The National Gallery Probes Slavery Links

November 10 2021

Image of The National Gallery Probes Slavery Links

Picture: The National Gallery, London

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

The National Gallery in London have made news headlines over the past few days for a report they have published investigating the links of paintings and individuals with slavery. This includes an examination of John Julius Angerstein (pictured), a key figure in the gallery's history who owned shares in a company that had in part profited from slave ships.

According to an article published in the The Art Newspaper:

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.

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.

The article has also pointed out the many and various references to slavery included within the Tate's current Hogarth exhibition. A particular mention is made of the printed caption for Hogarth's Self-portrait painting the Comic Muse (NPG):

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.

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There are of course many various ways at looking at art. Although the prevailing fashion is to see absolutely everything through the often narrow lens of contemporary politics and morals, there surely must be room to argue the aesthetic case too?

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