This portrait of the Jamaican scholar and writer Francis Williams was painted around 1745 by an unknown artist. It was acquired by the V&A in 1928.
Born in around 1690 in Jamaica, Williams is a complex figure. He was a free, educated Black man who challenged restrictions on the rights of emancipated Black people in Jamaica at the height of the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean. Yet he continued to keep enslaved people on the estates he inherited from his father, who was himself formerly enslaved.
Apart from a poem Williams wrote in honour of a British governor of Jamaica, nothing we know about Williams is in his own voice. Our perception of him today largely comes through other people, notably the absentee plantation owner and colonial administrator Edward Long, who was a vocal advocate of slavery. Long devoted a derisive chapter of his book The History of Jamaica: or, General Survey of the Ancient and Modern State of that Island, published in 1774, to Williams, whose status as a free, educated Black man defied Long's racist ideology of the inferiority of Black to white people.
The V&A's painting may hold the key to more information about Williams' own negotiation of personhood. This portrait, which came to the V&A from the collection of Edward Long's descendants, is the subject of ongoing research, both historical and scientific, through which the we hope to better understand it.
We cannot say definitively who made the portrait, why it may have been created, for whom, or whether it was made in Britain or Jamaica. These open questions create a space for discussion about the painting's purpose and meaning.
Williams' face is turned slightly to his right, but his eyes look straight ahead, holding the viewer's gaze. He is depicted as a gentleman and scholar in his study, fashionably dressed in a high-quality navy-blue broadcloth coat and breeches. Williams is surrounded by the instruments of his learning, notably dividers, an inkstand and a pair of globes. With his right hand, he points behind himself to the leather-bound books of his expansive library, including a work by Isaac Newton. A large volume, on which the scholar rests his left hand, lies open on the table. Inscribed Newton… Philosophy, this may be a commentary on the mathematician's works that Williams is cross-referencing.
At this descriptive level, the portrait reflects Williams' biography and his presumed self-perception as a gentleman scholar with a classical education in subjects including geography, arithmetic, music, astronomy and Latin.
Educated at least partially in England, Williams became a member of Lincoln's Inn (one of the professional associations for barristers) in London on 8 August 1721. According to an anonymous editorial comment in the Supplement to the Gentleman's Magazine 1771, Williams was also admitted to Royal Society meetings, but this scientific organisation denied him full membership 'on account of his complexion'. Williams returned to Jamaica shortly after the death of his father John in 1723, where it appears that he spent the rest of his life, running a school in Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica until 1872, and teaching Black students reading, writing, Latin and mathematics.
A Jamaican landscape seen through a frame in the top left – most likely that of a window – shows a settlement by a tropical river, possibly Spanish Town by the river Cobre. This view and the terrestrial globe on the floor, turned to show the 'Western or Atlantick Ocean', place Williams in Jamaica – just as his library communicates his cosmopolitan learning.
Although the image follows European models of scholarly portraits in its composition and details, its execution – for example the handling of the oil paint and the rendering of perspective – brings into question the identity and training of the artist. Could this be a self-taught painter, following 18th-century instruction manuals?
In 2022, infrared reflectography of the portrait enabled us to see through most paint layers, identifying changes to the preparatory sketches beneath the painted surface. Most notably, Williams' waistcoat was not originally envisaged to fall over his left leg the way it does now. Faint lines sketch the coat through, and under, the table, indicating that at first the artist drew it as falling straight. In the process of painting, the artist may have miscalculated the available space – or the table with the open book may have become more important as an additional indicator of Williams' status as a scholar.
Furthermore, projection lines can be seen under the checkerboard floor which were possibly drawn with a ruler. By continuing these lines, the vanishing point reveals itself to be Williams' face. The artist may have accidentally distorted the proportions of Williams' body when trying to apply perspectival rules.
The portrait was also investigated using x-ray fluorescence (XRF), which detects, and maps chemical elements used in the painting. For example, mercury (shown in pink) is found in the pigment vermilion frequent in the 18th century. But because pigments like vermilion were used throughout the British Empire, this analysis does not help us determine where the picture was painted. The same is true for the employment of Prussian blue (hydrated iron hexacyanoferrate) in Williams' coat and the draped curtain in the top right. Prussian blue was available on both sides of the Atlantic by the 1720s.
The scientific imaging has identified several more of the authors represented in Williams' library, such as the poet Abraham Cowley and the architect Andrea Palladio.
Whether these findings imply that the artist was a gentleman 'amateur', possibly Williams himself (thus adding art to his repertoire of learning, as was typical in the 18th century), needs to be explored further. After the scientific investigation, additional work from historians and archivists will be required to place the painting into context. What we can say is that Williams' portrait shows him navigating an identity between two worlds, between Britain and Jamaica.
The conversation about Williams' legacy continues.