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This portrait exemplifies the sense of realism that Wright brought to the art of portraiture. It is one of many portraits that he created while staying in Liverpool in 1768-71. The present description to this portrait available through the Tate website refers to its subject, Thomas Staniforth (1735-1803), simply as a member of Liverpool’s ‘prosperous commercial society’. He was, however, one of Liverpool’s most prominent slave traders, and many thousands of Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic in ships owned by him. Wealthy and respected, Staniforth became Mayor of Liverpool in 1797 and supported a number of cultural and charitable causes.Although the slave trade is now considered despicable, there is nothing in Staniforth’s portrait to suggest the source of his wealth. Can we detect a hint of cruelty in his cool gaze? Prejudiced by current ideas about the moral inferiority of Africans, the majority of people in eighteenth-century Britain considered the slave trade to be like any other line of business. Wright’s portrait seems simply to represent a businessman keen to project the sense of hard-nosed realism that was necessary to succeed in this highly risky trade.

May 2007