Could this be the portrait of Ira Aldridge, the acclaimed black Shakespearean actor? The discovery of a 1820s painting is causing quite a bit of a stir amongst art and social historians keen to solve the puzzle.

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,” said Howes.

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 and adds, “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 Black-History-Month.co.uk, 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 scene are invited to offer their assistance by viewing an image of the painting on Mr Howes’ website: www.stephenhowes.es

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