Danny Keen: 'For me Norfolk is a place where dreams can come true'
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
When Danny Keen began work in the kitchens at Harrods he spent his meal breaks perched on a box by a back entrance. His white colleagues could eat in the canteen – but not Danny.
In 1960s London racism was overt and every-day. Behind the glamorous façade of a top department store a form of apartheid existed. “We were all West Indians led by a foreman from Trinidad, none of us were allowed to eat in the staff restaurant. Whites only. We had to eat sitting on boxes by the back door of the kitchen,” said Danny.
Born in Jamaica, he was just four when he arrived in Britain. His grandfather had fought for Britain in the First World War and in 1950 his mother left her young children in the care of her sisters in Jamaica to travel to Britain to work in a factory - sending for Danny to join her two years later. “Living conditions in Notting Hill Gate were harsh for everyone, but only the worst was available for us,” said Danny. “Racial prejudice was at the core of British life then. West Indians were the lowest level of a class-based fading colonial empire. Everything was stacked against us.”
And yet there was inspiration and opportunity too.
Today Danny is a respected artist with his paintings hung in museums, galleries and the Houses of Parliament. He traces his art career back to his London primary school, where prints of Pre-Raphaelite paintings hung on corridor walls.
“It was the wonderful Victorian portraits on the walls which inspired me to be a portrait painter,” said Danny. “Millais, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Among them was a famous black beautiful Jamaican woman who was not only painted by them but also became an artist in her own right. Fanny Eaton was a great inspiration.”
Danny went on to study art but said: “What was I going to do with a degree in fine art? There were no opportunities for me.”
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However, there were jobs, and opportunities, in catering. Working six night-shifts a week to fund himself through catering college, he went on to cook in fine-dining restaurants in London.
When he first moved to Norwich more than 30 years ago he bought a bakery and café but was defeated by trying to fit family life around 4am starts. “A baker’s life was not for me!” he said.
However, Norfolk life very much was for him.
“Why Norfolk? The rich cultural life of this county, and the friendliness of people.
“I followed artist friends from London to Norfolk. Norfolk has a thriving arts community. I came up here to stay with artist friends and thought why live in London when I could live in Norfolk?” said Danny.
After the bakery experiment he went on to become executive head chef for an outside catering company and then opened a French restaurant, De Lubeck, in North Walsham, which garnered very good reviews including the then reviewer of this paper. “He said my food was as good as his favourite restaurant in France!” said Danny, who also ran the Buckinghamshire Arms at Blickling, and then Alibi jazz club in Norwich.
“It was very successful so I was able to retire!” said Danny.
And finally he could embark on the career he had always wanted.
“Becoming an artist was my only burning ambition,” he said. “When I stopped catering I started painting, and I decided the way to go was portraits. Portraits of the diaspora, the immigrants, people like myself.”
It became a project to highlight the achievements of black people and he painted dramatic, colour-drenched portraits of war heroes, film stars, sports icons, scientists, a pioneering nurse...”
Right now he is now working on a portrait of Dame Floella Benjamin. His wish-list includes Lenny Henry. “I think he’s marvellous. His story is great, the progression of his career from the Black and White Minstrel Show to becoming a Shakespearean actor, I just think he’s a wonderful man,” said Danny, who takes photographs of his subjects and then paints back in Norfolk. “I can’t get people to sit still while I’m painting. I take too long!”
He photographed Dame Floella at the House of Lords – where one of his portraits, of champion boxer James Oyebola, hangs in the office of Big Issue founder Lord John Bird. It was originally commissioned it for London’s City Hall and unveiled by the then mayor, Boris Johnson.
One of Danny’s portraits of Lord Bird also hangs in the Houses of Parliament. Danny first met him while working as a Harrods pot washer and said: “My lifelong friend John Bird was a member of London’s colourful street community. He would come to the back door and share my food."
He has also painted several portraits of soldier Johnson Beharry, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in Iraq. Two hang in the Imperial War Museum and the Tower of London.
Another subject is actor Roger Nsengiyumva who was born in Rwanda as genocide convulsed the country. His father was murdered when he was just nine days old and his mother battled to keep Roger alive through 100 days of horror. They were given sanctuary in Norwich and Danny said: “It shows how you can start from the lowest and most disadvantaged circumstances and end up a success. It’s what living in Norfolk is about.
“I moved here seeking a better place to raise my children. In Norfolk I have lived amongst neighbours who are gifted artists, writers and musicians, as well as farmers and landowners. Many are life-long friends.”
He and his wife, Wendy, have four daughters and three grandchildren. “Norfolk was a brilliant place to raise children,” said Danny. One daughter is a museum and heritage consultant, another a personal trainer and former British judo champion, one a solicitor and one an overseas development and charity worker. “And Wendy had a long career in the fashion industry working with her sister, the famous designer, Janice Wainwright,” said Danny.
Despite his love for his adopted county, there were problems too, but Danny said: “It would be easy to dwell on the incidents of racism that I and my children experienced, but they would not characterise our lives in Norfolk."
They included being stopped by police when he used to work late nights in Norwich, and being challenged for trespassing when he moved to a new house in north Norfolk.
“I did come across someone who told me to keep out of their town and not come back. But I haven’t been surrounded by people like that,” he said. “The developments that I have seen in equality and diversity have been vast. Modern Britain is hardly recognisable as the same country where I arrived in 1952.” However, he cautioned that while legislation rooted out overt racism, much institutional prejudice is only just beginning to be addressed. “I think there is still a lot of work to be done,” he said.
As chairman of Norfolk and Norwich Black History Month he is part of that work.
“And yes, Norfolk does have a rich black history!” he said. “Black History is a blank page which has not yet been written, and it is us who have got to do it.
“In Norfolk, where better to find out about one of the most famous Native American women in the world, and one of the most famous women linked to Norfolk? As chair of the Norfolk and Norwich black history month, the Norfolk and Norwich part is just as important as the Black History part.
“How many people in Norfolk don’t know about Pocahontas? For people like myself Pocahontas stands for so many things. She symbolises equality and diversity and how races can come together. She was the first mixed race church marriage in America. And it is because of that marriage that north America is English speaking, not French or Spanish speaking. She married a Norfolk man and came to Norfolk. So many of us West Indians were not aware that we have Native American links. I had my DNA analysed and am 53pc indigenous American and south east Asian.
“Horatio Nelson’s first sea voyage was to Jamaica when he was a 13-year-old boy sailor. One of his sons with Lady Hamilton married the famous Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole.
“This county was the home to some of the most ardent abolitionists lead by Thomas Buxton and Elisabeth Fry. One of the most famous and glamorous black families in the world, the Duleep Singhs are associated with Norfolk. This county saw the first black mayor in the country, and so much more…”
Danny lives in the centre of Norwich and paints at Yarmouth’s Primeyarc studio and exhibition space. “The Great Yarmouth arts scene is fantastic,” he said. “Great Yarmouth has got such a wonderful mixed community. It’s a really exciting place to be.”
And he said Yarmouth’s black history includes 19th century novelist Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness about a journey into Africa and was a sailor based in Yarmouth for 20 years. “I see that as black history. If a man writes a novel about Africa it’s not only white history, it’s black history,” said Danny.
Danny has embraced Norfolk, and it has embraced him back.
“I am proud to call Norfolk my home. It has allowed me and my family to develop,” he said.
And this artist son of a Jamaican subsistence farmer knows he is also a son of Norfolk.
“I was once told you can only be considered a Norfolk person after your family has been here three generations. I have never felt that, even once," he said. “For me Norfolk is a place you can go to and all your dreams can come true.”
What you are reading, watching and listening to?
Reading: Autobiography of Sir Trevor Mcdonald. It’s fascinating. I’d love him to pose for one of my paintings.
Watching: African Apocalypse with Femi Nylander. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness inspired Femi to find out about the genocide of people in Africa by a French army officer.
Listening to: All my life I have listened to jazz, boogie woogie, blues, calypso, ska and reggae.
Norfolk and Norwich Black History Month runs until the end of October. Events still to come include:
An African dance workshop, followed by dancing to the Panafro Band, on Saturday October 23 in Tombland, Norwich. Proceeds to Uganda Support Fund.
Norwich Black History Guided Tours led by Paul Dickson on October 24 and 29.
A day celebrating the legacy of suffragist Princess Catherine Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh of Punjab and Mahamari Bamba from Abyssinia, at the Ancient House Museum in Thetford on Friday October 29.
For tickets and full details of all events visit norfolkblackhistorymonth.org