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Francis Williams, the Scholar of Jamaica

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Date:

    ca. 1745 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • 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 52, The George Levy Gallery, case WS

Object Type
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.

Subjects Depicted
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.

Physical description

Oil on canvas full-length portrait of the Jamaican scholar and writer Francis Williams, his heade slightly to the viewer's left, his body slightly to the viewer's right. He wears a grey powdered periwig, a long blue justacorps faced with yellow, a long grey waistcoat with gold lace at the buttonholes, dark blue breeches, loose grey stockings and buckle shoes. 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, including works by Newton, Locke, Cowley, Sherlock and Rapin, 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

Gift of Viscount Bearsted M.C. and Spink and Son Ltd. through the National Art Collections Fund, 1928.

Prov: Major H. Howard of Hampton Lodge, Seale, Farnham, direct descendant of Edward Long, author of 'A History of Jamaica'; purchased by Spink and Son Ltd. for £250 nad given to the V&A in 1928 on the condition at Viscount Lord Bearsted paid Spink and Son Ltd. £150.

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 considered offensive. It is only repeated here in its original historical context.

Historical context note

Little is known about this painting or the circumstances of its production. The date of c.1740, first suggested in a note in the departmental object file dated 1928, is based on the furniture depicted and when first donated to the V&A, the painting was hung in the furniture galleries as an example of colonial interior design. When considering the painting in 2016, a Senior Curator in the V&A's Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department commented -

"Stylistically the furniture could not date from before the 1730’s – the amount of carving and the form of the chair would not have been available even in London before that date. One might have expected a plain splat and frame in just plain wood. The London/Liverpool company of Gillows, were traders in timber, particularly Jamaican mahogany – but these do not look like Gillows pieces. The furniture might possibly be American - then a colony and geographically nearer than Britain. ...Furniture of this quality would most certainly have been prized and would have remained so for decades afterwards.The dating of c.1740 is therefore not definitive."

The date of c.1740 is repeated by Vincent Carretta in his 2003 article ‘Who was Francis Williams?’, Early American Literature, Vol. 88:2 (2003), pp. 213-232. The dating is in keeping with Williams’ mature appearance. In 2016, the V&A's Curator of 17th adn 18th Century Fashion commented -

"[Dating based on dress] can be difficult with older men in the 18th-century, who often retained the fashions of their youth well into middle-age. Williams is wearing a double-breasted, dark-blue coat with the fronts buttoned back on themselves, revealing the yellow facings. The matte texture of the coat suggests wool rather than silk, while the sheen on his waistcoat probably indicates white satin, with applied silver-gilt braid with tassels. The length of the coat and waistcoat, and the sleeves of the former date this to the 1740s, which would put Williams in his mid-fifties. His wig is an old-fashioned bob wig and he wears a neckcloth rather than the new fashionable stock around his neck, but this would be typical of a man of his age, particularly a scholar, so the portrait could be late 1740s."

Many writers have commented on the unusual proportions of the painting. The distorted perspective of the chair and table indicate that this work is most likely to be by an untrained or amateur artist. William’s unbalanced physical proportions, with a large head and small hands and feet, may be symbolic or merely due to the artist’s inexperience. The portrait has been interpreted as a ‘satire’ of Williams - Carretta has suggested it may have been commissioned by a hostile party, mocking Williams’ supposed arrogance (Carretta, 2003).

Alternatively, Michele Valerie Ronnick proposed that the slightness of the sitter’s body is intended to reinforce his status as a free gentleman, not subject to slave labour. Ronnick also suggests that his stance on the border between black and white floor tiles represents his outsider status as a wealthy, educated black man, who was denied the same legal and social status of white Jamaicans (Ronnick, 1998). Ronnick suggests that the black tile behind Williams’ represents his origins, while the white tile to the fore is symbolic of his adult life. At Williams’ right hand is Spanish Town, Jamaica viewed through a window, and a terrestrial globe on the floor shows the Atlantic. At his left hand is a shelf full of books, including texts by Newton, Locke, Cowley, Sherlock and Rapin and a celestial globe. Ronnick further suggests that the inclusion of such details represents Williams’ is turning his back on Spanish Town and earthly labours, represented by the terrestrial globe, in favour of learning, represented by the celestial globe and books. On the table, the quill and ink indicate his status as a writer.

Biography: Francis Williams (c. 1692-1762)
Francis Williams was the first known black writer in the British Empire. Much of what is known about him is recorded in The History of Jamaica, written by Edward Long (1734-1813), a British colonial administrator in Jamaica, who owned plantations and lived there from 1757-1769. Francis Williams’ date of birth is not known, but when he died in 1762 he was reportedly ‘aged seventy or thereabouts’ (Long, History of Jamaica). Francis was the son of slaves John and Dorothy Williams. John Williams was not emancipated until 1697: if Francis was born before this date, he was born into slavery.

Following emancipation, John Williams became a successful and wealthy merchant, buying land and slaves of his own. Francis had two elder brothers, John and Thomas, and a sister, Lucretia. As emancipated slaves, the Williams family were free to live and work, but they were not automatically granted the same legal and civil rights as white Jamaicans. In February 1708 John Williams succeeded in having a special local act passed which granted him the right to trial by jury, and prevented slaves from testifying against him. In 1716 John Williams successfully had this act extended to include Dorothy, and their sons John, Thomas and Francis. Their daughter, Lucretia, was not included. When John Williams died in 1723, his estate was valued at £16,319 Jamaica Currency (over £12,000 sterling). This included land, slaves, and debts owed to Williams by prominent members of Jamaican society.

Francis Williams was educated in England and admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 8 August 1721. Edward Long reports that his education was an experiment sponsored by the Duke of Montagu, to see whether black people could be educated in the same manner as white people. However, this detail may have been fabricated to discredit Williams: his father’s wealth and ambition would most likely have made such sponsorship unnecessary, at least financially. Long also states that Williams attended Cambridge, but no record of this has been identified.

Williams returned to Jamaica after the death of his father in 1723. It appears that Williams spent the rest of his life in Jamaica; he ran a school in Spanish Town, teaching black students reading, writing, Latin and mathematics.

Williams became a well-known public figure in Jamaica and England, as a rare example of a black person granted the education usually reserved for white people. Williams wrote Latin poetry, including Odes to all the new Governors of Jamaica. Only one such poem survives, addressed to George Haldane, preserved in Long’s History of Jamaica. Long sought to discredit Williams through critique of this poem, but Long’s interpretation has been judged to be perhaps intentionally misleading (Lindo, 1970). John Gilmore has described the work as ‘a specimen of conventional flattery… good of its kind’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

It would seem that Williams did not share his father’s flair for business, and instead lived on the family fortune, supplemented by a modest income from teaching. When Williams died in 1762 he was living in rented accommodation, and his property reduced to £694 and 19s Jamaica Currency (around £500 sterling).

Williams was ridiculed by white contemporaries such as Edward Long and David Hume, the latter describing him as ‘like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly’ (Hume, Of National Characters). He was also used as an argument in favour of abolition by people such as Henri Grégoire and Robert Boucher Nickolls. Williams was a slave owner, not an abolitionist. However, as a pioneering black writer, his very existence did challenge the ideological basis of trans-Atlantic slavery.

Descriptive line

Anonymous portrait of Francis Williams 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]
James Robertson, Gone is the Ancient Glory: Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1534-2000 (Kingston, Jamaica, 2005), pp. 74-5
John Gilmore, ‘Williams, Francis (c.1690–1762)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015
Vincent Carretta, "Who Was Francis Williams?" Early American Literature, 38, no.2 (2003), pp. 213-37
Ronnick, Michele Valerie, 'Francis Williams: An Eighteenth Century Tetium Quid', Negro History Bulletin; Washington, Apr-Jun 1998, vol.61, issue 2, pp.19-29
Carretta, V. (ed.), Unchained Voices: an anthology of black authors in the English-speaking world of the eighteenth-century (1998)
Chambers Dalton, K. C., “The Alphabet is an Abolitionist” Literacy and African Americans in the Emancipation Era, in The Massachusetts Review Vol. 32:4 (1991), pp. 545-580
Edwards, Paul, and James Walvin, Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade, p.59 (London, 1983)
Lindo, L. Francis Williams, a ‘Free’ Negro in a Slave World, in Savacou (1970), pp. 75-81
Clifford Smith, H., The British Way of Life, in Country Life, 10 October 1944, p. 649
The Connoisseur, XCIV, 1934, p.375
Spink and Son Ltd, Portrait of Francis Williams, Country Life, 30 December 1928, illus
MacDermot, T. H., From Jamaica a Portfolio – Francis Williams, in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2:2 (April 1917), pp. 147-159

Labels and date

British Galleries:
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]


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Scholar; Globes; Library; Globes


Access to Images; Images Online; Black History; Paintings; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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