Looking for Wilberforce: National Portrait Gallery

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After we left Westminster Abbey, Ann and I walked north on Whitehall up to Trafalgar Square. Our mission was to locate the 1828 oil on canvas Wilberforce portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. After a false start when we entered the National Gallery instead of the National Portrait Gallery, we finally found our way to the correct entrance. As an added bonus, the Portrait Gallery is free.

It took us awhile to find the Wilberforce painting, but we finally located it in a room dedicated to 18th-century social reformers. As we turned the corner, there he was! I don’t know if you feel this way or not, but to me portraits are not like other artwork; portraits look back. Eyes meet eyes, and you take the measure of one another. So, there I was looking at what Sir Thomas Lawrence saw when he looked at Wilberforce in 1828. The painting was never completed, so it almost appears as though a spotlight is shining on the face of the man who led the campaign to abolish the Slave Trade in Great Britain.

Looking at the face in the painting, I was reminded of so many personal details that Metaxas shared in his “painting” of Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. Here are but a few:

  • Wilberforce was “tiny and stood just over five feet with a child-sized torso.” (p. 43).
  • He suffered from ulcerative colitis his entire life. (p. 43).
  • He was “greatly renowned for his singing voice.” (p. 29).
  • He was once called “the wittiest man in all of England.” (p. 28).
  • He was highly regarded for his “intelligence, charm and wit.” (p. 21).
  • He had extremely poor eyesight. (p. 55).

Mextaxas’ most extensive physical description of Wilberforce is set in 1807, the year the Slave Trade was abolished: “His always frail body, which had been wracked with pain and discomfort ever since he could remember, was the body of someone much further along in years. The constant doses of opium pushed on him by his doctors for his ulcerative colitis had taken their toll on his eyes, and the curvature of his spine and the telltale slump of his head that would mark him in later years were already discernible. He’d entered Parliament as a boy of twenty-one, fresh from the bright green lawns of Cambridge — but how the years and battles had aged him.” (p. 205)

As I looked into the eyes of Wilberforce (actually looking through Sir Thomas Lawrence’s eyes as he looked into the eyes of Wilberforce), the thing that most impressed me was that he did not look coldhearted, distant, broken or bitter. Even after decades of staring unflinchingly into the hellish realities of the Slave Trade and after facing endless defeats in Parliament, Wilberforce remained a kind, caring, even playful husband and father. All the harsh realities of his life had failed to harden his heart. There was still room for joy, for love, for family and for God.

Does all of this show in the eyes of a man like Wilberforce? I don’t know. But as I continue “looking for Wilberforce,” I think I found a bit of him in a painting in the British Portrait Gallery.

Next stop: Clapham.

Bruce McLarty
London, England
August 5, 2016

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