As Britain Celebrates The 200th Anniversary Of The Abolition of Slavery In Britain A Portrait Of A Key Abolitionist Comes To Light In Ipswich

Two hundred years after William Wilbeforce’s ‘ Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’, was finally passed in parliament, beginning the end of slavery in Britain, a portrait of a key Baptist abolitionist, Reverend Benjamin Godwin, who campaigned against global slavery in the 19th century, has come to light at Bonhams in Ipswich. The picture, by an unnamed Victorian artist, is estimated at £400-600 and is one of a number of items in Bonhams’ Athenaeum sale at Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday 12th and 13th June, which reflect Britain’s chequered colonial history during the 19th century.

The Victorian portrait of Reverend Benjamin Godwin, a soberly dressed middle aged man, belies the then radical principles of a Baptist minister who was one of a group of compassionate men and women who fought to end global slavery. Godwin was one of the named sitters in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s famous series of studies of the 1840 British and Foreign Anti- Slavery Society Convention, which was called to promote worldwide abolition. Haydon’s Anti Slavery painting, now in the National Gallery, shows Reverend Godwin seated alongside famous abolitionists such as, Thomas Clarkson (founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade), the Irish radical politician – Daniel O’Connnell, the prison reformist – Elizabeth Fry and Lord Byron’s wife, Lady Anne Isabella Byron.

Even during the late 19th century the terrible plight of African slaves was regarded by some British Victorians as a minority cause and other items in Bonhams’ sale reflect the conflicting attitudes to Britain’s colonies, its growing empire and the slave trade.

A decorative blackamoor – a black carved figure made during the 1800s in Italy – is estimated at £3,000-5,000 in the same sale. The employment of black servants in wealthy British households had from Elizabethan times onwards, been seen as an indication of high status and worldly luxury. With the expansion of the slave trade in the 18th and 19th century the fashion for black servants in the homes of the aristocracy spread to the aspiring middle classes and was well noted in William Thackery’s society novel, ‘Vanity Fair’. To reinforce their taste for the exotic and elegant the most fashionable homes of the 19th century were often enhanced with gilded and polychrome blackamoors carved in Italy, France and Europe.

Where Britain’s expanding empire brought wealth for some and misery for others it also brought conflict and responsibility, most notably in India and Africa. Bonhams are selling a ten shilling bank note (estimated at £100-150) issued after the Siege of Mafeking, where British troops decisively defeated the Boers in South Africa in the Second Boer War making Robert Baden-Powell ( who late founded the Scouts) a national hero. There are also two pith helmets (estimate £200-300) belonging to Sir Cecil Hunter Rodwell, who served in the Suffolk Yeomanry in the last quarter of the 19th century and in South Africa, when British troops were sent out to fight the Boers. Later in more peaceful times Rodwell went on to join the diplomatic corps taking on the Governorships of a number of overseas colonies including Rhodesia and British Guiana.

All the items will be sold as part of Bonhams Athenaeum sale on Thursday 13th June in Bury St Edmunds.

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