In Focus

The National Gallery and slavery: a complex legacy

Gallery has published report linking some of its most famous donors, artists and paintings to the Atlantic slave trade

The National Gallery has published a report that links “a significant part of its collection”, and some of its most famous donors, artists and paintings to the Atlantic slave trade, said Craig Simpson in The Daily Telegraph.

Begun in 2018, the study covers the period from the institution’s founding in 1824 to 1880. It reveals that several important bequests to the gallery in its early years were made by those who derived their fortunes in part from slavery. John Julius Angerstein, whose sale of 38 paintings to the British government in 1824 provided the core of the National Gallery’s early collection, made “part of his fortune in insurance for slave ships”; Constable’s The Hay Wain was donated by a man who inherited slavery-derived wealth.

Yet the report also names figures whose links to the slave trade are merely “incidental”, and who had no “direct connection” to it, such as Thomas Gainsborough, because he painted several portraits of people who owned West Indian estates; and William Wordsworth, because his sister’s rented cottage was leased by a slave owner.

The approach provoked some criticism. “Casting the historic slavery net as wide as this ensures that hardly anyone can be free of some links,” remarked Dr Zareer Masani, a historian of the British empire.

Other specialists complained that the report didn’t go nearly far enough, said Nadia Khomami in The Guardian. “Acknowledgment is a very fine thing but it is not a reparation for that crime,” commented Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora. “Indeed, I see no mention that the National Gallery is planning to do anything as a result of this research.”

A spokesperson clarified that any painting’s connection to the slave trade would be made explicit on an accompanying picture caption, to allow visitors to “determine for themselves the nature and extent of these connections”. However, the museum will not remove any picture from display on account of its association with slavery. Further instalments of the study are to follow, tracing the origins of the gallery’s collection from 1640 to 1920.

24 November 2021: A spokesperson for the National Gallery said its labels “already mark clearly where paintings are associated with slavery and have done for a number of years, so we will not be updating any labels based on this research”.

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