Abolishing slavery, one image at a time

Abolishing slavery, one image at a time
An abolitionist print in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection
11 December 2014

I recently came across the following important hand-coloured print in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection held at the National Library of Australia. It was catalogued as 'Slave-traders embarking slaves, London?, 182-?'. It depicts an African man removed from his family by European slavers, and was made by acclaimed printmaker John Raphael Smith after a famous oil painting by George Morland, the English artist, engraver and picture restorer, who was best known for his genre scenes of English pastoral life. The print's correct title is in fact, Slave Trade, and was printed in London in 1791. It is one of the defining images created as part of the movement to abolish the slave trade. 

John Raphael Smith - Slave Trade 1791

John Raphael Smith (1751-1812) after George Morland (1763-1804) Slave Trade 1791, hand-coloured mezzotint, 46.7 x 65.5 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Pictures), NK10907, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an8934776

In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in England by a group of nine Quakers and three Anglicans, all men, who resolved on the 22 May that the Slave Trade was 'both impolitick and unjust.' Their famous motto 'Am I not a man and a brother' was modelled into a jasperware cameo in 1787 and circulated by the enterprising abolitionist and pioneering ceramics manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795).

Medallion of the British Anti Slavery Society

Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795).jpg

The famous cameo is sometimes said to have been designed by either William Hackwood (1753-1836) or Henry Webber (1754-1826), both of whom were employed by the Wedgwood factory. The latter was the younger brother of John Webber, the artist on Cook's third Pacific voyage and is currently represented with works on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. In fact, the cameo was definitely designed by Hackwood who served Wedgwood faithfully for 63 years and had been described as 'an Ingenious Boy' when he was first hired by Josiah Wedgwood in 1769. Webber went on to design the 1789 Sydney Cove Medallion for Wedgwood, which was made from clay sent to England from the fledgling colony by Governor Phillip.

The abolitionist cameos were mass produced and widely circulated and became fashion accessories and were worn then, as protest badges or red ribbons for AIDS awareness, are today.    

You can see the 1787 minutes of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade meeting, which are held in the British Library.

One of the leaders of the Society, the Anglican Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), came into contact with William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who became one of the leading abolitionists and went on to actively head the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade for years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

In 1788, however, with anti-slavery sentiment rising, George Morland produced an oil painting which he originally titled Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in that year.  It seems this was the first public display in fine art of an anti-slavery image in England. The original painting is now lost but a copy exists in the De Menil Collection in Houston, Texas - seen below.

The Slave Trade

The Slave Trade (originally Execrable human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves), 1789, George Morland (English, 1763-1804), oil on canvas, 33 ½ x 48 in., the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, via http://www.common-place.org/vol-14/no-01/lessons

Three years later, in 1791, the John Raphael Smith produced the mezzotint in our collection. The image went on to appear in a large edition selling well. It appears that most of the mezzotints were not hand-coloured. In the same year Smith engraved another of Morland's oil paintings, African Hospitality, in which Africans on a beach are depicted caring for shipwrecked Europeans. It was exhibited at the Society of Artists exhibition in 1780. The copy of this lost painting is in the Menil Collection also.

British Museum - African Hospitality

Morland and Smith African Hospitality, 1791. Mezzotint, British Museum

Smith advertised prints of both paintings in February 1790 for subscribers at the price of 36 shillings for the pair, or two guineas for non-subscribers. That would equate to something like £200 today, hence the fairly wide circulation in uncoloured form. Smith publicly gave up printmaking in 1802 to pursue portraiture and sold off 400 of his printing plates through Christies.

The appearance of both of these engravings in circulation was influential in raising consciousness about the slavery issue, and assisted in bringing about its formal demise in 1807. The Nan Kivell copy of the print is missing its inscription below the image which features these lines - 'Painted by G Morland', 'Engraved by J R Smith Mezzotinto Engraver to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales' and 'London Publish'd Feby 1. 1791 by J. R. Smith King Street Covent Garden'.

The inspiration for the original oil painting may have been an abolitionist poem. Certainly, the Irish-born art dealer, restorer and poet William Collins (c.1740-1812) claimed in his biography of George Morland that his poem The Slave Trade: A Poem, (composed in 1788), was the inspiration. The emotionally charged poem of 300 lines describes the abduction and separation of an African king and his wife. Here is an excerpt:

Two British captains with their barges came,

And quickly made a purchase of the young;

But one was struck with Ulkna, void of shame,

And tore her from the husband where she clung.


Her faithful Chief, tho' stern in rugged war,

Seeing his Ulkna by a White caress'd,

To part with her, "and little son Tengarr!"

His gentler feeling could not be supprest.


Th'indignant tear steals down his ebon cheek,

His gestures speak an agitated soul!

In vain his streaming eyes for mercy seek,

From hearts long harden'd in this barter foul.


With hands uplifted, he with sighs besought

The wretch that held a bludgeon o'er his head,

And those who dragg'd him, would have pity taught

By his dumb signs, to strike him instant dead.


While his dear Ulkna's sad entreating mein,

Did but increase the brute's unchaste desire;

He vaunting bears her off, her sobs are vain,

They part the man and wife whom all admire.

As the First Fleet settled in at Port Jackson and observed and began to irrevocably disrupt the lives of the Eora in 1788, these works were being produced on the other side of the world. Consciousness of slavery was emerging as a major issue for the British at home but it did not extend to recognition of rights to land and freedom from harassment in the colonies. The arrival in New South Wales was to have profound effects on the local people and, as the processes of colonisation extended inland, to Tasmania and to Victoria and beyond, lives would be lost, abbreviated and altered beyond imagination.           

Living in the still-beating heart of empire in the first half of the twentieth century, collector Rex Nan Kivell was buying thousands of works in all media, including prints by the hundreds. His acquisitions are seemingly boundless. Whenever I search for items for inclusion in the Treasures Gallery, I often find surprising items such as this one. Whilst the major thrust of his collection-building was to acquire material connected to 'Australasia', as he referred to our region, he also saw the opportunity to fill in potential blank spots in our broader national collection. Whilst there are numerous versions of the Slave Trade print held in major collections in the UK, such as the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum, our copy appears to be the only one in a public collection in Australia.

I think Nan Kivell also recognised the reverberative power of images such as these in reflecting the concerns of empire and in demonstrating in pictorial form, and what was happening simultaneously in its far flung reaches.

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