John Phillip Simpson (1782–1847) was a British portrait painter. Until his death he was a frequent exhibitor at Royal Academy and was even the appointed painter to Portuguese royalty. Today I want to talk about a piece of his which has moved me rather. I wanted to include this in Black History Month back in February but almost feel it is more impactful being seen as a stand alone piece some weeks later. After all, the issues highlighted in Black History Month are suffered year round.

Despite enduring critical neglect and eventual obscurity, Simpson was a gifted artist, capable at times of venturing beyond the parameters of society portraiture and his position as a studio assistant. And in one particular work, The Captive Slave, John Simpson produced a painting of iconic status, which can be regarded today as his masterpiece and as a worthy emblem of the aims and achievements of the Abolition Movement.

Martin Postle

Britain did not abolish slavery until 1833, some six years after The Captive Slave was painted. Plantations in the far reaches of the British Empire were still profiting from slave labour when this was painted and those profits, of course, made their way directly to London. With this in mind, let us have a look at the above painting. Take some time to examine it. The subject is a black man, chained at the wrists, looking into a dark negative space surrounding him. He seems to be looking towards the source of the light which reflects on his brow, perhaps a window outside the scope of the canvas. His chest is exposed which puts him in even more of a vulnerable position. There is a wetness in his eyes which seems to indicate tears have been shed. And in contrast to the above, he is wearing a striking orange jumpsuit which shocks us with colour.

The colour of the jumpsuit is very effective in highlighting the shocking captivity that this slave finds himself in. This painting hit me with some force. Simpson has used a mastery of technique to convey a deeply human portrait of the slave, which renders his captivity all the more shocking to the viewer. He, and the millions of others in his position, were people, not merchandise, as was believed at the time this was painted. This belief is conveyed beautifully in a striking way by Simpson.

Striking hand detail from The Captive Slave

The model Simpson used for this striking painting is said to have been Ira Frederick Aldrige, a famous Shakespearian actor of the time, pictured below, who had several notable performances including one as Othello and another as King Lear. Overall I am struck by this painting. It is a masterpiece and iconic (in the old sense of the word) emblem of the abolition movement. It stirs so many emotions and allows the modern viewer to reflect on the horrifying racial injustices which are still pervasive in modern times.

This post was not intended to make broad generalisations about a deeply complex issue, or to push any semblance of an agenda, but rather to share a beautiful, meaningful and sadly contemporarily potent piece of art. My sincere apologies if this did not come across in the above.