In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, a number of Black (mostly American) boxers persevered in their challenging rise to prominence in the competitive boxing circuit. Such matches were certainly freighted with measures of fear, racism and "exotic spectacle"—especially when a Black fighter was matched with a White one. But Black boxers were popular, some developing legions of fans—in America and internationally.
Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was one of the most famous Turn-of-the-Century African-American professional boxers. Others included Joe Jeanette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey. I've always wanted to think that Sir William Nicholson, RA was portraying Jack Johnson in this print, however, it was created around the time that Johnson was just starting his career in the ring. And, certainly, by the time Johnson made it to England to box, this print had been long-published. Perhaps William Nicholson was capturing the progressive notion of a Black boxer, rather than illustrating a particular individual in a particular fight. Maybe he was inspired by a fight overseas, one he saw while traveling or one published in the British press. Or, maybe he's showing us a British boxer, like Bob Travers (though Travers was a lightweight who fought bare-knuckled; the image above illustrates a beefier fighter, using gloves).
Regardless of the specifics of the artwork, it captures a moment which illustrates a reality in Victorian British sport. Click on the photo above to learn more about this interesting and handsome print.
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