The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

William Wilberforce

© National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Buy a print
  • Use this image
  • ShareShare this

William Wilberforce

by George Richmond
watercolour, 1833
17 1/4 in. x 13 in. (438 mm x 330 mm)
Purchased, 1974
Primary Collection
NPG 4997

Sitterback to top

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

Artistback to top

  • George Richmond (1809-1896), Portrait painter and draughtsman; son of Thomas Richmond. Artist associated with 325 portraits, Sitter in 14 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The son of a wealthy Hull merchant, William Wilberforce first entered Parliament in 1780. His conversion to evangelical Christianity five years later deflected him from an orthodox political career, and thereafter he devoted his life to prayer and meditation and to scrupulous attention to his duties in Parliament. He and his associates, known collectively as 'the Saints', had two objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of contemporary morals. His bill abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies finally became law in 180.

Wilberforce was obliged to wear a brace, or girdle, round his chest and this accounts for his somewhat contorted posture in this portrait. Richmond began the painting at Wilberforce's home on Battersea Rise, south London, in 1832. It was painted while Wilberforce's attention was diverted by the Rev. C. Forster's attempt to draw him into an argument on the subject of slavery.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • The British Portrait, 1660-1960, 1991, p. 328 number 316
  • 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. 109
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 661
  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 555

Placesback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1833back to top

Current affairs

Shaftesbury's Factory Act is passed regulating women's hours and providing for the education of children working in the textile industry.
Bank Act is passed, making Bank of England notes Britain's legal tender.

Art and science

Charles Lamb publishes Last Essays of Elia after the enormous success of his earlier Essays. A comic allegorization of his humdrum clerical job they become one of the period's literary sensations.
Charles Dickens begins his series Sketches by Boz in the Monthly Magazine.


Abolition of slavery in the British Empire; 780,000 slaves are freed, £20 million is allocated as compensation for slave owners and a six year apprenticeship system for freed slaves is established.

Tell us more back to top

Can you tell us more about this portrait? Spotted an error, information that is missing (a sitter’s life dates, occupation or family relationships, or a date of portrait for example) or do you know anything that we don't know? If you have information to share please complete the form below.

If you require information from us, please use our Archive enquiry service. You can buy a print of most illustrated portraits. Select the portrait of interest to you, then look out for a Buy a Print button. Prices start at £6 for unframed prints, £25 for framed prints. If you wish to license this image, please use our Rights and Images service.

Please note that we cannot provide valuations.

We digitise over 8,000 portraits a year and we cannot guarantee being able to digitise images that are not already scheduled.

Patricia Messenger

14 July 2017, 16:50

I believe that this water color was painted, just as you say, starting in 1832 and completed in 1833. And George Richmond probably did sit and listen while Rev. Forster tried to goad Mr. Wilberforce into an argument about slavery. That is a wonderful story.

I apologize in advance if Mr. Wilberforce held a title, which I omit due to my own ignorance of titles. I'm American.

But I believe that the watercolor was also based on a photograph of William Wilberforce, This photograph is beautifully done and remarkably preserved. And as it was clearly taken during Mr. Wilberforce' lifetime, (he died in 1833) it changes the history of photography. The sources I've seen say the first photograph of a person was taken in 1838. I believe you had a photographic genius in Great Britain, who took this portrait, and probably many others as well. Please take a moment to appreciate the wonderful detail of the Wilberforce photographic portrait, and appreciate it, as well as the remarkable preservation of it. It is in better condition than many photos that were taken decades later. And I love the photograph more than I love the watercolor, although I love both. I believe you will see that the watercolor was indeed based upon the photograph.

What can you tell us?close

There are occasions when we are unsure of the identity of a sitter or artist, their life dates, occupation or have not recorded their family relationships. Sometimes we have not recorded the date of a portrait. Do you have specialist knowledge or a particular interest about any aspect of the portrait or sitter or artist that you can share with us? We would welcome any information that adds to and enhances our information and understanding about a particular portrait, sitter or artist.


How do you know this? Please could you let us know your source of information.

* Permission to publish (Privacy information)
Privacy Informationclose

The National Portrait Gallery will NOT use your information to contact you or store for any other purpose than to investigate or display your contribution. By ticking permission to publish you are indicating your agreement for your contribution to be shown on this collection item page. Please note your email address will not be displayed on the page nor will it be used for any marketing material or promotion of any kind.

Please ensure your comments are relevant and appropriate. Your contributions must be polite and with no intention of causing trouble. All contributions are moderated.

Your Emailclose

Contributions are moderated. We'll need your email address so that we can follow up on the information provided and contact you to let you know when your contribution has been published.