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George Richmond

Head of a woman

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Black chalk and pencil
13 × 10 ¾ inches · 333 × 273 mm
Signed ‘Geo. Richmond’, lower right
Drawn c. 1860
  • Private Collection, USA, to 2017.

This powerful portrait of a black woman was made by George Richmond in the 1860s, possibly during the American Civil War. Richmond, one of the leading portrait painters of the mid-nineteenth century, drew many important abolitionists. In 1833 he produced a celebrated portrait of William Wilberforce which was turned into a hugely popular engraving. In 1849 Richmond drew the social reformer Harriet Martineau, and in 1853 he drew Harriet Beecher Stowe. The present sensitive study is previously unrecorded, but may relate to a project designed to support the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Richmond was the son of the miniaturist Thomas Richmond, he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in December 1824, when he was still only 15. From several early drawings it is clear that he admired the idiosyncratic style of the Keeper, Henry Fuseli, but his greatest influence was the aged William Blake, whom he met early in 1825. In 1831 Richmond, married and faced with the demands and responsibilities of a family, turned to portraiture. He became a hugely prolific and successful portraitist, producing large numbers of depictions of eminent figures from nineteenth-century society.

The precise circumstances of this carefully observed and meticulously finished drawing are unknown. Drawn in Richmond’s characteristic style, with rapid hatched lines indicating the background and softer modelling for the face; Richmond has strengthened the features, with bolder pencil lines, perhaps indicating it was made in preparation for an engraving. Given the subject and date, it may not be a portrait, but a depiction of a slave. The hoop earrings and necklace are consistent with contemporary depictions of slaves, for example the figure of a female figure in Richard Ansdell’s powerful work The Hunted Slaves of 1861, which illustrated a poem by Longfellow, The Dismal Swamp, at the outset of the American Civil War.[1] Many British artists, such as Ansdell, were prominent in their support for the Unionists and their anti-slavery position. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published in 1852 was hugely popular in Britain, given Richmond’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the present drawing may relate to a previously unknown project to illustrate the novel. Without further evidence, this enigmatic drawing stands as a sensitive portrait made by one the leading British painters of the mid-nineteenth century.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                


  1. Hugh Honour, The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the American Revolution to World War I: Slaves and Liberators, Cambridge, 2012, pp.180-181.