Slaver art is 2% of Parliamentary collection, review finds

Slaver art is 2% of Parliamentary collection: MPs want ‘honest conversation’ about art’s history after review finds 232 items linked to outlawed trade – including 40 of abolitionists – out of 9,500 works

  • Some 189 of pieces depict 24 people who had ties to the slave trade, while 40 pieces depict 14 abolitionists
  • Parliamentary art collection in Westminster is reviewed by Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art 
  • Collection features former MPs Sir Robert Peel, William Ewart Gladstone, Henry Dundas and William Beckford
  • Black Lives Matter protests spark calls for statues and paintings of those involved in slave trade to be removed

More than 230 works of art in the Parliamentary art collection have been found to have links to the transatlantic slave trade, following a review prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests.

Some 189 of the pieces listed in the study by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art depict 24 people who had ties to the slave trade, while 40 pieces depict 14 people who were abolitionists.

The art linked to slavery, which features former MPs Sir Robert Peel, William Ewart Gladstone and Henry Dundas, makes up 2.4 per cent of the Parliamentary collection which features more than 9,500 works in total.

The artwork linked to slavery features former MPs Sir Robert Peel (left) and William Beckford (right) among many others

Portraits of former MPs Henry Dundas (left) and William Ewart Gladstone (right) also featured in the Parliamentary collection

It comes as a package of measures is being introduced by the committee in Westminster, supported by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to look at issues around slavery and representation.

Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams, who is chairman of the committee, said: ‘We will look for ways to explain the lives of the people depicted in our artworks – including controversial aspects – honestly and more fully.

Which MPs featured in Parliamentary art had links to the slave trade?

Sir Robert Peel MP: He opposed abolition because he saw it as a threat to his fortune in the cotton industry trade. His son was a prime minister of the same name.

William Ewart Gladstone MP: Liberal politician spoke out against abolition in Parliament because his family had slaves on plantations in the Caribbean

John Gladstone MP (father): Businessman was one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies and had huge estates in Jamaica and British Guyana

Thomas Gladstone MP (brother): The Tory MP regularly provided his father with intelligence about the political manoeuvrings of abolitionists in Parliament

Henry Dundas MP: The home secretary and war secretary was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade until 1807

William Beckford MP: Owned property in Jamaica including 22,000 acres of sugar plantations and about 3,000 slaves, and formed a powerful pro-slavery lobby

Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood: The merchant and his brothers imported slaves from west Africa to work on their plantations in Barbados

George Stevens Byng, 2nd Earl of Strafford: The Whig politician owned 159 slaves in Jamaica but failed in a bid for compensation after slavery was abolished

Edward Ellice MP: The co-owner of eight sugar estates in the West Indies received £35,000 in compensation when his 300 slaves were freed

Henry Goulburn MP: Managed estates in Jamaica through agents because he could not visit due to ill health, and owned 277 slaves at the time of abolition

William Alexander Mackinnon MP: The Tory MP was involved in the in slave trade in Antigua where he is thought to have owned more than 200 slaves

‘The interpretation of our artworks is reviewed constantly but this is the first time we are systematically reviewing the entire collection looking at issues around slavery and representation.’

The committee said its list relates to the transatlantic slave trade, including works depicting both people who had financial or family interests in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, as well as artwork featuring abolitionists.

A spokesman said: ‘The list has been developed through crosschecking pieces in the collection with rigorous academic research which has identified people known to have been involved in the transatlantic slave trade.

‘The list is not comprehensive and the documents will be updated as research continues. Data and resources on the representation of ethnic diversity in the Parliamentary Art Collection has also been gathered.’

The committee also said it is trying to broaden the diversity and inclusion of its collection in line with how museums, art galleries and other large collections have responded to the demonstrations in recent months.

The British became involved in the transatlantic slave trade in 1562, and the country was the world’s biggest slave-trading nation by the 1730s.

The abolition movement helped lead to the end of the trade in 1807 and then the use of enslaved labour in British colonies in 1833.

However, many British people including politicians continued to have direct financial gain from the trading and use of enslaved labour in the West Indies, America, India and elsewhere.

The committee has said the intention of the Parliamentary art collection is ‘not to venerate people who have supported and committed acts of atrocity, but to truthfully reflect the history of Parliament, our democracy and the people who played a part in it’.

The Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by the killing of black man George Floyd in the US after he was arrested by police and an officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis.

Protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston on June 7, on the same day a memorial to Winston Churchill in London was defaced with the words ‘was a racist’ written on a plinth underneath.

It prompted a wave of statues being targeted with graffiti or being attacked during protests, culminating in some statues, including ones of Nelson Mandela and Churchill, being covered up to be protected from vandals.

A portrait of Diane Abbott MP by Stuart Pearson Wright (left) and a portrait of Paul Boateng by Jonathan Yeo (right) are among the portraits of black people on display on the first floor of Portcullis House as part of the contemporary portrait collection

The central lobby of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster is pictured (file image). More than 230 works of art in the Parliamentary art collection have been found to have links to the transatlantic slave trade

The Topple the Racists campaign launched a comprehensive list of statues it wanted to see removed as it believed the names behind the monuments held racist beliefs.

It led to Oriel College at Oxford University voting to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a colonialist politician in southern Africa in the 19th century.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in June: ‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations.

‘They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.’

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