William Cuffay based on a drawing by William Paul Dowling

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    William Cuffay,    after William Paul Dowling,    1848,    NPG D13148,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Cuffay, the Chartist leader, in Newgate Prison.
William Cuffay
after William Paul Dowling
lithograph, 1848
12 1/8 in. x 8 1/2 in. (308 mm x 215 mm) paper size
NPG D13148
© National Portrait Gallery, London

William Cuffay (1788–1870) was a leading figure in the Chartists A group of people in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s who supported the People’s Charter, a document demanding improvements to the political system. movement. The Chartists A group of people in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s who supported the People’s Charter, a document demanding improvements to the political system. called for equal voting rights for all men. It was the first mass political movement in Britain.

William Cuffay’s mother was a white woman who was probably from Kent, where Cuffay grew up. His father was a formerly enslaved man of African heritage, from the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Cuffay joined the Chartist movement after he lost his job as a tailor.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    William Cuffay,    after William Paul Dowling,    1848,    NPG D13148,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Cuffay, after William Paul Dowling, 1848

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • The text at the bottom of the portrait reads ‘WM Cuffey’ (another spelling of his surname) ‘Drawn in his Cell in Newgate’. Newgate was a prison in the City of London. It was known for its terrible conditions and for holding public hangings of prisoners.
    • There is an open window to his right in the background and we can see the window has bars. 
    • Cuffay was found guilty of Allegedly Expressed as though something is a fact but without giving any proof. planning an Uprising A situation in which a group of people join together in order to fight against the people who are in power. against Queen Victoria and the British government. He was sent to Newgate Prison, and then transported to Tasmania A state of Australia consisting of the Island of Tasmania and several smaller islands. It was known as Van Diemen's Land until 1855. in Australia.
    • Cuffay is shown in a white shirt buttoned to his chin, a buttoned dark waistcoat and an open dark jacket. These appear to be smart clothes for a working-class man. Perhaps they tell us something about his skill as a tailor.
    • He is standing with his left arm by his side and his right hand tucked into his waistcoat.  
    • Cuffay is shown looking directly out at us and smiling.
    • He appears confident and calm, despite the fact he is being held in prison.
    • We can also see he has a beard in a style that was known as a ‘chin strap’ beard. This style was popular from the late 1700s into the 1800s. 
    • Cuffay lived with ill health and disabilities. It was said he was only 1.5 m (5 feet) tall and had problems with his spine and shinbones. It is difficult to tell this from the portrait.
    • The artist, William Paul Dowling, has written at the bottom of the portrait ‘By his fellow Sufferer Wm Dowling’.
    • Dowling was a fellow prisoner at Newgate Prison.
I know my cause is good, and I have a self-approving conscience that will bear me up against anything … therefore I think I can endure any punishment proudly. I feel no disgrace at being called a felon.
William Cuffay, 1848

Who was William Cuffay?

  • William Cuffay was born in Kent, England. 
  • He worked as a tailor but lost his job when the new tailors' Union An organization of workers, usually in a particular industry, that exists to protect their interests and improve conditions of work. went on strike in 1834. He was angry at the way he had been treated and convinced that workers needed to be better represented in Parliament.
  • He became involved in the Chartists A group of people in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s who supported the People’s Charter, a document demanding improvements to the political system. Movement and in 1842 was voted president of the London Chartists A group of people in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s who supported the People’s Charter, a document demanding improvements to the political system. . The Chartists wanted equal voting rights for all men. They also wanted other changes such as the right to vote in secret, and the right to become a Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. without owning land. Votes for women were not included in their demands, although women were part of the struggle.
  • Cuffay was frustrated at the lack of progress from the movement’s peaceful demonstrations. In 1848 he was accused of being involved in a plan to lead an armed Uprising A situation in which a group of people join together in order to fight against the people who are in power. against the government.
  • Cuffay was arrested for Treason The crime of doing something that could cause danger to your country, such as helping its enemies during a war. and Felony The act of committing a serious crime, such as murder. , based on the evidence of a government spy. After a trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania A state of Australia consisting of the Island of Tasmania and several smaller islands. It was known as Van Diemen's Land until 1855. for 21 years, which was a punishment considered to be a death sentence for many.
  • Cuffay was 60 years old but survived the long, hard journey on the prison ship to Tasmania. Three years later, in 1856, all political prisoners in Tasmania were pardoned. Cuffay decided to stay in Tasmania, carrying on his trade as a tailor and campaigning to improve civil rights there.
  • Cuffay’s Legacy A situation that exists now because of events or actions that took place in the past. still helps to inspire and promote the rights of workers today.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • The artist, William Paul Dowling, was an Irish Radical In favour of extreme and complete political or social change. , portrait artist and fellow Chartists A group of people in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s who supported the People’s Charter, a document demanding improvements to the political system. who was also prosecuted and transported with Cuffay to Tasmania A state of Australia consisting of the Island of Tasmania and several smaller islands. It was known as Van Diemen's Land until 1855. .
  • He passed the time in Newgate Prison drawing his fellow prisoners. Cuffay has been drawn by someone who was very close to everything he believed in. 
  • This version of the portrait is a lithograph – a copy of the original drawing made using a process called Lithography The process of printing from a smooth surface, for example a metal plate, that has been specially prepared so that ink only sticks to the design to be printed. . This meant the portrait could be mass produced and distributed widely in radical newspapers and journals, to raise awareness of the Chartist movement’s Cause An organization or idea that people support or fight for. . 

Questions

  1. What impression to you get of William Cuffay as a person?
  1. Why do you think working-class people protested so strongly for the vote?
  1. Why do you think women supported the Chartists, when the campaign only affected men?