Clothing, power and portraiture
By Richard Drayton
Published on 29 January 2024
Historian Richard Drayton decodes the potent messages behind the clothing worn in late 18th-century portraits.
Barely 20, John Singleton Copley, the Boston-born future Academician, received the extraordinary commission to paint the daughters of Isaac Royall Jr. This resulted in Mary and Elizabeth Royall (c.1758; below), on view in Sites of Power, an opening section of Entangled Pasts. Copley captured the distinct personalities of the sisters and the sympathy of their relationship, poise and manners. He surrounded them in an opulent excess of cloth. These dresses and drapes in silk, satin and lace testified to how the Royalls’ wealth commanded the finest manufactures of Asia and Europe. What is almost invisible is the basis of this polite luxury, for which the only clue is the West Indian hummingbird nestled in the older sister’s hand.
The Royalls were among the richest people in Britain’s mainland colonies, their wealth founded on sugar plantations in Antigua, and on the lucrative connected Massachusetts trades of rum distilling and slave trading. A modest walk north from Harvard College, of which Royall was an Overseer, and where his donations would underpin the foundation of Harvard Law School, lay his 500-acre estate where he enslaved over 40 Africans. Royall was the largest enslaver in New England, but far from the only one. In 1771, about one in ten Bostonians, of those wealthy enough to pay rates, possessed ‘Indian, negro, or mulatto servants for life'.
Among these was the artist himself: Copley, this emblem of the Transatlantic Enlightenment, after a judicious marriage to the daughter of the East India Company’s Boston agent, also had several enslaved people in his household. We learn from the catalogue of the sale of Lord Lyndhurst, Copley’s son, that Head of a Man (1777 or 1778), formerly known as Head of a Negro, was a study which became the African-American figure in Watson and the Shark (1778). Its subject was likely one of the enslaved people in the Copley household.
Both for what it represented, and in its silences, Copley’s depiction of the Royall sisters offered as much a portrait of the British Atlantic world, and of how it concealed African enslavement, as of two elegant girls. Indeed, its real subject, from one standpoint, is not people but commerce, for which the sign is imported luxury textiles, the rainbow of silks and velvet which dominate the canvas.
Cloth was central to the material life of empire, linked in deep ways to the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
What can we read from that overabundance of cloth, which characterises Copley’s grander portraits, not just of the Royall sisters, but such later masterpieces as his picture of Nicholas Boylston (1782; not in exhibition), the Boston merchant and slave trader whom Copley bedecked like an Oriental Prince?
Cloth was central to the material life of empire, linked in deep ways to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. In the 18th century, cotton cloth from India was a central commodity in the purchase of enslaved people in Africa. By the 19th, cotton produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean and the American South fed the mills of industrialising Europe. But clothing in this age also had key cultural meanings, as a sign of civility, of participation in cosmopolitan society, and of a capacity for morality and improvement. Adam Smith, among many others, considered taste and fashion as animated by, and testimony of, the natural sociability which was the basis of all politics, culture and learning. Copley clearly intended to mark his colonial grandees as elite participants in the taste of their age by robing the Royalls and Boylston in the finest objects of contemporary manufacture. He also marked the plebeian status of the ‘Negro’ of Watson and the Shark in the austerity of his plain tunic.
An absence of cloth was the sign of the savage, as in the bare-torsoed First Nations man who Benjamin West PRA rendered the chief witness to The Death of General James Wolfe (1779). ‘These people were all stark naked,’ announces the narrator in Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton (1720), the word ‘naked’ repeated 17 times across the novel. The juxtaposition of the naked and the clothed is most vivid in Agostino Brunias’s painting Sir William Young Conducting a Treaty with the Black Caribs on the Island of St Vincent (c.1773; not in exhibition), where red coats over immaculate white dress met Black bodies wearing loincloths
It is through this way of seeing that we may glean the radical purpose of the unknown painter of Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit (1740-80), formerly Portrait of an African. He or she took such care to render their subject in an elegant scarlet vest and white collar, handsome and intelligent, a model of poise and self-restraint.
The canvas is one of a family of late 18th-century British paintings, many by Academicians, which insist, via a rhetoric of cloth, on the humanity of Black people, and their capacity to participate in and ornament polite society. They might be seen as part of the cultural prehistory of anti-slavery politics.
The man in the Portrait has sometimes been conjectured to be Ignatius Sancho. The protégé of the Duke of Montagu, Sancho was cultivated, a man of letters, fully a Georgian gentleman, the living symbol of African civilisational potential in his age. Thomas Gainsborough RA represents this writer and abolitionist in a splendid blue coat, red waistcoat and white linen shirt (Ignatius Sancho, 1768).
Its partner is Joshua Reynolds PRA’s unfinished Portrait of a Man, Probably Francis Barber c.1770). Barber, who was highly intelligent and cultivated, and had assisted Dr Johnson in his work on the Dictionary, is rendered by Reynolds in a white collar which is in conversation with the clouds, with the outline of a substantial jacket left incomplete. We may add to these David Martin’s Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (1779), which captures the beauty and elegance of Dido, a gentlewoman of mixed European and African heritage who had been raised by Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England. In 1772, Mansfield had issued the groundbreaking ruling in the Somersett case that enslavement was ‘odious’ and had no place in the country’s common law. While slavery survived in Britain’s colonies until 1834, that ruling abolished it on English soil, leading to the liberation of some 14,000 enslaved Africans.
There was, of course, a racist condescension to the assumption, common even to these sympathetic works, that only those African-origin men or women who wore European clothes and mustered ‘civilised’ manners were worthy of liberty and civic rights. This was the other cultural side of the power gap which opened over the modern period between those with firearms and armed merchant vessels and those without.
It is striking that even the radical republic born in 1804 from the Haitian Revolution came to dress itself in European forms. The revolutionary General Henri Christophe crowned himself a king, while building Sans- Souci, a tropical imitation of Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palace. Richard Evans’s 1816 portraits of King Henri and his son Prince Victor, with elegant jackets, breeches, medals, armour and horse, might be read as a plaintive demand for Haiti to be welcomed as part of the family of ‘civilised’ nations. Josiah Wedgwood’s famous anti-slavery medallion of an enslaved African was inscribed with the phrase ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’; Evans’s portrait of. the monarch called out, in a sense, ‘Am I not a king and a brother?’ But this was coolly ignored: Wordsworth might have written a sonnet in honour of the Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture, but Britain only recognised the independence of Haiti in 1833, the year it finally got around to abolishing slavery. Race had trumped clothing.
Richard Drayton is Professor of Imperial and Global History at King’s College London.
Entangled Pasts, 1768-now runs from Feb 3 - April 28
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