Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


56 Thomas Williams, a black sailor 1815

Black chalk with stump on wove paper 31.5 x 28.5 (12 3/8 x 11 1/4)
Inscribed in pencil upper right 'Thos Williams | a Sailor | Liverpool Octr 13th 1815 | Note - Burnt Umber & w... | perfectly expresses the | complexion of a Negro'


Downman was one of the most popular and fashionable portraitists of his day. He launched his career as a portraitist in oils, but from the early 1780s took up the medium of coloured chalks for his small-scale portraits which enabled him to work more quickly. By 1786 his portraits were 'universally admired & sought after by the first people of rank and taste' (Morning Post, 4 May), his sitters including the famous actress Mrs Siddons and members of the Royal Family. By the late 1780s, however, his popularity was flagging, and one critic commented on the 'sameness' of his portraits: 'he has but two passable faces, one face for ladies and another for gentlemen, & one or other of these prototypes all his likenesses are brought to resemble' (quoted Munro 1996, p.16). From the mid-1790s Downman therefore modified his format and style in favour of a more penetrating approach to his sitters. Nevertheless, it is Downman's original sketches of his sitters (sometimes referred to by him as 'first studies') rather than his finished portraits which tend to show his insight into personality at its best (Munro 1996, p.7).

This is a remarkably sensitive late sketch of a black sailor, Thomas Williams, made by Downman, as the inscription indicates, in Liverpool in 1815. Nothing has so far been established about Williams's identity beyond what the inscription tells us, although since he is also included in a small watercolour composition by Downman of Mr Wilberforce abolishing the Slave Trade (whereabouts unknown), it would seem that he was acquainted with the famous MP William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who played such a crucial part in the passing of the 1807 Act which finally made slave trading illegal. It is possible that Williams originally took his English name from his owner when still a slave. The black chalk in this drawing has been softened and smudged by Downman using a stump (a tightly rolled paper or leather cylinder with rounded points, see also no.13) , enabling him to model faces and flesh tones with great subtlety. He used the same combination of media for a number of other working sketches in the Opp? collection: a study for a composition of Celadon and Amelia, characters from James Thomson's long poem, The Seasons (1794), and originally from the same album compiled by Downman's daughter in 1825 as the portrait of Thomas Williams; a head of Amelia herself (recently struck dead in a thunderstorm), which has been described as 'among Downman's most virtuoso performances' in this technique; and an enchanting study of a kitten (T10171, T10173, T10166; see Munro 1996, nos.46-8).

Although it was chiefly as a portraitist that Downman earned his living, he regularly exhibited paintings on religious, literary and historical themes at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. His 1819 exhibit at the Academy, an allegorical subject entitled A late Princess personifying Peace crowning the Glory of England reflected on Europe, 1815, was bought by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, who is depicted at his estate at Wynnstay in North Wales in a drawing in the Opp? collection by Henry Bunbury (no.53). The Tate Gallery also has a small oval portrait in oils by Downman of Miss Jackson (T01885), the daughter of the organist and composer William Jackson of Exeter Cathedral, whom Downman married when she was in her forties, and who was described by Farington in 1810 as 'the ugliest & most forbidding woman in the world' (Diary, 2 November, vol.10, p.3783).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.148 no.56, reproduced in colour p.149