A ‘particular body of men’: Trustees and Transatlantic Slavery at the National Portrait Gallery, London (1856-1906)
Trustees play a significant role in the governance of British cultural institutions but are often overlooked. Their influence continues to this day with trustee appointments becoming increasingly politicised. 73 men sat on the National Portrait Gallery’s board of trustees over its first fifty years. Prior to the gallery’s foundation, the liberal MP John Phillimore warned against limiting this group to a ‘particular body of men’, and yet the relatively small number of men appointed didrepresent a distinct section of Victorian society.
Through a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis, this paper seeks to examine how the National Portrait Gallery’s early trustees were linked to transatlantic slavery. The gallery was founded 23 years after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and so the trustees appointed in its first fifty years were largely generationally distanced from slavery. Yet this moment in the wake of abolition was also a period in which wealth derived from slavery, especially the compensation provided to enslavers for the loss of their ‘property’, continued to profoundly shape Britain. At this time, the descendants of enslavers could use their fortunes to refashion their identities and distance themselves from enslavement.
This paper aims to show to what degree cultural heritage governance, and more broadly connoisseurship, was a path for men with family involvement in transatlantic slavery. It seeks to undo the refashioning by reconnecting these men with the roots of their wealth that in many instances relied on the enslavement of African people. It also considers how to define involvement in slavery and the ethics of quantifying this history. These findings will be combined with further quantitative analysis to determine how involved each of the trustees were in the development of the National Portrait Gallery. Finally, it will explore how such research into institutional figures could be communicated in the gallery space to make the role of trustees and their connections to enslavement more visible.
Quantifying Empire: The National Gallery’s Foundational Figures and the British East and West Indies, 1824-1874
In 2018, the National Gallery investigated the connections that key figures in the Gallery had with slavery. Consequently, the Gallery presented biographies of each key figure and their respective links with slavery on their website. The data, however, does not show the impact that slavery (and more broadly the British Empire) had on the National Gallery, other than acknowledging that these links exist.
This paper presents a historical dataset created by the author which records 142 foundational figures – the trustees, donors, directors, keepers, sellers that contributed to the administration and collection of the Gallery from 1824 to 1874 – of the National Gallery and their family networks. The foundational figures’ family members are also included in this analysis, since family was important to the transference of wealth, pictures, and peerage from one generation to another in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Employing quantitative and qualitative methods, the research investigates and enumerates the number of foundational figures with links to the British Empire – both the British East and West Indies. In particular, the paper will analyse the type of links to empire, and the degree of these links (i.e. were they personally involved in imperial activities, or did they receive monetary benefits derived from such activities through their family members). The quantitative and genealogical methods used in this chapter provide a general understanding of the relationship between the British Empire and the individuals that contributed to the foundations of the National Gallery in its first fifty years. In tandem, the qualitative analysis provides the necessary context to understanding the data, and allows us to shape a narrative carefully crafted around the numerical figures. This paper shows the less visible legacies of the British Empire in the National Gallery, which needs to be addressed and made visible for visitors
Liberty Paterson is a third-year AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student at Birkbeck, University of London and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Her research examines the NPG’s links to transatlantic slavery, seeking to understand the impact of wealth derived from African enslavement on the NPG’s founders, donors, and the sitters represented in its portraits. She also aims to explore the methods the NPG could adopt to articulate and reflect upon the role of the slavery-based economy in the formation and communication of Britain’s cultural heritage.
Before starting her PhD, Liberty worked in museums and the art market. In her current research, she aims to bring together her background in art market provenance investigation with her interest in the politics of national memory and cultural representation. She recently co-curated the Bank of England Museum exhibition: Slavery & the Bank and is currently working on interpretation for the National Portrait Gallery’s Inspiring People redevelopment project as part of a CDP placement. Liberty co-convenes the CDP History of Collecting and Institutions Group, which hosts a series of monthly talks.
Sean Cham is a second-year PhD student on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project between London's National Gallery and Birkbeck, University of London. His research examines the legacies of the British Empire in the National Gallery. In particular, he is interested in the connections between the British East and West Indies, and the Gallery, through a quantitative and qualitative study of the Gallery’s foundational figures and their family networks. Cham is currently doing a placement with the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, University College London.
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