Posted: 6th November 2020
This painting of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) by Alfred Edward Chalon shows Clarkson dressed as a gentleman in his study looking directly at the viewer with a serious gaze. He is holding a quill in his right hand. A table is nearby covered with various maps and in the foreground of the painting is Thomas Clarkson’s chest filled with objects and fabric. The busts of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp can be seen on the mantelpiece in the background.
This portrait captures some of the aspects of Clarkson’s character very well as many of his friends commented on his serious nature. Yet underneath his solemn exterior was a kind and gentle man who had a long-life passion for campaign against slavery that originated at university where he won a prize for his award-winning essay on the subject until his death in 1846.
The majority of portraits depicting Clarkson during his lifetime show him holding a quill a device to signify he was a man of letters and he demonstrated this through his meticulous reports he provided for William Wilberforce who used Clarkson’s evidence to argue against the slave trade in his Parliamentary speeches. Yet Clarkson was not merely a gatherer of information for Wilberforce or the various anti-slave trade committees as some historians have suggested but an active innovator in the campaign creating effective methods to challenge the pro-slavery arguments.
Clarkson used his portrait painted by Chalon to highlight his antislavery interests showing the maps of the world, his association with William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe both fellow abolitionists and his wooden chest. This box catches the viewer’s eye because the artist has given it such prominence in the painting. The main argument for keeping the slave trade and slavery was that it generated vast wealth for the country and if slavery was abolished then profits would decline affecting the UK economy. Clarkson used the chest filled with trading goods such as fabrics, herbs and spices to demolish this idea as he argued that if the British economy traded rather than enslaved people from this area then the wealth created would far exceed the profits from slavery. Clarkson’s idea for the chest was simple but effective. The bottom section of the chest held the chains and shackles to exhibit the reality of the slave trade. The artist has not shown this in his painting.
During his lifetime Thomas Clarkson was acknowledged as a key abolitionist as nationally as well-known as William Wilberforce. This was to change in 1838 when Wilberforce’s sons Robert and Samuel published a biography of their father and down played the role Clarkson and others had in the abolition movement. This hurt greatly Clarkson and a public spat between Robert and Samuel Wilberforce and Clarkson’s supporters appeared in the general press. Later the sons did provide a reluctant apology to Thomas Clarkson. However, the damage was done and history favoured this biography and perpetuated the myth that William Wilberforce was the only person campaigning against slavery. He was one of many both locally, nationally and internationally working towards the abolition of slavery.
Written by Assistant Curator at Wilberforce House Museum, Vanessa Salter.
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