The Captive Slave by John Simpson (1782-1847): a rediscovered masterpiece.

Author:Postle, Martin
 
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Earlier this year, The Art Institute of Chicago acquired a virtually unknown painting by a little-known British portrait- and genre-painter, John Philip Simpson (1782-1847), which had not been exhibited in public for some 180 years) Hitherto, Simpson's modest claim to fame has been as a minor society portrait-painter and studio assistant to Sir Thomas Lawrence. The present work, however, uncovers another aspect of Simpson, one which reveals him to be an artist endowed with tremendous technical skills and an innate sensibility. The Captive Slave (Pl 1), painted in the mid-1820s, depicts a young black man manacled to a bench, framed against a stark brownish grey background. He wears a loose red-orange shirt and trousers, the clothing, we can assume, of a prisoner. His large hands rest limply upon his thighs, his head is raised in an attitude of sorrow and supplication. As the title of the painting indicates he is held in a state of double bondage, in his abiding condition as a slave one who is in servitude as the property of another--and as a captive, within the immediate confines of a prison cell. Indeed, it is an image, as will be discussed, which carries a particular resonance within the context of the anti-slavery movement of the period. Recent scientific analysis of the painting carried out by The Art Institute of Chicago, including X-ray photography (Pl 2), has revealed that Simpson composed The Captive Slave upon a used canvas, upon which had been painted previously a rather crude outline image of a stately home (Belton House, Lincolnshire), and also the beginnings of another unrelated figure, which may have been a portrait. (2) It is not known why Simpson decided to paint The Captive Slave, although the fact that he painted it upon a discarded canvas suggests that he made it on impulse, and of his own volition, rather than as a commissioned work. Indeed, given, what Douglas Druick of The Art Institute of Chicago has described as Simpson's 'unflinching engagement with a politically incendiary topic', it is reasonable to affirm that The Captive Slave was intended as a condemnation of contemporary slavery, and as a personal declaration of the artist's support for the Abolition Movement. (3)

Simpson first exhibited The Captive Slave at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1827. In the catalogue of the exhibition, Simpson appended lines from William Cowper's anti-slavery poem, Charity (II, 138-41):

But ah! what wish can prosper, or what prayer For merchants rich in cargoes of despair. Cowper had written the poem some 45 years earlier, in 1782, at the very time that the anti-slavery movement was beginning to gather momentum in Britain. During the intervening period the issue of abolition had provoked increasingly intense moral and political debate in England, Europe and America. The anti-slavery lobby gathered strength in the 1780s with the establishment of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In Parliament the anti-slavery lobby was spearheaded by William Wilberforce and supported by increased public sympathy, which led to the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, and the imposition of large fines on those British ships that continued to carry slave cargoes. Yet progress was interminably slow. In 1823, following over 15 years of relative stagnation, the anti-slavery movement once more gathered strength, with the formation of the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions. However, as the name suggests, there was an evident lack of urgency, as male opponents of slavery reconciled themselves to a long-term strategy. The following year, Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker and former schoolteacher, seized the initiative and called for the immediate end to slavery, upbraiding her male peers for their willingness to accommodate the West Indian planters and the machinations of Parliament. Thomas Clarkson, who had been one of the original leaders of the anti-slavery movement, once more attempted to rally popular support. 'Everywhere', he stated, 'People are asking me about immediate abolition, and whether that would not be the best, and whether they should not leave off West India sugar.' (4) In 1828, worn out by his mission, Clarkson died of a heart attack. Indeed, it is important to note that although the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, a few years earlier, at the time that Simpson painted The Captive Slave, the reality of the abolition of slavery still seemed a long way off, and opposition within the corridors of power appeared as formidable as ever.

It was, I would suggest, Simpson's awareness of the contentious nature of his painting, and the increasingly strong public feelings which its subject aroused at that time, that prompted him in early 1828 to exhibit The Captive Slave for a second time in London, at the British Institution, (5) and for a third time, later the same year, at the Liverpool Academy, where it was entitled 'The Captive'. (6) Whether we can attach any significance to the truncation of the picture's title through the omission of the word 'Slave'--its display in a city synonymous with the slave trade, and whose merchants continued to prosper from Cowper's 'cargoes of despair', could be construed as a deliberately provocative gesture on the part of the London-based artist, drawing the attention of exhibition goers in Liverpool to current heated debates surrounding the abolition of slavery. That The Captive Slave would have proved a particularly uncomfortable viewing experience for some members of Liverpool's mercantile polite society, is suggested by remarks made some years earlier by the radical novelist and playwright, Elizabeth Inchbald, with regard to a celebrated play, whose eponymous hero was a black slave: 'The tragedy of Oroonoko is never acted in Liverpool for the very reason why it ought to be acted there oftener than at any other place--The merchants of that great city acquire their riches by the slave trade.' (7) Oroonoko, a play by Thomas Southerne, based upon the novel by Aphra Behn Oroonoko; or the Royal Slave (1688), also has, as will be discussed here, a more immediate relevance to the subject of Simpson's picture.

When it was exhibited at the British Institution The Captive Slave elicited a sympathetic critical response. The Atlas noted:

The simple and unaffected expression of grief in the countenance, the tone of colouring in the flesh, the yearning look upwards, with the natural and dispending disposition of the hands--all combine to render this as pathetic a composition as if it were a tale told by such a writer as Mrs Inchbald: it is true in all its bearings, and appeals directly to the heart, untricked with the unfashionable and theatrical ornaments of modern taste, whether in painting or writing. (8) [FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

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In a similar vein, The London Magazine observed: 'This appears to us a true and fine study, full of nature and pathos. There is a moisture on the skin, which denotes both the physical constitution and mental anguish.' (9) By this time Simpson's picture was also available as a print, having been engraved by Edward Finden for a souvenir annual entitled Friendship's Offering.. a Literary Album and Christmas and New Year's Gift for 1828 (Pl 3). Here it appeared alongside verses entitled 'The Captive', possibly inspired by Simpson's painting. In a review of the above publication, The Monthly Repository stated, 'The picture of the misery, sullenness, and desperation of the negro-slave, in the anonymous verses entitled "The Captive", cannot be contemplated without thrilling interest,' while noting that Finden's engraving 'does justice to a very expressive picture'. (10) The London Magazine went further, stating, 'For truth and force of feeling, for a vigorous ccmception, and a masterly execution, the Captive Slave...

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