhai Naoroji. Naoroji is an elderly man of colour with a full head of short white hair and a bushy white beard and moustache. He wears wire rimmed glasses and faces straight ahead towards the viewer, looking slightly off to the left. He wears a large brown or black double breasted coat and a red tie. The painting's background is a stippled light brown colour.

Businessman and academic Dadabhai Naoroji moved to Britain in 1855. From the early 1860s he campaigned for reform of British rule in India.

Returning to India in 1874, Naoroji held several political offices. A leading figure in the nascent self-rule movement, he was a founder of the Indian National Congress and served as its President in 1886.

Determined to pursue Indian grievances in the British Parliament, Naoroji unsuccessfully stood for the Liberals in Holborn in 1886. Explaining Naoroji’s defeat, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, stated that Britain was not yet ready to elect a ‘black man’.

Six years later in 1892, Naoroji was elected Liberal MP for Finsbury Central. In the Commons he devoted himself to Indian affairs and spoke on related issues such as Irish Home Rule, before losing his seat at the 1895 General Election.

After standing without success in Lambeth North in 1906, Naoroji returned to India. He remained an influential figure in the independence movement and came to be known affectionately as ‘The Grand Old Man of India’.

The Dhadabhai Memorial Fund commissioned this posthumous portrait from V.R. Rao, a successful Indian portraitist, and presented it to the House of Commons in 1939.

DR. DADABHOY NAOROJI, M.P. 1892-1895, Painting by V. R. Rao © The Artist or their estate, Photo Credit Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 1539

Mancherjee Bhownaggree arrived in Britain in 1882 to study law. He was called to the Bar in 1885 but returned to India the following year to remodel the government of the princely state of Bhāvnagar.

Between 1891 and 1894, Bhownaggree made two extended visits to Britain and began to regard London as his home. Although he associated with Naoroji, as a supporter of British rule in India Bhownaggree’s politics were very different.

At a dinner celebrating Naoroji’s election in 1892, Bhownaggree expressed the hope that an Indian Conservative would soon sit in Parliament. In 1895 he became that Indian Conservative when he successfully ran in North-East Bethnal Green.

A popular constituency MP, Bhownaggree was re-elected in 1900 with an increased majority. He was one of many Conservatives to lose his seat to a Liberal in the 1906 election. Bhownaggree remained in Britain working as a barrister and an active campaigner.

This portrait was produced by the prolific portrait artist and caricaturist Spy – one of pseudonyms used by Sir Leslie Matthew Ward. His portraits were regularly published by Vanity Fair magazine and reproduced as prints. He was known for secretly observing public figures, and later recreating their likeness from memory.

Statesmen No. 691: ‘North East Bethnal Green’ [Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree] Print by Spy © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7592

Shapurji Saklatvala came to Britain in 1905 to work for his uncle, the successful industrialist J.N. Tata, in Manchester.

An active trade unionist and Independent Labour Party member, Saklatvala campaigned against both capitalism and colonialism to improve working conditions in Britain and India. Inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and unhappy with the Independent Labour Party’s decision not to embrace Communism, in 1921 Saklatvala joined the new Communist Party of Great Britain.

With the official endorsement of the Labour Party, Saklatvala was elected MP for Battersea North in 1922. He lost his seat the following year but was re-elected without Labour support in 1924.

Saklatvala championed workers’ rights and Indian independence both in and out of the Commons. A formidable orator, following a speech in Hyde Park at the start of the General Strike in 1926 he was arrested and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for sedition.

Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929. He unsuccessfully stood in Glasgow Shettleston in 1930 and again in Battersea 1931. He remained a leading figure in the Communist Party and addressed large rallies nationwide during the Great Depression.

This photograph was taken by an unknown photographer. Our copy was reproduced from the 1900’s original in 2004.

Shapurji Saklatvala Photograph by Unknown © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6369

Satyendra Prasanna Sinha was born in Raipur in present-day West Bengal, India. After studying law in London, he rose to become the first Indian Advocate-General of Bengal and the first Indian to sit on the Governor-General’s Executive Council.

Returning to Britain in 1917, he became the first Indian government minister, serving in the Imperial War Cabinet and as Under-Secretary of State for India.

In 1919 he became the first Indian to be raised to the peerage as Lord Sinha of Raipur. He saw the Government of India Act of 1919 through the House of Lords.

This photograph was taken by Walter Stoneman, a photographer who produced some 7,000 photographs for the National Portrait Gallery as part of his National Photographic Record project. His aim was to photograph all of the most eminent British people.

NPG x84784 Satyendra Prasanno Sinha, 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur by Bassano Ltd
bromide print, 20 May 1920 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Learie Constantine was born in Trinidad in 1901. A talented Cricket player, his illustrious sporting career brought him from the Caribbean to England. During his professional career he became one of the best known and respected sportspersons in England.

Constantine was a vocal advocate for improving race relations and exposing discrimination in the UK. In 1954 Constantine qualified as a barrister and published his book Colour Bar. His book attacked the presence and impact of discrimination across Britain.

In the 1950s Constantine moved back to Trinidad and claimed his first political position, the chairmanship of the People’s National Movement Party, and was later appointed Minister of Works and Transport. In 1961 he returned to England as Trinidad’s first high commissioner in London, a post which he held until 1964.

Constantine’s time in office coincided with race relations civil unrest and the passing of the Race Relations Act (1965), which became the first piece of legislation in the UK to address discrimination on the grounds of race. Constantine served on the Race Relations Board, a newly established body created by the 1965 Act.

In 1969, Lord Constantine was one of four new life Peers named in the New Year honours list, and was the first black peer to join the House of Lords.

NPG x21932 Learie Constantine by Godfrey Argent bromide print, 1 November 1967 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Paul Boateng was born in London to Ghanaian and Scottish parents. He was a member of Black Sections, the Labour Party movement for African Caribbean and Asian people, which had been established in 1983 following demands for greater representation.

‘I always felt that although our election represented real progress, it was only a stage in an ongoing struggle. A glass ceiling had been smashed, but many more remained.’ Paul Boateng

In 2002 Boateng became the UK’s first black Cabinet Minister when he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. To commemorate this historic event, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art commissioned this portrait. The commission was given to Jonathan Yeo, a self-taught portrait artist who in 2001 had been appointed the first Election Artist, painting Proportional Representation. After debating whether Boateng should wear his trademark pinstripe suit or his preferred African collarless suit, the artist and sitter decided to leave the clothing ambiguous.

A former civil rights lawyer, Boateng represented Brent South, one of the most diverse constituencies in the country, between 1987 and 2005. He subsequently became Britain’s first black ambassador when appointed British High Commissioner to South Africa. In 2010 he entered the House of Lords as Baron Boateng of Akyem and Wembley.

Paul Boateng, Painting by Jonathan Yeo © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6483

Born to Jamaican parents in London, in 1987 Diane Abbott became the first black woman elected to Parliament. She said; “I joined the Labour Party because I knew how hard life was for my parents and their friends. I knew how hard black people’s lives are generally and I wanted to do something about it.” 

A senior Labour Party figure, and prominent campaigner on race and civil liberties issues, Abbott has represented Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. She has held several shadow cabinet roles including Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary.

In 2019 she became the first black MP to stand at the despatch box at PMQ’s while standing in for Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn.

The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art commissioned this portrait in 2003 to commemorate Abbott’s important place in Parliament’s history. The chosen artist, Stuart Pearson Wright, was a previous winner of the BP Portrait Award who had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Abbott decided that the close-up portrait would show no evidence of clothing. She was aware that it would hang among portraits of white male MPs wearing suits and hoped it would disrupt these traditional images. Watch Abbott speak more about her portrait here.

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington 1987-, Painting by Stuart Pearson Wright © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6270

Bernie Grant was born in Guyana and came to Britain in 1963. A prominent trade union leader and councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, he became the first ever black leader of a local authority in 1985. In 1987, he was elected as MP for Tottenham.

He made his mark in Parliament almost immediately when he attended his first State Opening of Parliament in African dress.

He was a leading campaigner against racism and injustice. In Parliament he founded the Parliamentary Black Caucus and took a leading role in establishing contacts with black people and politicians throughout the world. He was Chair of the All-Party Group on Race and Community, served on the Select Committee on International Development, and was appointed to the Race Relations Forum in 1998. A champion of social and racial justice, and a pioneer for diversity, Bernie Grant served as MP for Tottenham until his death in 2000.

This head and shoulder portrait was made posthumously in 2017, commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. Artist Kelvin Okafor spent 180 hours creating this artwork using black and white pencils.

Portrait of Bernie Grant MP Drawing by Mr Kelvin Okafor © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7607

Black and white photograph of an Asian woman standing in a park or garden. She has a neutral facial expression, looking directly into the camera, and her hands are clasped in front of her waist. The photograph captures her from the waist up. She wears a Sari with long sleeves, which is a plain dark colour with a geometric pattern at the end of the fabric, which can be seen over her right arm. Her hair is tied back in a style with lots of height and volume. Some strands of hair are across her face as though there is a breeze. The background shows a low hedge directly behind her, a grass lawn, a large bush, some wintery trees, and a pergola with a thatched roof. Beyond, there are the facades of some buildings.

Shreela Flather was born in Lahore in 1934, while it was a part of India. She moved to England to study at University College London, and to read for the Bar. She also worked teaching English as a foreign language.

She was elected a Councillor for the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in 1976, serving for 15 years, including as Deputy Major, and then in 1986-7, as Mayor. She was the first Asian woman to serve as Mayor.

Flather has supported numerous charities and public bodies in their work including serving as Vice President for the Carers National Association and the Townswomen’s Guilds.

She became the first Asian woman to be raised to the peerage in 1990 as Baroness Flather. She currently sits as a crossbench peer, having resigned the Conservative whip on two occasions.

© Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA Press Wire

Valerie Ann Amos was born in Guyana in 1954. She studied Sociology and Cultural Studies, and by 1989 was appointed as the Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

In 1997 Valerie Amos, Baroness Amos became the first black woman to sit in the House of Lords. In 2003 she became the first woman ethnic minority cabinet minister when she was appointed the International Development Secretary. In the same year she was appointed Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. From 2010-2015 she served as United Nations Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Baroness Amos is currently the Master of University College, Oxford.

This portrait by artist Paul Benney was commissioned by the Lord Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Works of Art when she was Leader of the House of Lords and the Lord President of the Council.

Benney is a celebrated self-taught portrait artist, exhibiting eight times at the BP Portrait Awards. He was also commissioned to paint both Iain Duncan Smith and Baroness D’Souza for the Parliamentary Art Collection.

Watch Baroness Howell talking about Paul Benney’s portrait of Baroness Amos here.  

Baroness Amos, Painting by Paul Benney © The Artist’s Estate, Photo Credit Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 6386

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