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The Artful Traveler: Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain

Unknown artist, Elihu Yale, the second Duke of Devonshire, Lord James Cavendish, Mr. Tunstal, and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire
Unknown artist, Elihu Yale, the second Duke of Devonshire, Lord James Cavendish, Mr. Tunstal, and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire

By Bobbie Leigh

Look closely at the painting at the entrance of “Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain.”  That is a long title for a small, but powerful exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. The painting you see in the first gallery is of  Elihu Yale, surrounded by a duke, his younger brother, and a lawyer.

How should we “read “this painting? Is it just a group of rich gentry in elaborate wigs enjoying a smoke. Or as  Cyra Levenson, one of the show’s curators says:  “It can also be understood as a tribute to the success of the 18th-century global economy, based on  slave-labor  that  produced  sugar, rum, cotton,  and tobacco from the East Indies and the American colonies.”  The men smoke and    drink a sweet wine from Madeira in crystal glasses. They have the look of self-satisfied aristocrats enjoying an easy gracious life. (Yale was a Welsh merchant, a governor of the East India Company. Asked by his friend Cotton Mather to aid the Collegiate School in Connecticut, Yale donated the proceeds of nine bales of goods together with 417 books.  The college was renamed for its benefactor in 1718.)

In the background of the Elihu Yale portrait we see a small group of children in what seems to be  a  large estate. In a corner of the painting, dressed in fine livery, is a young,  black, enslaved servant. Thus far, this is not  too  jarring a scene  as we know the landed gentry had house slaves.   Look again, however, and the young  page wears  a silver collar with a lock around his neck.

As you begin to explore the paintings, sculpture, and etchings in this show your focus changes from elegant women in satin gowns, successful hunters with their prey, and peaceful family scenes in posh drawing rooms to the black slaves who serve them. For the most part, they are young boys, tarted up with peacock feathers and livery, supposedly to show how wealthy the families were.

In eighteenth-century Britain slavery played a key role in the expansion of British wealth and prosperity. According to Levenson, the central theme of the exhibition is the impact of slavery on portraits at this time.  Capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of British bankers and their clients whose portraits we see.

Studio of Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, ca. 1758, black limestone on yellow marble socle, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Studio of Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, ca. 1758, black limestone on yellow marble socle, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Francis Harwood’s 1758 remarkable sculpture “Bust of a Man,”  perhaps modeled on an individual or an adaptation of a classic Greek sculpture. A third possibility is the bust might be an allegorical image of “Africa.”   To the untrained eye, it looks like a slave. The black limestone is glossy, perhaps evoking the practice of oiling   slaves’  skin to highlight their muscular strength.

Equally striking is a Bartholomew Dandridge portrait (c.1691-1754) of a young girl in a private garden.  She is dressed in lace-trimmed finery with a dog at her side. An enslaved servant hands her a basket overflowing with peaches and grapes. The servant, a young boy, and the dog both wear metal collars to mark them as property.

William Hogarth, Portrait of a Family, ca. 1735, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
William Hogarth, Portrait of a Family, ca. 1735, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In one of the most surprising paintings in this show, William Hogarth’s  1735 “Portrait of a Family,” the image of a slave was cut sometime after  it was completed.  Typical of the conversation piece genre of portrait painting, the sitters seem to be enjoying their time together.  The room is opulent and crammed with goods from overseas—a silver chandelier, a Chinese vase and a lacquerware cabinet among others. The servant is missing: we see only his hands, holding a silver tray.

“Figures of Empire” confirms that servants in these portraits were understood as property.  Many of the images may have been modeled after individuals.  “We see how everyone depicted—both black and white — are ‘figures of empire,’ individuals whose lives were shaped by the transatlantic slave trade,” says Levenson.

In  1807, British slave trade was abolished.  In 1834, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Yet as the catalogue emphasizes,  although slavery  was abolished the economic, social, and cultural hierarchies  they created “persisted and took new forms  in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as Western attitudes began to harden increasingly along racial lines.”

For a closer look, visit the Yale Center for British Art. The exhibition is on view through December 14, 2014.

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