Untold Stories

Published 26 October 2023

Recent research reveals how the Royal Academy’s founding artists worked amidst Britain’s imperial expansion in the 18th century, the transatlantic slave trade, and a growing abolitionist movement.

  • Founded in Georgian Britain in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts was created within a society underpinned by imperialism, at a time when many of the nation’s fortunes were built on the transatlantic slave trade. In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, but it was only in 1807 that the slave trade was made illegal and a further thirty years before enslaved people in the British Caribbean were freed, to be replaced on many plantations by Chinese and Indian indentured labourers.

    The transatlantic slave trade is just one of several wide ranging and long colonial histories entwined with the story of the RA. In recent years there have rightly been calls to look again at these histories, to examine the lenses through which much of the history of British art has been viewed, reveal the biases and in particular make clear the social, political and economic contexts in which artists made their work and achieved success. In 2020, as the RA pledged to address the inequalities within its organisation in its first Race Equity Statement, the RA Collections team set about making clear how colonialism was entangled in the early years of its history. Just as acquisitions continue to broaden and enliven the collection, we as a collections department, curators past and present, animate it through such research.

  • RA Library
  • The first step was a biographical survey of more than 175 Royal Academicians from 1768 to 1850. Using the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and UCL’s Legacies of British Slavery databases, we were able to establish the links between early Academicians and colonial interests, including the ownership of enslaved people. While the research reveals just one artist who was likely to have enslaved people (the painter John Singleton Copley), several can be seen to have had family members and private wealth linked to plantation ownership. Also revealed were connections between artists and the abolition movement.

    Indeed, when our artists are researched in this way, we see how our collection – comprised predominantly of works by Academicians – reflects a society where intellectual, political and economic concerns were interwoven with artistic practice and patronage. In 2022 we shared our findings at a British Art Network seminar on colonial histories convened by the Academy, and our research has dovetailed with the RA’s work on its 2024 exhibition Entangled Pasts, 1768-now. This major show will explore, with great visual power, art’s relationship to empire, enslavement, indenture, resistance and abolition.

  • Sir Jousha Reynolds PRA, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber

    Sir Jousha Reynolds PRA, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, c. 1770.

    Oil on canvas. 78.7 x 63.8. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo © Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • From our first president, Joshua Reynolds, the complexities become apparent. This year is the 300th anniversary of his birth and the painter is being widely celebrated. His Portrait of Mai, exhibited at the RA in 1776, takes centre stage in the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery, and is one of several paintings he made of people of colour. Entangled Pasts will feature his iconic painting of a man thought to be Francis Barber (c.1770; above), which was copied by many artists. Born Quashey, Barber was brought to England from Jamaica as a child and freed from enslavement in 1755, before working for the writer Samuel Johnson, later becoming his heir. Reynolds imbues his depictions of both Mai and Barber with nobility, even heroism, but his recognition of people of colour was not universal.

    From the mid-1760s, Reynolds employed a Black servant in his household, the name of whom, unlike those above, was not recorded, despite the detailed records the artist kept. Reynolds’ friend and biographer James Northcote suggests the same man was used as a model for several of Reynolds’ paintings (Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1813). Most Black figures depicted by Reynolds are those in the guise of servants in portraits of wealthy white patrons – it was not unusual for eminent figures to be portrayed with Black attendants as a statement of their affluence and sophistication. The fact that this man in Reynolds’ service often stood in for this role may indicate his further degree of depersonalisation in the eyes of the artist, as if he was a prop interchangeable from picture to picture.

    How this man came to be in Reynolds’ employ is unclear. Northcote suggests he was brought to Britain from the Caribbean by the wife of Valentine Morris, a British landowner and politician who owned plantations in Antigua and who was Governor of St Vincent, but conflicting chronologies and accounts make this and other statements by Northcote unreliable. Nonetheless, his account of Reynolds’ treatment of his servant following their falling victim of a crime makes for uncomfortable reading.

    Late one night, after accompanying home an elderly lady who had dined at Reynolds’ house, his servant found himself accidentally locked out. He sought shelter at the local watch house, where his pocket watch was stolen while he slept. Northcote tells us that upon learning the thief had been condemned to death, Reynolds demanded his servant deliver his own food to the prisoner, as penance. Meanwhile, Reynolds successfully intervened in the judgement, reducing the sentence to penal transportation. While Reynolds’ inclination to spare someone the death penalty for a petty crime may be laudable, his decision to force his servant to wait upon his white transgressor raises questions about the painter’s motivation.

  • Richard Cosway RA, Richard and Maria Cosway, and Ottobah Cugoano

    Richard Cosway RA, Richard and Maria Cosway, and Ottobah Cugoano, 1784.

    32 × 39. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

  • Reynolds’ attitude towards those in his household seems at odds with his broader position on slavery. The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recalled that Reynolds strongly stated his opposition to the slave trade at a dinner with friends sometime around 1787. During conversation, Reynolds ‘gave his unqualified approbation of the abolition of this cruel traffic’. Reynolds showed his support through subscription to an anti-slavery tract written by Ottobah Cugoano, an influential campaigner for abolition.

    From the early 1780s, Cugoano had been a servant of artists Richard Cosway RA and his wife Maria (above), who introduced him to other prominent artists, writers and politicians. Cugoano (also known as John Stuart) was born in modern-day Ghana, before being captured by African traders in 1770, sold into enslavement and trafficked across the Atlantic to Grenada. After two years of enforced labour, Cugoano was taken to England by the man who enslaved him, a merchant called Alexander Campbell.

    Through his employment with the Cosways he met public figures, including George III, the Prince of Wales and Edmund Burke, to whom he petitioned and wrote letters on the subject of abolition. Cugoano first published his treatise entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787, and it was a shorter version of the book, published in 1791, to which Reynolds subscribed.

  • Thomas Gainsborough and Francesco Bartolozzi were also founding members of the Academy and part of the Reynolds and Cosway circle. Bartolozzi was responsible for making the 1781 engraving of Ignatius Sancho in the RA Collection (above), after the painted portrait by Gainsborough. Sancho was a musician and man of letters who had formerly been enslaved. The engraving was included in the first edition of Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, published shortly after Sancho’s death in 1779 in order to gain support for the abolitionist movement.

    To bring to light such stories, we have extended the biographies of these and other early Academicians on the RA website, and will continue to research its artists post-1850. We have begun to look at the lives of the patrons who commissioned the works in our collection, alongside scrutinising the individual works, the origins of their materials and processes used. Indeed, Reynolds’ “sitter books”, which catalogue the painter’s appointments with sitters, are now digitally scanned and will form the basis of further research.

    There is much to uncover and we will look outward for advice, looking forward to the discussion that next year’s Entangled Pasts exhibition will generate. Slowly we are building a richer picture of the art and artists of the Royal Academy, and we hope that by making the information we find visible and accessible, all who are interested may understand these histories in increasing depth and fullness.

    Hannah Higham is Senior Curator of Collections at the Royal Academy and draws on research undertaken by the broader Collections Team.

    Read more about the Royal Academy’s Decolonial Research Project.

    Entangled Pasts, 1768-now is at the RA from 3 February to 28 April 2024.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

      Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door.

      Why not join the club?