The National Gallery is today publishing detailed research into its links with slavery. The initial data, mainly covering the period between 1824 and 1880, records no fewer than 67 people with some connection. The links are either direct or through a professional encounter (such as the portrayal of a sitter involved in slavery) or someone owning a painting formerly belonging to a collector involved in the slave trade.
A further 27 named people had links to the abolitionist movement; another 27 had links to both slavery and abolition, an indication of the complexity of the issues. Research began in 2018, before the question became much more politically charged last year with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The National Gallery’s website states that “our project has started to find out about what links to slave-ownership can be traced within the gallery, and to what extent the profits from plantation slavery impacted our early history”. It stresses, however, that “inclusion on this list should not be understood to imply a direct connection with slavery”—many of the links are indirect.
Thomas Gainsborough, to take an example, painted three portraits with slavery links (all in other collections). The Byam Family (1762-66, on long-term loan to Holburne Museum, Bath) and The Baillie Family (about 1774, now Tate) are of sitters with links to the slave trade.
The third Gainsborough portrait is of Ignatius Sancho, who is depicted when he was a valet to the Duke of Montagu (1768, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). This work again illustrates the complexity of the issue, since although born a slave, Sancho later became a free man and was then employed by the duke. He eventually became a distinguished musician, writer and abolitionist. The work by Gainsborough is actually one of the most significant and dignified early portraits of an African sitter.
The most important individual covered in the research is John Julius Angerstein, who in 1824 sold 38 key paintings to the British government to establish the National Gallery’s collection. He amassed a fortune through marine insurance with what became Lloyd's of London. As the gallery’s research reports: “An unknown proportion of this was in slave ships and vessels bringing to Britain produce cultivated in the Caribbean by enslaved people. Angerstein acted as a trustee of estates and enslaved people in Grenada and Antigua.”
One omission from the list is the artist William Hogarth (who is well represented in the National Gallery collection), the subject of an exhibition which opened at Tate Britain last week (until 20 March 2022). The Tate presentation makes much of Hogarth’s links with slavery, although reviews of the show have generally been critical about the emphasis. To take an example, the exhibition caption for Self-portrait painting the Comic Muse (1757-58, National Portrait Gallery and recently on long-term loan to the National Gallery) depicts the seated artist. Tate’s caption points out that “the chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people”, arguably a rather tenuous link between Hogarth and slavery.
A National Gallery spokeswoman says that initial research for the “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” has focussed on the 19th century and Hogarth will be dealt with at a later stage. Further work is now underway to cover collectors from 1640 and trustees and donors from 1880 to 1920.