“Jessica my dear,” the letter begins “Both you and the children have been in my thoughts every day. In three days I will be on my way to England.” Three weeks after penning these words in 1956, Eric Huntley arrived in London by way of steamship, having just been released from a year’s detention in his native Guyana.
And so the couple, who had been prominent figures in the push for Guyanese independence, were at last reunited, devoted as much to waving the banner for social and racial justice as they were to each other.
The letter is a small part of a major exhibition on the fruits of their extraordinary teamwork, which saw them involved in the seminal movements that shaped Black Britain in the last five decades of the 20th century, and which coalesced around Bogle L’Ouverture, the bookshop that the two opened in 1974.
Based in the elegant surroundings of the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City, No Colour Bar melds together the Huntley’s personal archive with an intriguing range of paintings and artwork, both those the couple were associated with and more contemporary pieces by the likes of Tam Joseph and Sonia Boyce to reveal the continuing thread of activism they helped to inspire.
“We were never just about publishing and selling books,” explains Eric. “We were activists who saw culture as an expression of the political struggle, and this is a journey that continues.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a recreation of Bogle L’Ouverture bookstore by Michael McMillan whose installation of the West Indian Front Room a few years back caused such a rush of nostalgia.
Named after two slaves turned freedom fighters, the bookstore became a literary and political hub, with poetry readings, book launches and lectures, as well as a community centre where people would come to get advice and information.
“I almost forgot sometimes we were there to sell books,” Jessica once told me.
Renamed in memory of Walter Rodney, the radical scholar who was assassinated in 1980, it started life in the front room of their home in the London suburb of Ealing, causing such consternation among neighbours that the couple, who had three children, were eventually forced to rent premises.
The bookshop was a natural follow-on of the eponymous publishing company they launched in 1968 with the publication of Rodney’s collection of essays, The Groundings With My Brothers. In 1972 they brought out his most influential work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Three years later, came the groundbreaking Dread Beat and Blood, a collection of verse by Linton Kwesi Johnson, one of a number of little known writers the Huntleys championed.
Like London’s other pioneer black publishing house, John La Rose’s New Beacon Books in Islington, Bogle L’Ouverture also drew on the talents of an array or artists through its posters, book covers and greeting cards, including Errol Lloyd.
The bookshop was attacked by the National Front on a number of occasions during the 1970s but in the end it was crippling rents that saw it close down in 1989. However, the publishing arm continued and included the republication of Donald Hinds’ 1966 book Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain in 2001 and A Soh Life Goh by Jamaican poet Valerie Bloom in 2008.
Jessica died in 2013, leaving Eric to continue supervising the archive and its development into an exhibition.
“It’s a really terrific show and fulfils all expectations,” he says. “It is only a pity that Jessica is no longer around to see it. She would have been very humbled to know that all the work we and others put in over the years was worth it.”
No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990 is at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London EC2, until January 24. The Huntley archive is housed at the London Metropolitan Archives, London EC1
This article first appeared in West End Extra on July 17, 2015