Bust of a Man, the Sequel- Bill Richmond Strikes Back
“There are some things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder…”
“They call it the rope-a-dope. Well, I’m the dope. Ali just laid on the rope and I, like a dope, kept punching until I got tired. But he was probably the most smart fighter I’ve ever gotten into the ring with.”
Author’s note 11/13/14: The Getty website has removed references to Northamptonshire.
Bill Richmond (1763?-1829) made his name as a boxer nicknamed “The Black Terror” but he was much more than that. As a boxer and a boxing instructor in England he invented defensive boxing or at least brought it to the professional ring.[i] Before Bill Richmond, boxing was a sport of offense where large brutal white men would go at each other bare fisted until one died, or at least could not continue the fight. Bill Richmond’s style of laying back and taking punches to tire out an opponent was taunted as unmanly; but it allowed his much smaller frame to defeat larger opponents. After Bill Richmond, boxing became the “sweet science” where tact mattered almost as much as strength. But Bill Richmond was much more than even that.
I have touched on the incredible life of Bill Richmond in my pieces located here http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=52 and here http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=149 and here http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=94. I have suggested that the sculpture known as Bust of a Man located at the Yale Center for British Art may be a sculpture of Bill Richmond as a young adult and the similar work located at the Getty Museum is a worthy copy. Neither the Getty nor the YCBA agrees with my assessment of their sculptures and recently the Getty has “conserved” its Bust of a Man obfuscating any inquiry into the truth of the work. The purpose of this piece is not to rehash my arguments but to explain why they are important.
Bill Richmond was born a slave in America, although facts about his childhood as a black slave in the mid-18th century are naturally uncertain. As a teenager he had to choose sides in a Revolution. Does he stay with the Americans who were spouting on and on about freedom and independence but showed little inclination towards his freedom? Or run away at the risk of death to join the British, who first enslaved his people and were now only recently extending a promise of liberation to those who came over to their side. He choose the latter and by his sheer will and accomplishment perhaps as both a fighter and a brilliant joyous soul ended up in the presence of a wealthy British General who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. That General left the war theater for England in 1777 and took with him the young teen. The General made sure that his ward was given opportunity, sending him to the ancestral family home in Yorkshire to learn the trade of furniture making. That young teen came back to London destined for greatness, ultimately fighting for the boxing championship of England. Despite his fortunate later upbringing, it was not an easy life for Bill Richmond and he had the scars to prove it. He was a former slave brought to a foreign land, with no known family but for the Northumberlands. He was taunted both in and out of the ring for his boxing style and his life well lived, and he often returned the taunts with a pummeling sometimes of several men at a time. He probably never had official papers or even a name in England, since in America he was too young to have joined the British Army and only slaves who became soldiers actually received papers of freedom and a British identity. As an adult, he probably was illegally in England and subject to recapture because when the Americans won their War they demanded return of their lost property, including slaves.[ii] As an owner of a tavern in later life after his career in the ring, he told stories of his many tribulations. With his perfect body, incredible work ethic and quick wit, if there ever was an American who deserved to be cast in stone, Bill Richmond was it.
The literature on the Bust of a Man at the Getty which purports that it is an original work by Francis Harwood dated 1758 makes no sense. There is a bit of evidence, rejected by art historians, which shows that the sitter for the piece was likely Bill Richmond and that the piece was created later than the 1758 date now clearly engraved in the base of the Getty piece as a result of the “conservation”. The Getty would have you believe that their piece is an original masterpiece in an otherwise undistinguished oeuvre by a copier and a forger. Their response to my evidence was akin to telling me that I misunderstand 200 years of Art History, something to which I would completely agree with if everyone else would concede that they believe in 300 years of mangled American History. In their “Conservation” they apparently oiled the bust like a slave ready for auction; filled in the holes which clearly showed it to be tan stone painted black and not black stone as they have long claimed; “fixed” the date so it reads more clearly; and perhaps glued it to its socle for a reason that may only be known to them. But, after all, it is their sculpture and they could use it as a doorstop if they wish. I never claimed to have the definitive answer as to the nature of the work but I remain somewhat convinced that the 1758 date on the Getty piece is wrong, and that the sculpture is a copy of a work from life which depicts the brilliant boxer and worthy man Bill Richmond as a youth and the finished original work is the “copy” located at the Yale Center for British Art. But The YCBA doesn’t seem to believe me either, insisting that their work is a Harwood studio copy of the Getty work. The Getty, now having touched up their piece, appears to have taken a more active role in obfuscating any truth of the sculptures. If they understood anything about Bill Richmond, they would know that they are fighting a losing battle.
First the stupid stuff. The present online description of the piece on the Getty Museum website still indicates that the piece is carved from Black Stone. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/1199/francis-harwood-bust-of-a-man-english-1758/ [iii]. According to their conservation notes this is not true as the piece is carved from a tan sandstone shellacked to look like black stone.[iv] The myth of it being made from black stone may have been necessary to improve its provenance as an 1865 catalogue refers to a sculpture being made from Black Marble and the Getty claims that this is their piece. Of course, that is the site which catalogues the piece as (obscure first initial) Richmond the Pugilist. The myth of the black stone has been retold in several of the leading publications on the sculpture so the fact that it just isn’t true will be not make the truthiness of the assertion disappear. Just by itself, the notion that a sculpture was one thing made to look like another thing already casts some doubts as to its authenticity. Add to the fact that its purported sculptor, Francis Harwood, has been labeled as someone who succumbed to copying and forging[v], and I begin with the notion that any piece signed by Francis Harwood might be a copy or a forgery. Talented as he might have been, there is little in his oeuvre to suggest he was capable of producing this as an original piece. That assessment is not mine but is rife throughout the literature.
In its provenance of the piece, The Getty Museum website also includes a new reference to the piece having been located for a time at Stanwick Hall, Northamptonshire, England. I assume this was a stupid mistake and not another attempt to obfuscate a truth. There are (or were) two Stanwick Halls; the one in Northamptonshire still stands and has absolutely nothing to do with this piece. The other Stanwick Hall in Yorkshire, Richmond, England was demolished in the 1920’s. It was a secondary seat of the Dukes of Northumberland who were intimately connected to Bill Richmond and to this sculpture. That is where Bill Richmond likely lived and where the sculpture was found and twice catalogued, although whether it was the Getty piece or the YCBA piece that was actually catalogued remains a mystery. Moving the sculpture and the Northumberlands to Northamptonshire may be no more than a research mistake, but it does serve the purpose of suggesting that it was not found in Richmond, England, where Bill Richmond lived and likely took his name, and therefore was not a depiction of Bill Richmond. While I have always conceded that the sculpture may not be a depiction of Bill Richmond, creating false facts and having them repeated does not serve the inquiry well.
So what is there to make of the decision by the Getty to “conserve” their Bust of a Man? Well I always thought the purpose of conservation of a piece of art was to return it to its original form. Why then glue it to the socle? Is that original? Why tinker with the date? Where is the evidence that the date was on the original piece? I can point to two catalogues IN THE GETTY PROVENANCE which do not indicate that the piece was dated. One did not include the name of the sculptor and it called the stone black marble and not painted sandstone. I understand why they filled in the holes and oiled it up, that was probably the same thing that Francis Harwood did to make it look more like the original.
So why is this important? Frankly, like most of you reading this I really do not care who sculpted the original Bust of a Man or when it was sculpted! What I do care about is American History. Americans are quick to blame the British (or the Dutch) for slavery in America. It is true that these powerful nations introduced slaves to America and many of their citizens became wealthy through the slave trade and the toil of enslaved workers. But at some point, before the American Revolution, the Americans took control of their destiny as slave holders and then kept the institution alive without foreign intervention for another 100 years. Before the American Revolution, The Colonists, especially in the wealthy South, resisted any effort by Great Britain to control their laws even though members of its ruling class were all British citizens. As the abolitionist movement was growing in Britain, including the 1772 ruling in Somersett’s Case which outlawed slavery on English soil, the Colonists were formulating their escape from any notion that they were subservient to the British Crown or Parliament. The great thinkers of the South where the majority of slaves toiled, espoused the notion of local rule on issues including slavery. The largely mercantile North, which was also getting rich off the slave trade and the toil of enslaved workers, was either gullible or complicit. It is likely that the American Revolution was then, in part, a victory of slave holders and mercantile interests over humanity and civilization. In this narrative, Bill Richmond, a slave child, and General Percy, the Second Duke of Northumberland, represent the British movement towards a more civilized world. The fact that a very wealthy British Duke would bother to commission a sculpture of his black ward in the 1770’s or 1780’s shows a relationship that is much more familial than that of servant to master. In this narrative, the sculpture becomes a tangible presence and a symbol of the move towards civilization and America’s resistence to the tide of history. Little wonder then, that the narrative has been rejected and the sitter in the sculpture remains just another nobody without a name.
Bill Richmond suffered many indignities in his life and rose above them all. The notion that the Getty may be adding another now by dressing him up and further stripping his name from the work is of little import. If they are doing it purposely to deceive they are very small. If they are ignorant, they are not alone. Personally, like every one of my grey hairs, I think that the piece before conservation had an incredible story to tell and some of that story is now lost (or embellished!)The Getty should be aware that the truth, like Bill Richmond, is just doing the rope-a-dope. The brutish powers will tire of telling their false stories of America, and true heroes like Bill Richmond will take their place in the pantheon of Great Americans, replacing a host of slave owners who have been given a pass despite their unforgivable acts. Remember, the Getty is just a few turns from Hollywood where nobody ever let the truth get in the way of telling a good story. Bill Richmond’s day will come because he was a legendary man and as we all know in Hollywood they always print the legend.[vi]
[i] See T.J. Desch Obi, Black Terror: Bill Richmond’s Revolutionary Boxing, Journal of Sport History, Spring 2009 at 99. See also website: http://moreorlesschurch.blogspot.com/2008_10_05_archive.html.
[ii] Our first President championed this cause.
[iii] Accessed on October 28, 2014
[iv] I requested a copy of the notes but I have not yet seen them. See Commentary by Chi-ming Yang http://www.centerforbritishart.org/slavery-and-portraiture/336/commentary-by-chi-ming-yang
[v] Thomas Hoving, False Impressions, (Simon and Schuster 1996) at 64-66.
[vi] The great movie of American myth is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which famously concludes with the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.