John Downman

Thomas Williams, a Black Sailor

1815

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Medium
Chalk and graphite on paper
Dimensions
Support, secondary: 323 x 297 mm
support: 315 x 285 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
Reference
T10168

Display caption

Downman was one of the most fashionable portraitists of his day. However, it is his original sketches of his sitters (rather than his finished portraits, executed in coloured chalks) which tend to show his insight into personality at its best. This is a remarkably sensitive late sketch of a black sailor made, as the inscription indicates, in Liverpool in 1815. Thomas Williams seems to have been acquainted with the famous MP William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who played a vital part in the passing of the 1807 Act which made slave trading illegal. The black chalk has been softened and smudged by Downman using a stump (a tightly rolled paper or leather cylinder with rounded points). This enabled him to model faces and flesh tones with great subtlety.

Gallery label, September 2004

Explore