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William Wilberforce

3 of 33 portraits of William Wilberforce

Regency Portraits Catalogue

William Wilberforce

by Sir Thomas Lawrence
38 in. x 43 in. (965 mm x 1092 mm)

This portraitback to top

We have it on the authority of E. M. Forster that the Clapham Sect had no sense of the unseen nor of art, and the practical Wilberforce was no exception ('Battersea Rise' in Abinger Harvest, 1936, p 241). However Wilberforce did tell Farington of his 'great pleasure' at Lawrence's reception abroad while painting the European potentates (Diary of Joseph Farington, 17 August 1819) and Inglis was able to persuade him, after he had retired from Parliament, to sit for Lawrence. A letter of April 1826 in the RA library reminds Lawrence of 'the promise you were so good as to make me last year' and hopes that the portrait should be finished that summer (RA. MSS Law/5/13). The first sitting was on 14 May 1828 - 'a very pleasant hour' (Life of William Wilberforce, V, p 300) for which Lawrence was paid 75 guineas on account. Possibly another sitting occurred but this is uncertain. A manuscript letter in the NPG library emphasises the deference with which hopeful sitters were forced to treat Lawrence:

My dear Sir Thos/It has not arisen in any degree from my undervaluing the obliging manner in which you have given me a large share of that time for which I know you have always more applications than you can satisfy that I have not ere now endeavoured to settle with you for another Sitting - But I have never been in London - 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 obligd to you - I was interrupted when about to dispatch my note at an earlier hour, but I am told it will still reach you tonight. As London must now be almost empty it is just possible that with the kind disposition you always shew to consult my convenience you may be able to receive me, tho so much engd sudden. I remain always/my dear Sir Thos/yr obligd & faithful Servt/W Wilberforce.
(Letter from Wilberforce to Lawrence.)

A further letter in August (RA. MSS Law/5/266) tried to cajole the artist into another sitting but evidently unsuccessfully as the portrait was 'not ½ finished' when claimed by Inglis from Lawrence's estate in 1830 (Kenneth Garlick, ‘Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings and Pastels of Sir Thomas Lawrence’ in Walpole Society Journal, XXXIX, 1964, 197-8, 302).
Sensibly, Inglis refused to have it finished by one of the studio hacks: 'Sir Robert judged rightly in not allowing a single stroke to be added by another hand. It hung in his dining-room for more than twenty-five years, skilfully lighted by a shaded side-lamp, and seemed to smile benignantly on the many friends who sat round that hospitable board' (John Harford, Recollections of William Wilberforce, 1864, p 256). Criticism has occasionally been levelled at Lawrence's insipidity and in this case at the sitter's unnatural simper and coy attitude (see Douglas Goldring, Regency Portrait Painter, 1951, p 345). However Harford said that 'a peculiar sweetness and playfulness characterized his mouth' (op. cit., p 3) and declared that 'the intellectual power and the winning sweetness of the veteran statesman are happily blended in this portrait' (op. cit., p 256). The awkward pose is accounted for by Wilberforce himself who says that he was obliged to wear 'a steel girdle cased in leather and an additional part to support the arms' (letter from Wilberforce to Lord Calthorpe 23 October 1823, cited by John Pollock, Wilberforce, 1977, p 234).
Lawrence's unfinished oil was the basis for a number of copies and adaptations by George Richmond including NPG 4997. It is first mentioned in Richmond's Account Book for May 1834, 'Oil painting of Mr Wilberforce for St John's College, Cambridge £52.10.0' (p 11). This is a three-quarter-length completion, signed and dated: GR 1834 and still in St John's College (reproduced J. W. Goodison in Connoisseur, CXLIV, 1959, p 9). Another three-quarter-length copy in a private collection Yorkshire, not mentioned in the Account Book, is dated 1845 and believed to have been commissioned for Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and lent by him to the Third Exhibition of National Portraits, South Kensington, 1868 (180); family tradition recounts that the left hand was painted from Henry William, Wilberforce's fourth son; another copy belongs to Lord Birkenhead. Half-length copies are in Wilberforce House (729) and sold by Miss Susan and Dr Octavia Wilberforce at Christie's 14 July 1939 (14).

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length seated askew in an armchair, head only finished against a background of rich brown; thick dark grey powdered hair, brown eyebrows, black eyes, ruddy cheeks; clothes, chair and right hand holding eyeglass sketched in black chalk on grey primed canvas.

Provenanceback to top

Commissioned by Sir Robert Inglis and bequeathed by him together with portraits of Perceval and Sidmouth; they were originally deposited in the British Museum at Inglis's death in 1855 by a codicil of his will dated 1854 and transferred to the NPG on its foundation in 1857 (letters between Lord Stanhope (Chairman of Trustees) and Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (executor), February 1857 in NPG archive).

Exhibitionsback to top

'William Wilberforce', Wilberforce House, Hull 1959; 'Sir Thomas Lawrence', RA ,1961 (20); 'Sir Thomas Lawrence', NPG, 1979-80' (49).

Reproductionsback to top

Stipple by an unknown engraver lettered: WILLIAM WILBERFORCE/AET 69/From an Original by Sir T. Lawrence in the possession of Sir R.H. Inglis, Bart/London, Published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1838, used in the Life of Right Rev Samuel Wilberforce, vol.IV, frontispiece.

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, 1985, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for Sir Thomas Lawrence

View all known portraits for William Wilberforce