Art world’s first brush with slave trade

18th-century painter George Morland became known for being the first to portray the evil trade on canvas

Thursday, 11th June 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Execrable Human Traffick or the Affectionate Slaves George Morland

Morland’s Execrable Human Traffick, or the Affectionate Slaves

GEORGE Morland was buried in St James Gardens, Hampstead Road, Euston, in 1804.

It wasn’t to be his last resting place – and for an artist who spent his life moving to avoid creditors, that the ground he was gently lowered into over 200 years ago has recently been disturbed by HS2 seems curiously fitting.

In the wake of the murder in the USA of George Floyd and as we reflect on ingrained and institutionalised racism that afflicts our society, Morland’s name is worth remembering.

Despite enjoying popularity during his lifetime, his reputation has not survived as well as contemporaries such as Joshua Reynolds. Morland’s pastoral Georgian images reflected an English tradition – but among the images of children playing in woods, of sows feeding a litter of pigs, of hearty English peasantry chewing barley next to a watermill, Morland also became known for being the first painter of to depict the evils of the slave trade on canvas.

Historian Marian Kamlish has written George Morland: A London artist in 18th Century Camden for the Camden History Society.

She points out his fame was such that a number of biographies were published soon after his death, while the most comprehensive was the work of Camden Town gin distiller Sir Walter Gilbey, and was published in 1907.

Yet today, she argues, he is not so celebrated – and states that “Morland is in imminent danger of falling off the art map altogether.”

George Morland by Henry Robert Morland

Morland’s career was pockmarked by his rampant spending and alcoholism, which forced him to lead a peripatetic lifestyle to avoid creditors. It also forced him to work furiously to produce the next scene to sell for another gallon of gin, or see off another bailiff. His brother-in-law was an engraver, and created money-making reproductions.

This approach gave him a wide audience for the time.

George came from an artistic, if unsettled, background. His father, Henry Robert Morland, was a genre and portrait painter and had talent with brushes but not with accountancy – traits he passed on to his son.

Henry ran a crayons shop in Bond Street, exhibited at the RA, and in 1763, while living in the Haymarket, his wife Jenny gave birth to George.

The boy showed an early promise: by the age of 10, George was exhibiting. His father exploited his talent, and this early understanding of the commercial possibilities led George to see how art for arts sake might be for the Masters who enjoyed upper class patronage, but there were livings to be made from a public thirst for the English pastoral.

After a seven-year apprenticeship with his father he earned a place at the Royal Academy, but now in his teens, Morland spent his days drinking in Piccadilly taverns.

He lived in Kentish Town, Paddington, Soho, Fitzrovia and Camden Town, where he had a house on the site of what was until earlier this year Sports Direct in Camden High Street.

It was from here he created a series of images called A Harlot’s Progress, inspired by Hogarth, that cemented his reputation. But with increased fame came more wild sprees. Earning around £1,000 a year – equivalent to about £100,000 today – he went on a drink-fuelled bender. Not only frittering money on copious quantities of alcohol, he enjoyed treating friends to outrageous acts of generosity. He would, for example, buy a horse to give away a day later.

By the 1780s, the Abolitionist campaign attracted more than proto-socialists and Quakers. Former slave Olaudah Equiano was living in the capital and writing about his experiences. Bodies such as The London Corresponding Society fostered debate. Tom Paine was asking questions about human rights and the freedom of the individual. Pious members of the upper class, such as William Wilberforce, were arguing the slave trade was incompatible with Christian ethics.

It was in this context that in 1788, Morland painted Execrable Human Traffick, or the Affectionate Slaves. Depicting men being brutally kidnapped, it reflected how Abolitionists had influenced artistic spheres.

Mrs Kamlish says there is little documentary evidence as to why he chose such a topic. Living on what is now Camden High Street, it was a break from his usual studies.

“Obviously he felt it was important,” she says.

“It was exhibited at the Royal Academy and then engraved – though the prints didn’t sell particularly well for a Morland. But it was the first time such a scene, of people being ripped from their families, had been a subject of an English painter.”

Tantalisingly, there is another twist.

“Equiano left money in his will to a couple who lived in Pleasant Passage, a side street in Camden Town,” she adds.

“Nobody knows why. Perhaps it was because they had helped him when he came to London,” wonders the author.

“Considering Camden Town was very small, did Morland meet him? It is probable. And Morland always painted figures from real life – leading to the question whether he asked Equiano to pose when he was painting this picture.”

And in this one picture, Morland made the powerful point that to be an enlightened society, all people must be treated as equals.

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