Unfinished yet ‘part of city’s DNA, Wilberforce portrait comes home to Hull

Peering as if though a hole from the unfinished canvas of Sir Thomas Lawrence, the benign features of William Wilberforce betray no sign of the two centuries that have passed.

With cartoon-like sketching of his cloak setting off the finished head, it is a portrait that would not have looked out of place in the Tate Modern.

In fact, it had come from the National Portrait Gallery, and yesterday in Hull, they had the chance at last to gaze at it anew.

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The city’s most famous son, who had helped end the transatlantic slave trade and eventually slavery itself in the British empire, is taking up a four-month residence in the Ferens Gallery, as part of a national project to take the country’s great works of art back to the places with which they are most closely associated.

Stephanie Jones, exhibitions assistant at Ferens Art Gallery, with Sir Thomas Lawrences portrait of William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was around 70 when he sat for Sir Thomas, a leading portraitist of his day and fourth president of the Royal Academy.

He sat for “a very pleasant hour”, according to contemporary accounts, but the artist had died before a second sitting could be arranged.

The politician and high churchman Sir Robert Inglis, who had commissioned it, refused to allow “a single stroke to be added by another hand”, and it hung for 25 years in his dining-room, where it “seemed to smile benignantly”, said Wilberforce’s fellow abolitionist, John Scandrett Harford.

The picture was only the third to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery after its foundation in 1856, in the belief that “heroes could inspire us”. The first and second had been Shakespeare and another Royal Academician, Thomas Stothard.

Stephanie Jones, exhibitions assistant at Ferens Art Gallery, with Sir Thomas Lawrences portrait of William Wilberforce.

“It’s a real highlight. Everyone here is excited to see this famous face presented,” said Stephanie Jones, at the Ferens Gallery.

“The National Portrait Gallery’s collection is the country’s family album, and it’s wonderful that they’re sharing it with the rest of the UK.”

Hull had never lost sight of the legacy Wilberforce left it, Ms Jones said.

In 1933, thousands had flocked to the city centre to mark the centenary of the bill he had sponsored, giving freedom to all slaves in the British empire. Pictures from the time will be on display alongside the portrait.

A 2007 commission for Hull by the Jamaican artist Keith Piper, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of trading in slaves, is also beeing presented, with a retrospective on Salim Charles Wilson, an anti-slavery campaigner a century after Wilberforce, who was a leading voice in the 1933 event.

The five-day Freedom Festival staged in Hull earlier this month, was the latest manifestation of the spirit Wilberforce had engendered, Ms Jones said.

“You saw people coming out for festival in their thousands. And that’s the equivalent of what happened in 1933. It’s an ongoing legacy in Hull, which is massively part of the DNA of the city.”

The National Portrait Gallery, which is sending 50 pictures out of London, said the project would help “fulfil our aim of being truly a national gallery for everyone”.

Its director, Dr Nicolas Cullinan, said: “We hope that sending portraits home in this way will foster a sense of pride and create a personal connection for local communities to a bigger national history.”

Many of the paintings on loan have cultural, rather than historic significance. A 2012 photograph of the heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill is currently on show at the Weston Park Museum in her home town of Sheffield, and one of the rap artist known as Stormzy, at the Museum of Croydon.