Esther Chadwick: Castaway

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).


What better way to illuminate the theme of ‘islands’ than by re-enacting Desert Island Discs? Radio 4’s much-loved series has been entertaining the British public since 1945, and today it stands as a treasured tune-in across the country. My castaway is Dr Esther Chadwick, who kindly agreed to share her choice of eight discs, a book and a luxury item, along with some insights into her interests and ambitions. Her song choices, she states, are selected not only because she loves them deeply, but because they say something about her history.


Seated in the National Gallery, following our ‘Possibilities of Portraiture’ class, Esther began by describing her specialism:


I’m interested in the eighteenth century because of its paradoxes and contradictions. On one hand, it’s seen as a century of freedom, enlightenment and progress, but on the other, it is a century that witnesses, for example, the height of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s this dialectic I’m interested in, and I think nothing better illuminates it than art history.


In the past, I’ve worked on the relationship between portraiture and slavery, precisely as a site for negotiating this tension between civility, politeness, wealth, and the dark side of the Enlightenment. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” as Walter Benjamin said.