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Hannah Lee

MA work

Skin Deep: The Materiality of Skin Colour and the European Construction of the 'Other' in the Early Modern Mind, c.1450–1650

Taking as its starting point the wide range of objects made by Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth century that feature depictions of Africans, this dissertation explores the questions around the materiality of skin colour in the early modern period. It proposes that by focusing on both the materials used to make these objects, which include pieces of jewellery, ceramics and sculpture, and the techniques used to create them, it is possible to argue that the early modern perception of black skin was much more nuanced than previously understood.  From a group of early sixteenth century tin glazed ceramics to sardonyx cameos with portraits carved into the multiple layers of coloured stone, it is possible to argue that the subject of an African figure offered more than the iconographic opportunity to portray the ‘exotic’, acting as the ideal medium through which craftsmen could both represent their most sophisticated skills whilst exploring and representing the creative powers of nature from the microcosm of the workshop. Reading these objects in this manner proposes the suggestion that in the early modern mind black skin did not necessarily have negative connotations, representing not only luxurious materials and creative prowess but the divine creation of variety in nature, celebrated by scholars and craftsmen alike. 


  • Hannah Lee
  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2014

  • Degrees

  • BA (Hons) History, University of Oxford
  • Experience

  • Administrative assistant, Persephone Books
  • Awards

  • The Basil Taylor Memorial Prize, 2013
  • Publications

  • Column editor and contributor, Objects in Translation, Un-Making Things, 2013–2014