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COMING HOME: William Wilberforce

Past national programme archive
21 September 2019 - 19 January 2020

The Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

Born in Hull, William Wilberforce dedicated his life to the ‘suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners’. After years of political campaigning, Wilberforce’s bill to end Britain’s involvement in slave trading was passed with a standing ovation from MPs in 1807. A further act of 1833 provided for the emancipation of enslaved Africans in British colonies.

Wilberforce suffered from illness for most of his adult life including a curvature of the spine, which resulted in him wearing a metal support. This helps to explain the unusual pose of this portrait, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the most gifted and fashionable portraitist of the day. Despite being in pain during the sitting, Wilberforce recorded that he had spent ‘a very pleasant hour’ with Lawrence. The artist, however, was unable to entice Wilberforce back for further sittings, consequently the portrait was unfinished at Lawrence’s death.

This work was the third portrait to ever be taken into the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.