Joseph Wright of Derby 1734–1797
Thomas Staniforth of Liverpool
Oil paint on canvas
930 x 775 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965
Commissioned by the sitter, Thomas Staniforth (1735–1803) of Liverpool and Darnall, Co. York; by descent to the Rev. Thomas Staniforth (1807–1887) of Darnall Hall and Kirk Hammerton Hall, Co. York; his great–nephew Edwin Wilfred Greenwood, who assumed the name of Stanyforth and purchased Kirk Hammerton Hall; his son, Lt Col R.T. Stanyforth (d.1964); sold Henry Spencer and Sons, Redford, Nottinghamshire 16–18 September 1964; bought anonymously; sold to Richard Green (Fine Paintings Ltd, London); sold at Christie’s, London, 2 April 1965, no.150, where it was bought by Sabin Galleries Ltd and thence sold to the Tate Gallery in 1965.
The sitter in this portrait is the Liverpool–based slave merchant Thomas Staniforth (1735–1803) of Liverpool and Darnall, Co. York. The picture was listed by Wright among those painted at Liverpool in 1769: his notebook records ‘Mr Stannyforth’ at a charge of £15.15.0, his standard price for Kitcat sized portraits. Wright was based in Liverpool in 1768–71, and merchants like Staniforth featured heavily among Wright’s clientele in the city, and the rapidly growing wealth of his class must have been one of the major attractions for the artist.
Staniforth is shown in a plain chocolate-brown three-piece suit consisting of breeches, waistcoat and a long outdoor jacket, and is wearing a white necktie and his own hair, unpowdered and short on top but coiffed so that the long hair down the neck is curled upwards. He sits sideways on a plain wooden chair, leaning over its back to look towards us so his body is twisted. The portrait is not specific in alluding to the sitter’s business interests, although the plain brown suit and the papers clutched in the sitter’s left hand, might be taken allude to the life of the everyday life of the businessman. Moreover, the experimental character of Wright’s technique in painting flesh (‘vigorously painted with short strokes of the brush setting down a broken series of brick reds and pale yellows’), and the attention he gives to the specificities of the blemishes which mark Staniforth’s face and his plump nose, might suggest an artistic approach more closely orientated to the enterprise, pragmatism and forthrightness associated with the commercial middle classes rather than the elegance and dissemblance of the traditional aristocratic portrait. Notably, the striking pose of the sitter had, as the art historian Francis Russell notes, been used by Wright previously in a portrait of a determinedly upper–class character, the Eton ‘leaving portrait’ of Richard Staunton Williams (1764–8; Eton College, Windsor). The contrast in the character of the sitters’ costumes, the earlier portrait being a fancy–dress version of Van Dyck costume resolutely associated with the traditions of glamorous aristocratic portraiture, perhaps further underscores the distinctness and forthrightness of this later picture. The convoluted pose was re-used in several subsequent portraits by Wright.
Like many prominent businessmen in Liverpool Staniforth invested heavily in transatlantic trade, including the slave trade which saw the forcible transportation of many millions of African men, women and children across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the Americas (discretely referred to by contemporaries as ‘the African trade’). Between 1757 and 1798 Thomas Staniforth is documented as investing in seventy-one slave ships, and possibly nine more, establishing him as one of the leading slave merchants of Liverpool. During the year that this painting was created, Staniforth part owned or invested in a succession of at least five ships crossing the Atlantic with human cargoes adding up to many hundreds of individuals.
The painting only infrequently been displayed at Tate to date, and generally accompanied by labels which, if they have referred to the identity of the sitter at all, have done so only with a discretely imprecise reference to his business interests. As his family came from Yorkshire, rather than from Liverpool or Lancaster, and as his father was a ‘gentleman’ rather than a merchant, he was not entirely typical of the slave merchant class. The traditional appellation of the sitter as ‘of Darnall’ has perhaps further facilitated the detachment of Staniforth from Liverpool’s slave trade. Although the family was attached to Darnall in Yorkshire the Staniforth family history identifies Thomas Staniforth as ‘of Liverpool’ and his brother Samuel (1739–1820) as ‘of Darnall’. This tendency to dissociate the painting from the commercial culture of Liverpool perhaps reached its apogee when the portrait was only briefly mentioned in the technical contribution to the catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s major Wright of Derby show in 1990, where the interest of the painting is reduced to the degree that it illuminated Wright’s developing techniques for painting flesh: ‘The face was dead–coloured not with muted flesh tones but with bright shades of tan and orange’. A corrective was offered when the painting was included in the touring exhibition Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool (2007–8) discussed in an essay in relation to the issue of the slave trade (although mention of this was still absent from the catalogue entry itself). The association was made strongly enough that a reviewer of the exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, could remark with reference to the present picture that ‘the issue of slavery lurks in the background of Wright’s portraits’.