In June 1827, a writer for London’s Standard newspaper spent just two scant lines discussing painter John Philip Simpson’s two contributions to a Royal Academy of Art exhibition. The critic was unimpressed by Simpson’s portrait of Lady de Tabley, sniffing that “it was unworthy of Mr. Simpson's talents, as it is of the personal attractions of the lady, of whom it purports to be a resemblance.”
But while the portrait fell short in the reviewer’s eyes, the critic reserved equally brief, but much more laudatory comments for Simpson’s second artwork. They wrote that The Captive Slave was “a very clever picture, and far more deserving of commendation” than the lackluster portrait of a noblewoman.
No more than that snippet of commentary, no description of what made Simpson’s oil painting so compelling outside of its name. But visitors to the exhibition, probably upper- class art enthusiasts, would have instantly picked up on the unique nature of The Captive Slave.
As a studio assistant of the more well-known Sir Thomas Lawrence, Simpson specialized in painting the English elite, the types of people who might have once populated Jane Austen novels. His subjects—men draped in their military finery and gentlewomen of means, a queen here or a king there—were people whose direct gazes look out from the canvas in utter confidence that their likenesses should be immortalized.
But The Captive Slave depicts a Black man in bondage. Simpson’s painting uses a predictable visual language of enslavement, shackles peeking out from under the man’s orange jumpsuit like carceral bracelets. A heavy chain weighs down his arm, the links the size of his large hands. Those hands exude power, but power tamed.
Simpson played with convention, using the most obvious symbols of slavery and borrowing from representations of religious figures. He also subverted the portraiture of the wealthy. Art lovers who saw The Captive Slave in the 1820s may have gasped at its audacious departure from longstanding representations of slavery in English art. The abject became the subject.
The enslaved man—probably modeled by eminent Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who emigrated to England from the United States—occupies the canvas by himself. Simpson literally centered an enslaved subject, when 18th-century Atlantic artworks tended to place them at the margins, both spatially and metaphorically. It may be that there are more portraits of spaniels, favorite pets of European gentry, frolicking across canvases, than there are portraits of single, enslaved figures in European museum collections.
Black involuntary servitude could be shown in both obvious and subtle ways. Before abolition, the enslaved person in paintings was often a liveried servant, standing behind or below their “master,” almost off-stage. This 17th-century portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo, shaded from the Genoese sun by a Black servant of unknown status but clear servitude, also fits this mold.
More often than not, the dark skin of the enslaved person fades into the background, casting them as a part of the environment, an element of nature, and a luxury item and prop. This half-visibility served to reinforce the slaveholder’s status and whiteness, but also expressed the expendability of the enslaved. Necessary and expendable: this formulation, seemingly a contradiction, undergirded the institution of slavery across the Atlantic. Perhaps it resonated with particular power in England, where the enslaved population in the metropole was never as large as that of slave regimes in Brazil, Cuba, or the United States.
But even if English slavery seemed less visible than that of the antebellum U.S. South, it too thrived on a system of anti-Blackness, surveillance, and violence. And it powered a British empire so broad, as the political adage went, that the sun never set on its vast, global territory.
A group portrait attributed to John Verelst, circa 1719, checks all the boxes: a boy almost on the literal margins, skin merging with a sooty background, dressed in the garb of a rich man’s domestic. And then there’s a shocking detail, one that’s easy to miss unless you look: a lock dangles from a silver collar around his neck. And this was no symbolic representation, but a real accessory of cruelty forced on some enslaved people in England.
The Captive Slave: An Abolitionist Painting?
Simpson’s captive cut quite a different figure than those lavishing care on their enslavers. He looks upward, small white lines around his eyes, perhaps tears of supplication. Simpson uses a familiar visual vocabulary of Christian art. The captive’s torment recalls the pained faces of martyred saints. Depictions of holy people and penitents are also full of clues about their suffering: arrows stabbing their bodies, stigmata, keys in Saint Peter’s hands.
Like them, the captive is marked. The orange jumpsuit clothes him like a badge of shame, just as such purposefully bright apparel designates people incarcerated in modern U.S. jails and detention centers such as the Guantanamo Bay camp that has held terrorism suspects since 9/11.
When confronted by The Captive Slave, many visitors to the Royal Academy may have wondered exactly what Simpson was trying to say—though the context could not have escaped them.
For decades, newspapers across England and Scotland had advertised notices for the return of fugitive slaves who had “stolen” themselves. Four years before The Captive Slave made its debut, William Wilberforce had released An Appeal to Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Arguing that slavery was a moral evil that debased the African captive—not their natural condition—Wilberforce advocated for emancipation.
Britons were in the midst of an active and protracted debate about whether and how slavery would end. It took revolutions across the Americas and until a parliamentary act in 1833 to free the enslaved people in British territories. Even then, it was a conditional quasi-freedom; most were released into apprenticeships that bound them to labor contracts another four years, vulnerable to exploitation though no longer enslaved.
Some of Simpson’s art-world colleagues recognized The Captive Slave for its technique and emotional pull. “The simple and unaffected expression of grief in the countenance, the tone of coloring in the flesh, the yearning look upwards” all distinguished the painting, said one commentator in The Atlas in 1828. It “appeals directly to the heart, untricked with the unfashionable and theatrical ornaments of modern taste.”
The painting gained enough renown that, as British art historian and curator Martin Posley has pointed out, it was available as a print in relatively short order; there must have been an audience for its message. And Simpson took it on the road, including to Liverpool, a major slaving port whose ships dominated the 18th-century slave trade. This was, in current parlance, a boss move.
Was Simpson a closet abolitionist? One painting does not a coherent, committed politics make. Or was he a provocateur who thought this painting could cause a socially productive stir among the ruling classes—or, at least, earn him notoriety and coin?
When the Art Institute of Chicago acquired The Captive Slave in 2008, the painting had not been publicly displayed for more than a century. A scan of the canvas showed that the shackled man was painted atop two other images: one of a vast estate house and another of a person. Some scholars have interpreted this overpainting as evidence that Simpson wanted to paint this image and that it was not commissioned (based on an assumption that an artist wouldn’t use a recycled canvas for a paying job).
Simpson himself left few archival traces. Perhaps the most relevant clue about his motivation is in the catalog of the Royal Academy exhibit, where a quote from a William Cowpens poem accompanies the item about the painting:
Ah! But what wish can prosper, or prayer
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair.
You can see The Captive Slave in the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition at the National Gallery through July 17.