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William Wilberforce

3 of 33 portraits of William Wilberforce

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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William Wilberforce

by Sir Thomas Lawrence
oil on canvas, 1828
38 in. x 43 in. (965 mm x 1092 mm)
Given by executors of Sir Robert Harry Inglis, 2nd Bt, 1857
Primary Collection

On display in Room 12 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Philanthropist and reformer. Sitter associated with 33 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), Portrait painter, collector and President of the Royal Academy. Artist or producer associated with 696 portraits, Sitter in 25 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The belief that heroes could inspire us led to the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. Among the first portraits acquired was this painting of William Wilberforce the man who, between 1787 and 1833, led Britain's campaign to abolish slavery. By conjuring up the life-like presence of a
great man, this portrait characterises what the Gallery hoped portraits could do for the country.

Lawrence's unfinished portrait was said to capture 'the intellectual power and winning sweetness of the veteran statesman'.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 63
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 13
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 51
  • Holmes, Richard; Crane, David; Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantics and Revolutionaries: Regency portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, 2002, p. 139
  • Levey, Michael, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1979 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 9 November 1979 - 16 March 1980)
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 53
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 108
  • Ross, Josephine, Jane Austen and her World, 2017, p. 90
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 116
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 116 Read entry

    The third portrait to be acquired for the collection was this sketch of William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. A member of the Clapham Sect (a group of committed Christians), Wilberforce had no particular interest in art, but was persuaded to sit to Lawrence after he had retired from Parliament. The first sitting was on 14 May 1828 - according to Wilberforce, 'a very pleasant hour'. The portrait was to cost Sir Robert Inglis, who had agreed to pay for it, £75. Wilberforce then made strenuous efforts to arrange further sittings, writing to Lawrence: 'I will go to Town DV on Monday next & knock at yr door between 11 & 12 and if either then or at any time before 2 o'clock you should be able to give me an hour or two, I should be much obliged to you'; but the work was still 'not half finished' in 1830 when Inglis rescued it from Lawrence's studio. It has the freshness of an uncompleted painting and a certain ungainliness in the sitter's pose because he was obliged to wear a steel girdle.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 661
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 331
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 130 Read entry

    The Tory Member of Parliament William Wilberforce was renowned for his high principles and great personal charm. A leading member of the Clapham Sect, an influential group of Evangelicals, Wilberforce devoted his career to social reform. His life’s work was as parliamentary leader of the abolitionist movement. Having campaigned tirelessly for twenty years to end the slave trade, declaring to Parliament in 1791 that ‘never, never will we desist till we ... extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic’, Wilberforce’s Bill was eventually passed with a standing ovation in 1807. He then campaigned for the total abolition of slavery, dying one month before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833.

    This portrait was begun in 1825, when Wilberforce retired from Parliament on account of ill health, suffering from extreme skeletal degeneration. His constant discomfort helps explain the awkward pose and unfinished state of this painting. With only one sitting, Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) captured Wilberforce’s ‘winning sweetness’, as John Harford, his friend, described it. By adding a summary outline of the figure, achieved a memorable image of one of the most important men of his age. It was accordingly the third portrait to be acquired by the newly founded National Portrait Gallery.

  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 554
  • Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 47

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1828back to top

Current affairs

Duke of Wellington becomes Prime Minister.
Madhouse Act attempts to regulate asylums and ensure new arrivals are genuinely insane.
Repeal of the Test Acts removes political restrictions from dissenters, allowing them to hold public office.

Art and science

London Zoological Gardens open in Regent's Park. They provide both entertainment and a supply of exotic specimens for naturalists and anatomists such as Richard Owen who becomes a European authority on the subject.


Daniel O'Connell is elected Member of Parliament for County Clare but as a Catholic is not permitted to take his seat.

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