Portrait of Carlos Trower (1850-1889)
Portrait of Carlos, the escaped slave, who performed in Colston Hall 1888
Earlier in the year, I found myself asked to paint a remarkable man, Carlos Trower (1850-1889). Carlos was an American slave who as a boy had escaped his slave owners, managed to get out of the country and, amazingly, became a famous high-rope artist. Carlos lived for a while in Bristol and in 1888 performed his high-rope act to thousands at the Colston Hall. Interestingly, this year is the 150th birthday year of the Colston Hall, with its slave connections much under discussion. This gives Carlos’ direct link with Bristol and the Colston Hall an added poignancy.
I was approached, as a portrait painter, earlier this year by Dr. Paul Phillip Green, a writer who is completing a life of Carlos Trower. I was shown a copy of a Victorian studio photograph, from the 1870’s probably, of Carlos in his performance clothes, resting his arm on an ornately carved sideboard near a long furled velvet curtain. The black and white photograph was faded with age but a contemporary newspaper article described the bright red and gold of his shorts. Something about this unusual and dignified young black man, standing proudly in his white tights and performing shorts, moved me.
I was asked by the author of Carlos’ forthcoming illustrated biography if I could produce an image that could bring him to life for the book. According to Dr. Madge Dresser, (Honorary Professor of Historical Studies, University of Bristol) the author has done ‘a marvellous job of rescuing from historical oblivion’ this account of a boy who escaped from his slave owners when he was only 11 years old, then made his way northwards in America via the Underground Railway, a network of compassionate people who helped escaping slaves, and enabled Carlos to make his way successfully onto a ship bound for Scotland. When Carlos arrived in Glasgow he hid in a circus where he met some African acrobats. They saw his potential and inspired him. He developed what became his legendary feats; acrobatics over rivers, lakes and between cliffs. Sometimes he would carry another person across the high-rope, or he’d carry a little stove. At the middle of the high rope, he’d then kindle a fire in his stove and cook a steak, pancakes or omelettes, high above the crowds, dropping down warm morsels for lucky audience members, far below, to sample!
Throughout his life, Carlos raised money for the poor and oppressed. During the American Civil War, at the age of 12, Carlos returned to New York in order to perform at an event celebrating the anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves the British West Indies, where he drew thousands of the African-American community to watch him on the high-rope.
First of all I thought I would do the portrait about the size of the book illustration for which it would be used, but I found that I wanted to paint Carlos’s portrait much larger, as if this impressive man was really standing there in front of me. I felt his innate stature and wanted to do justice to his dignity and achievement. He had championed others despite the fact that he himself had had such odds stacked against him all his life.
In the 1870’s Carlos lived at 7 Christmas Steps, right in the midst of our city and in 1888, when he was 38 years old, he performed in the Colston Hall for a fortnight. A 120 foot-long rope was hung the length of the hall, 50 foot above the audience, stretching from the organ to the President’s gallery. On the high-rope Carlos ‘walked forwards and backwards, blindfolded and in shackles’ to great acclaim, night after night.
Carlos was a slave who escaped oppression. His entirely self-made success led him to become known eventually as the Prince of the Air, a man who lived in our city and performed in our Colston Hall. After so much discussion of the negative aspects of our past, I hope this positive image can help us delight in some of our city’s successes. The original painting has been bought and now has a home in Bristol.
Carlos on display in Clifton Village, Bristol, UK in October 2017