Francis Williams, the Scholar of Jamaica
ca. 1745 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Oil on canvas
- Credit Line:
Gift of Viscount Bearsted M.C. and Spink and Son Ltd. through the National Art Collections Fund, 1928.
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
British Galleries, room 52d, case WS
The ability to commission a portrait painted in oil was regarded as a sure sign of achievement and social status. Many artists made their living from the ever-increasing demand for likenesses during the 18th century.
Francis Williams was a Jamaican poet and a scholar. The painter of his portrait, who probably worked in Jamaica, has copied the style and format of European portraits. He or she must have seen examples of such pictures, or, more likely, prints reproducing them. There were conventions in representing scholarly men, and the artist has used several of them here. Williams is shown as a scholar in his book-lined study, with a globe of the world, and a celestial globe on the table. Dividers and other instruments are also strewn on the table. All this indicates that he has studied astronomy, mathematics and geography. A landscape, presumably of Spanish Town, Jamaica, is visible through the window, showing that Williams was resident there. It has been suggested that this portrait is a caricature of Williams because the painter has shown him with a large head and legs so thin that his stockings are wrinkled. However, Williams may have wanted to be shown in this manner to emphasise his intellectual rather than physical stature.
Oil on canvas full-length portrait of the Jamaican scholar and writer Francis Williams. The accoutrements of his education and learning - a celestial and a territorial globe, dividers and other instruments - are clearly visible. Beautifully bound books line the shelves behind him, and his left hand rests on an open book headed Newton's Philosophy. But while the painting clearly locates Francis within the tradition of European scholarship, it also - by virtue of the open window that reveals the sparkling landscape of Spanish Town, the beach and bright azure blue of the sky- sets him firmly within a Jamaican setting.
ca. 1745 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Oil on canvas
Height: 66 cm canvas, Width: 50.1 cm canvas
Object history note
This painting previously had the common title 'Francis Williams, The Negro Scholar of Jamaica'. The term 'negro' was used as the standard designation for a person of black (sub-Saharan) African origin or descent throughout the 17th to 19th century. However, since the 1960s, the term has fallen from usage and is increasingly considered offensive. It is only repeated here its original historical context.
Anonymous portrait of Francis Williams of of Jamaica, oil on canvas. By an unknown Jamaican, British or American painter, ca.1740.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Painting is the subject of a V&A web object story, 'Francis Williams - A Portrait of an Early Black Writer', [http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/hiddenhistories/francisblackwriter/index.html]
Vincent Carretta, "Who Was Francis Williams?" Early American Literature, 38, no.2 (2003), pp. 213-37
James Robertson, Gone is the Ancient Glory: Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1534-2000 (Kingston, Jamaica, 2005), pp. 74-5
Labels and date
Francis Williams (about 1710 - about 1770) was a mathematician and poet. He may have been educated in England. He set up a school in Spanish Town and his portrait shows him as a scholar in a study. This is a convention also used in the ivory relief of Matthew Raper, shown nearby. [27/03/2003]
Text written about this object for 'Uncomfortable Truths / Traces of the Trade' gallery trails (Trail 3: 'Britain & The West Indies'), 20 February - 31 December 2007. Helen Mears & Janet Browne (with additional interpretation provided by actor Rudolph Walker).
'PORTAIT OF FRANCIS WILLIAMS / Francis Williams was born around 1700 to John and Dorothy Williams, a free couple who within ten years of being given their freedom had amassed significant property and wealth through Jamaica's sugar industry. When his father died in 1723, Francis inherited a substantial fortune, including land, trading interests and slaves, but he preferred to live off his inheritance than attempt to increase it. Although to modern eyes Francis is compromised by his profiting from enslaved Africans, he is also a notable example of a rich, free black man who wrote Latin verse and enjoyed a European lifestyle.
The portrait presents Francis as a scholar in his study. The accoutrements of his education and learning - a celestial and a territorial globe, dividers and other instruments - are clearly visible. Beautifully bound books line the shelves behind him, and his left hand rests on an open book headed Newton's Philosophy. But while the painting clearly locates Francis within the tradition of European scholarship, it also - by virtue of the open window that reveals the sparkling landscape of Spanish Town - sets him firmly within a Jamaican setting.
'Notice the European setting of the painting, the representation of the "exotic" background also. Remember too, that black people over the centuries held prominent roles within British society.'
Rudolph Walker OBE' [20/02/2007]
Canvas; Oil paint
Scholar; Library; Globes; Jamaica; Williams, Francis
Black History; Paintings; Portraits