Portrait of John Julius Angerstein painted by Thomas Lawrence (ca. 1790). Angerstein, whose collection helped establish the National Gallery, was a beneficiary of slavery. (via Wikimedia Commons)
A new report published by the National Gallery in London details the museum’s connections to the trade of enslaved people. The research is part of a wider effort to acknowledge and examine the role that the legacy of slavery has played in the history of the British institution, which houses one of the world’s most esteemed collections of European paintings.
The report lists the names of 67 individuals connected to the National Gallery who either enslaved people or benefitted financially from the trade, including “art collectors, connoisseurs, donors and founders of museums and galleries across Britain.” Notably among them is John Julius Angerstein, whose trove of 38 Old Master paintings formed the foundation of the museum’s collection when the British government acquired the works in 1824. Angerstein made his fortune in the marine insurance business, which involved slave ships as well as vessels transporting produce cultivated by enslaved people in the Caribbean.
The National Gallery also identified 27 people associated with the abolitionist movement, and another 17 connected to both slavery and abolition. An example is Thomas Lawrence, a leading 19th-century British portrait painter whose sitters included beneficiaries of slavery — such as Angerstein — and abolitionists, like British Whig Party politician Henry Brougham.
Led by Nicholas Draper, a founder and former director of the University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS), work on the project began in 2018. Two phases of research have been completed so far, covering primarily the period from 1824 to 1880. A third phase is now underway to investigate trustees and donors from 1880 to 1920 and, subsequently, artwork owners as far back as 1640.
A spokesperson for the National Gallery told the Guardian that they “have not, and will not remove any picture from display because of its association with slavery.” They added that wall labels for artworks in the galleries indicate any connections to enslavement.
The data outlined in the National Gallery’s report, sourced from the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; and History of Parliament, is also linked to relevant objects in its online collection — including works that have since been transferred to a different institution, such as the Tate. The museum is encouraging public contributions to the project, inviting those with further information to contact a dedicated research team.
The new report illuminates the extent to which slavery and its beneficiaries are embedded in the origins of the most eminent institutions as well as larger networks of art collecting and philanthropy. It comes as museums, libraries, and archives in the US and abroad are increasingly under the spotlight for their connections to the legacy of enslavement, prompting dialogues about complicity, responsibility, and reparations. Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Superior Court heard oral arguments in the case of Tamara Lanier, a Black woman who sued Harvard University’s Peabody Museum over daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors in its holdings.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hakim Adi, professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester, said that acknowledging the imprint of slavery on institutions is important, but “it is not a reparation for that crime.”
“Indeed, I see no mention that the National Gallery is planning to do anything as a result of this research,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to want to extend its inquiry into the period after 1920, nor to extend it to the colonial exploitation of those in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the National Gallery linked to the report.