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Slavery at the Fitzwilliam. Empire at the Royal Academy. Two Exhibitions Compared

Fig 5 Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779 (David Martin)
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Written by Lawrence Goldman

Two exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Royal Academy in London present new accounts of Atlantic slavery and the British empire. But both show the intrinsic difficulty of using art to make historical arguments and in both, the lives of slaves and indigenous peoples seem to recede from view.

Two exhibitions in leading galleries this winter provide an opportunity to assess the new ways in which British history is being depicted. In late 2023, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge put on ‘Black Atlantic. Power People Resistance’ and The Royal Academy is currently running ‘Entangled Pasts 1768-Now. Art, Colonialism and Change’. The former presents the history of the slave trade and slavery in the British empire; the latter is about…well, the kitchen sink. According to the notice as one enters, its 100 artworks explore ‘the role of art in shaping narratives of empire, colonialism, enslavement, resistance, abolition and indenture’. The label explaining the exhibition’s catalogue describes ‘an exploration of migration, exchange, artistic traditions, identity and belonging’. And one of its major exhibits, a 3-screen film called Vertigo Sea made in 2015 by John Akomfrah, ‘weaves together histories of migration, enslavement and colonisation with war, conflict and ecological concerns’. No wonder other reviews have complained about the confusions in ‘Entangled Pasts’.[i] The visitor walks through rooms in which works of art from past and present, the West Indies and India, London and Haiti, have been thrown together with only the most tenuous thematic rationale.

But the verbiage can be set aside because both exhibitions are really about the galleries themselves. Like BBC comedians today and teenagers at any time, the curators really want to talk about themselves rather than the slaves or the colonised. Entangled Pasts is about ‘connections between art associated with the Royal Academy of Arts and Britain’s colonial histories’. Interestingly, only one Academician ever owned slaves and he was the American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) whose celebrated career on both sides of the Atlantic began in Boston, Massachusetts. He came to England in 1774 aged thirty-six. In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, meanwhile, Black Atlantic is a kind of penance for the founder, Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who in 1816 left his collections and £100,000 to the university for ‘a Good, Substantial and Convenient Museum’ to be named after him.[ii] A significant part of his fortune derived from his maternal grandfather, Sir Matthew Decker, a city merchant and financier who helped establish the South Sea Company and was a Director of the Royal African Company, which both traded slaves. Decker was born in the Netherlands, in fact, and he didn’t come to London until he was thirty-three.[iii]

These rationales are unconvincing. That the Royal Academy had entangling connections to the British empire is hardly surprising: to show us this is merely to tell us that the Academy was of its time. Can that be worthy of repentance? In the case of Richard Fitzwilliam, we might have been invited to reflect that the money made two generations before him in a very bad cause had been re-purposed to give us one of the finest galleries in Britain – that some good had come out of the evils of the slave trade. But we are not. The two exhibitions are united in their joint belief that the sins of the fathers can never be expunged.

The sheer meanness of this approach is captured in the label at the Royal Academy that accompanies Copley’s lovely portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, c. 1758, two very beautiful sisters, perhaps aged twelve and ten, and the souls of innocence. [Fig. 1] They are to be remembered today not for their own qualities and the delightful manner of their depiction, but for the sins of their father: ‘The portrait shows the daughters of Isaac Royall Jr, who owned a sugar plantation in Antigua and enslaved people in colonial Massachusetts. The only clue to the source of the family’s wealth is the native Antiguan hummingbird resting on Mary’s hand’. In the minds of the curators, these young women’s significance derives only from their parentage and connections to slavery, over which they had no choice or control. They have been dehumanised: they are exhibited for the history they supposedly reflect, not for the people they were.

Fig 1 Mary and Elizabeth Royall, c. 1758 (John Singleton Copley)

Fig 1 Mary and Elizabeth Royall, c. 1758 (John Singleton Copley)

At least Black Atlantic tries to provide historical information and background on its labels and noticeboards. Entangled Pasts, however, offers no timelines and explanations of the way the British empire evolved: the founding of colonies, wherever and whenever, is, in the view taken by this exhibition, morally heinous, so why bother to explain or give the visitors anything to hang onto? But the exhibitions are alike in another way: they both exhibit the tyranny of the present over the past, a state of mind in which the curators have themselves colonised history and bent it to their wills in a form of reverse-imperialism. The feature that most compromises both exhibitions is the inclusion of contemporary works of critical, ‘de-colonial’ art. At the Royal Academy they take up half the show.

Their presence makes it evident that we are not being immersed in the past and encouraged to understand history as it was experienced by the slaves and the slaveholders, the colonial merchants and their servants. Instead – and of course – it is intended that we judge from today, just as the contemporary artists have judged. Their art is highly self-conscious: it doesn’t depict so much as critique. In the Royal Academy I had the sense that I was being emotionally and intellectually manipulated, told what to think and how to interpret what I was seeing by the presence of these critical works, many of them lacking the aesthetic qualities of the older ‘colonial art’ because they are really a type of modern agitprop. It is surely significant that hardly a label or comment in either of these exhibitions was of an aesthetic nature. The visitor is never encouraged to admire style, perspective, composition, technique, brush work or other painterly or craft qualities.

This is not an oversight. The objects in both exhibitions are not prized for their intrinsic worth but because they apparently provide a history lesson. But do they? Can works of art shown in an art gallery really explain the past in the way the curators want them to? Take the first room in the Royal Academy, devoted to portraits of people of colour who mainly lived in the eighteenth century, including Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the abolitionist [Fig. 2]; Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Francis Barber, born into slavery but eventually the servant and companion of the great Samuel Johnson [Fig. 3]; and an unknown ‘Man in a Red Suit’, also shown in the Fitzwilliam exhibition, who may be the famous black abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, in a portrait previously attributed to both Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay [Fig. 4]. The lighting and décor of this room are designed to evoke reverence, and rightly so because these are magnificent portraits of black men in Georgian Britain, painted by the finest artists of the age.

Fig 2. Ignatius Sancho, 1768 (Thomas Gainsborough)

Fig 2. Ignatius Sancho, 1768 (Thomas Gainsborough)

 

Fig 3 Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, c. 1770 (Joshua Reynolds)

Fig 3 Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, c. 1770 (Joshua Reynolds)

Fig 4. Portrait of a man in a red suit (Olaudah Equiano) (Joshua Reynolds or  Allan Ramsay)

Fig 4. Portrait of a man in a red suit (Olaudah Equiano) (Joshua Reynolds or  Allan Ramsay)

An unsuspecting and open-minded visitor to the exhibition might justifiably conclude that they were men of high status and esteem, though this is unlikely to be the  impression that the exhibition’s curators wish to convey. As we look at these portraits, it’s hard to believe that, in the words of the notice in this room entitled ‘Sites of Power’, ‘a recalibration’ of the western artistic tradition is required. Later in the exhibition, the charming portrait of the second cousins ‘Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray’ who lived in the household of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, and which was painted by David Martin in 1779, is another such example, this time of a woman of colour depicted with sensitivity and appreciation [Fig. 5]. Mansfield, of course, handed down the famous Somerset judgment in 1772 after the slave James Somerset applied for his freedom. He ruled that no slave brought to England could be returned as a slave to the West Indies. That Dido Belle was Mansfield’s ward led planters to question his judicial impartiality.[iv]

Fig 5 Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779 (David Martin)

Fig 5 Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779 (David Martin)

There is a genuine disconnection between what the exhibition wants us to think about the past and what these canvases, and the lives they depict, are telling us. These eighteenth century likenesses, and those of other Africans and Caribbeans from the same period that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, often the servants of gentlemen who chose to include them in their portraits, express admiration, respect and affection.[v] The art itself subverts the intentions of the curators, and in so doing, raises questions about those intentions.

In Cambridge meanwhile, in an exhibition devoted to the history of slavery, the limitations intrinsic to showing works of art in an art gallery create an exhibition in which the experience of the slaves – surely the point of Black Atlantic – is largely absent. We see the tea pots and coffee cups in which Europeans drank the products of slaves’ labour in the West Indies, and the punch bowls from which they celebrated colonial victories in the Caribbean. These material objects are in ready supply in museum collections. But we don’t see objects that might help us understand what it was like to be a slave: clothes, tools, agricultural machinery, chains, ledgers and overseers’ books in which they entered slave prices and slave punishments. Of course, many of these objects have not survived: but slavery cannot really be understood through the material culture of the enslavers.

In short, works of art are complex, their interpretation is never easy, and the objects to hand, especially those held in collections that have been put together for aesthetic reasons – for their beauty, craftsmanship, and place in the history of taste – will not depict the social history that curators want to tell us. Material objects cannot be plonked in galleries and just made to do a job. If you want to understand the history of slavery or empire, you will be better off reading a book than going to these exhibitions.

Both are marred by errors and omissions. At the Royal Academy one room is devoted to Sir Isaac Julien’s film installation, Lessons of the Hour, made in 2019 and depicting scenes from the life of Frederick Douglass. It’s inclusion is distinctly odd – another example of grabbing anything to hand? – because, although Douglass made two trips to Britain in the mid-1840s and at the very end of the 1850s, he was born a slave in Maryland. To be told that he travelled around Britain ‘as one of the most influential campaigners against slavery’; that he ‘was the most photographed person in the USA’ in the nineteenth century; and that he gave ‘public lectures on the potential of photography’ without much more detail or context hardly does justice to the single most important black American between the 1840s and the 1880s.

The drama and significance of his life are neither captured by the notice in the room nor, in my view, by Julien’s static and portentous film. Douglass had several different owners; escaped to freedom from slave labour in the shipyards of Baltimore; became an anti-slavery lecturer and protégé of the leader of American abolition, William Lloyd Garrison; published one of the most important slave narratives about his life in bondage; ran his own anti-slavery newspaper; was implicated in John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859; was the first free African American to step inside the White House; and became President Lincoln’s confidante on matters affecting the black communities, both slave and free, during the Civil War. It was while Douglass was in Britain in the mid-1840s that his freedom was purchased from his American owner, largely by British subscriptions. The great Liberal politician John Bright gave a quarter of the required amount himself.

It’s quite a life story and it’s not altogether clear that the curators know it. They certainly fail to communicate it on the relevant notice. Nor are they willing to explain the role of British workers in the emancipation of American slaves. The ‘scarcity of cotton during the American Civil War’ and the resultant crisis in ‘the British textiles industry’ which was reliant on this slave-grown commodity, are featured in a later room on a board entitled ‘Constructing Whiteness’, but not the stoicism of hundreds of thousands of Lancashire cotton workers, who accepted short-time and lay-offs as the price to be paid for the freedom of black slaves four thousand miles away. This is not mentioned but is so well known that its oversight cannot be accidental.[vi]

In the Fitzwilliam, meanwhile, the problems are sensationalism and trivialisation. One of our readers, Prudence Jones, queried with the museum a label that suggested a direct link between the composition of the song ‘Rule, Britannia!’ circa 1740 and celebration of the Atlantic slave trade, and her perseverance and strong arguments, backed by evidence, led the museum to amend the label while the show was still running. History Reclaimed has published her account here:  https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/rule-britannia-at-the-fitzwilliam-museum-cambridge/

Under a board entitled ‘The University, longitude and enslavement’ (and Cambridge had nothing to do with either of these things) a sextant dating from the 1760s from the St. John’s College observatory is exhibited. This, we’re told, made maritime navigation ‘including slaving voyages, more efficient’. We’re also told that it was ‘to make the defence of trading routes and slaving voyages more successful’ that the Admiralty offered the prize that led to the development of the chronometer, an instrument for the calculation of longitude. This is tendentious. John Harrison, inventor of the chronometer, had nothing to do with slavery as Dava Sobel’s bestselling book, Longitude, makes clear.[vii] Following this illogic, would it have been better if accurate navigation had never been devised and thousands of sailors had perished, along with their cargoes, including slaves? By the same reasoning, it would have been better not to have invented the altimeter because it has been used by planes which have bombed civilians.

Richard Waller’s 1686 essay ‘Table of Coloures’ which devised a typology of pigments and was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, is impugned for using the term ‘negro-black’. It is taken to be a racial slur, but it may more simply reflect an etymological fact, that the word for black in many European languages derives from the root ‘negre’. Waller’s use of the term is then employed as the flimsiest example ‘of the enormous role European scientists play in the justification of anti-black racism’.[viii]

The exhibition continues to attack the western academic tradition, once more on the flimsiest of grounds. The ornithologist, Alfred Newton, working on the island of St. Croix, where his family owned a plantation, apparently failed to acknowledge the help he’d received from three ‘black ornithologists’ – Andrew, Thomas and Robert who were recently emancipated slaves – in the collection of specimens. This, we’re told, ‘highlights a hierarchy imposed by Western academia. Although indigenous and enslaved people have knowledge, it is only recognised as science when it is published.’ One wonders how many Cambridge scientists today acknowledge in their papers the lab technicians, administrative staff, secretaries, cleaners and bottle washers who make it all possible?

Then, the botanist William Houston is criticised for the sin of publishing a book in Latin in 1781: Reliqulae Houstounianae: seu Plantarium in America Meridionali: ‘The entire book is in Latin’ fumes the label, ‘restricting the findings to those with a so-called ‘classical’ European education’.[ix] At this point Black Atlantic is scraping the barrel. Such spurious indignation about matters so peripheral to its declared subject is evidence of the trivialisation that runs through an exhibition that loses its way. Twelve million black Africans were transported across the Atlantic between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries to work on plantations across two vast continents. Of these, more than 10% died on the ‘middle passage’ alone. That would be worth discussing and illustrating at great length. But Black Atlantic devotes space and indignation to Thomas, who climbed trees to collect green herons’ eggs on the Newton estate, but failed to receive his due.[x]

When the Black Atlantic exhibition displays the famous image of slaves packed into the hold of the slave ship Brookes, named after the Liverpool family which owned it, it is taken from a copy of Thomas Clarkson’s ‘History…of the Atlantic Slave-Trade’ published in 1808, and the exhibition dates the diagram of the Brookes to that year.[xi] [Fig 6] In fact, the image was published by Clarkson in 1788, twenty years before. During the intervening two decades, Clarkson and many other anti-slavery lecturers used it to illustrate the evils of the slave trade in thousands of anti-slavery meetings across Britain. Using the date of publication of Clarkson’s book instead of the date of publication of the diagram may be an error, but if so, it is a very ignorant error, one that writes out of the historical record years of campaigning to end the slave trade, and it serves to underline a fundamental point: that the Fitzwilliam exhibition on the history of Atlantic slavery is not interested in its abolition.

Fig 6. The Slave Ship Brookes (1788)

Fig 6. The Slave Ship Brookes (1788)

This is no surprise. The University of Cambridge has studiously avoided the discussion of the anti-slavery movement in its two recent reports on the university’s links with slavery and the slave-trade, of which there were none: neither the university nor any of its colleges ever directly owned a plantation or a slave.[xii] Indeed, as is now quite widely understood, Cambridge had a most distinguished record as a centre in its own right of anti-slavery, and was the place where many of the leaders of the movement – Peter Peckard, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and various members of the Clapham Sect – were educated. But an exhibition on slavery, mounted in Cambridge, doesn’t allude to this.

The omission, and the many errors and exaggerations (too many to discuss in full) thus compromise what should have been a genuinely informative exhibition. No one could object to exhibitions that honestly and effectively tell the history of slavery and empire, though for myself, I doubt if this can be achieved in galleries dedicated to the collection and exhibition of works of art. But these exhibitions – and Cambridge promises more of them[xiii] – are best understood as performative rather than informative. In the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Royal Academy consciences are paraded, guilt is attributed, and virtue is signalled. Because these are the actuating motives, the subjects of the exhibitions, the slaves in the Atlantic world and the indigenous peoples of the empire, seem to recede from view, crowded out by canvases, tea pots, punch bowls, self-indulgent modern art, films, confected indignation and rhetoric.

My distinct impression is that the British public senses this. Entangled Lives opened on February 2nd and I went to see it at midday on Saturday February 10th. I’d expected to have to fight my way through scrums of concerned citizens to see the exhibits, but the audience was small and widely scattered. There’s no appetite for exhibitions that tell us that we’re guilty when we know we’re not. Nor is there much appetite for exhibitions that, despite the intrinsic interest and critical importance of their subjects, are just not any good.


[i] Alastair Sooke, ‘Entangled Pasts: the RA’s reckoning with art’s colonial history is a meandering, dull mess’, Daily Telegraph, 30 January 2024.

[ii] Lucilla Burn and Suzanne Reynolds, ‘Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[iii] Perry Gauci, ‘Sir Matthew Decker (1679-1749)’, ODNB.

[iv] Reyahn King, ‘Belle, Dido Elizabeth’ (1761?-1804), ODNB

[v] For other paintings depicting black subjects sympathetically, see, for example, Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Mai’ (1776) and ‘Munnoo (William Munnew) and William Hickey’ by William Thomas (1819), both in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[vi] Noticeboard ‘Beauty & Difference: Constructing Whiteness’. For popular knowledge of the sacrifices made by textile workers during the American Civil War, listen to ‘The Lancashire Cotton Famine’, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05tly3f

[vii] Dava Sobel, Longitude. The True History of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (New York, 2007).

[viii] Exhibit: ‘Historical race-based sciences’

[ix] Exhibit: ‘Publishing botanical research’

[x] Exhibits: ‘Black Ornithologists’ Research’ and ‘Thomas, Black Student of Birds’: ‘Thomas, a young emancipated Black man living on the Newton estate on St. Croix, climbs a tree to collect these green heron eggs. His discovery appears, without credit, in the ‘Ibis’ – the first scientific journal in Britain for ornithology, the study of birds’.

[xi] Exhibit: ‘An Iconic Image. 1808’. Thomas Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade (London, 1808).

[xii] University of Cambridge, Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement final Report, https://www.cam.ac.uk/about-the-university/advisory-group-on-legacies-of-enslavement-final-report;

Lawrence Goldman, ‘The problem with Cambridge University’s Slavery Report’, The Spectator, 27 Sept. 2022.

[xiii] Board: ‘Creating Change Together’: ‘[Cambridge] Museums are making a commitment to reparative justice. More exhibitions are planned’.

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Lawrence Goldman

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