Originally entitled ‘A Negress’, this enigmatic portrait by Leeds-born artist Phil May (1864–1903) poses more questions than answers to whoever dares to look at her eyes long enough:

Who was this woman?

Why is she dressed this way?

When and where was the drawing made?

What was the artist’s intention? Did he mean to be offensive?

Who gave it that title?

Why is it in Leeds Art Gallery now?

Image credit: Phil May, A Negress [Historic Title. Please note this title is currently being reviewed], 1901, Coloured chalk on paper, 1050 x 650mm © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Deciphering Phil May’s portrait

Largely overlooked for more than a century, Phil May’s portrait has been extensively researched and thoroughly discussed in collaboration with Leeds black communities. This has been done thanks to a curatorial fellowship granted by the Understanding British Portraits network with a focus on decolonising collections. As such, the project aims for a wider range of voices to be represented in the gallery and for some difficult conversations to take place openly. We want to expand the way our collection is understood and ultimately documented for future generations.

If you want to find out more about the project and hear the participants’ diverse, honest, insightful and emotional responses to the artwork, explore the sections below or simply scan the QR code to view on a mobile device.

We would also love to hear from you, so please share your own ideas and comments using the provided online form at the bottom of the page.

Participants’ responses

Swipe between or click the tabs to browse the audio recordings.

The Negress by Lea

Deciphered – My Fair Lady by John

Key supporting images

A selection of images of Phil May, other examples of black subjects in his work and some key documents.

Click the enlarge button to view each image and learn more about it.

Share your own responses to the artwork

Do you have any thoughts or comments about the artwork you would like to share with us? If so, please submit your responses using the form below. We would love to hear from you!


With thanks to all the amazing participants and the Understanding British Portrait network for making this project possible as well as Christelle Pellecuer for her mentorship around decolonising practice. We would also like to thank the following organisations and individuals for their support through the course of the project:

Alex Patterson (National Museums Liverpool), Leeds Culturally Diverse Hub and Abigail Olaleye (Project Lead), Rebecca Cook and Leeds City Council BAME Staff Network, Stephanie Roberts, Gethin Jones, Ulrike Smalley (National Museum Cardiff), Peter Charlton (British Music Hall Society), Dr Tony Lidington and Cathy Haill (V&A) as well as all the generous researchers and curators who answered our queries and provided information for this project.

Thumbnail images designed by Lea Vandewalle.

Supported by:

Understanding British Portraits

Listen on your own device
Find out more about the project and hear the participants’ diverse, honest, insightful and emotional responses to the artwork.