Bust of Bill Richmond?
by Jerry Leibowitz
“I’m not made of iron or steel or stone or gold or bronze or wood, I’m Just Your Man”… Graham Parker
My inquiry into the sculpture known as Bust of a Man begins with some known facts. There are two similar sculptures known as Bust of a (Black) Man. One is unsigned in black limestone and is at the Yale Center for British Art. A lesser one, to my eye, is at the Getty Museum and is signed “Francis Harwood fecit.”, meaning “I did that!”. The latter appears to be in painted sandstone and dated 1758. The Yale Center assumes it has a copy of the Getty work, and assumes it to be a Harwood studio copy. I suggest otherwise.
I submit that the Bust of a Man at the YCBA may be a work of the great French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and the sitter is possibly a former American slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. At the time I believe it was created, between 1777 and 1781, Bill Richmond was in England without official papers or a legal identity. The Bust was catalogued as that of “Negerin“, a possibly derogatory term for a person, usually a woman, of African descent. The catalogued work is in gypsum and I suspect that the black limestone work at the YCBA was derived from it as was a method of operation for Houdon. It is noteworthy that two other significant works of the time which depict black males as subjects, John Singleton Copley’s Head of a (favorite) Negro and Watson and the Shark also have unnamed black subjects. Interestingly, it is quite possible that the person who came to be known as Bill Richmond was the sitter or model for these works as well (note the suspicious scar!), but I leave that astounding notion for further investigation and comment.
Francis Harwood was a British sculptor who worked in England and Italy from the mid 18th century to his death in 1783. He was quite adept at making copies of the great ancient sculptures of the world. For the most part, he did not make his works to deceive; rather he made his living fulfilling the wishes of patrons who wanted copies of the great classical sculptures for their private collection. Some of his work was signed, some was not. Some was created by his hand, some by his active studio in Florence which catered largely to British tourists on their Grand Tour. There are those who suggest that Harwood may have used his talent to dabble in fraud and forgery and believe that some works in major museums thought to be ancient are the product of his hand. His reputation was of a questionable character of the sort that might misdate his work for whatever economic reason he might have. Any assumption that he did the work located now at the Yale Center because he may have signed a similar work must be addressed in the context of the reality that there is scant evidence that he was that talented as an original artist. In a bit of circular logic, I suggest that the date on the Getty Bust must be wrong since Houdon could not have produced his original work before 1758 and Bill Richmond was not in England before 1777.
We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with the Northumberlands, one of the richest families in the world. An American slave of approximately twelve to fourteen years old who was to take the name “Bill Richmond” was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, a British Lord who later became the Second Duke of Northumberland. Lord Percy was a General in the British Army who participated in several of the early conflicts of the American War for Independence, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He quickly grew fed up with the war due to disagreements with his Commander. Lord Percy returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his talents which included a quick wit and his ability to defend himself with his fists. It was not uncommon for British officers to return to England with former slaves who attached themselves to British units as a means of escaping from their horrors. In 1772, a high court judge in England had issued an opinion in the matter of Somersett’s Case, which held that since slavery was abhorrent to British law, a slave who finds a way to sacred English soil is free while on English soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Northumberlands, the former slave was brought to London, where he lived among a circle the acquaintances of Lord Percy which included several expatriate artists connected to Benjamin West, including Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. The former slave was sent by Lord Percy to the Percy ancestral home in Yorkshire where he became educated, and acquired the family trade of a cabinet maker. At some point he returned to London where he seemingly took his place as a free British subject. Later in life, as Bill Richmond, he revolutionized the sport of boxing and once fought for the title of Champion of England, a title he likely would have won had he began his boxing career as a younger man. Before Bill Richmond, boxing was purely an offensive sport of brute force. Richmond, a welterweight by today’s standards, added a defensive aspect to the sport which enabled him to successfully defeat bigger and stronger foes. He is largely credited with turning the sport from one of brute force into “the sweet science”. Bill Richmond later became a boxing teacher, an instructor to both former slaves and English gentlemen such as Lord Byron. For a time he also owned perhaps the first sports bar in London where he would regale his customers with the stories only he could tell. There is little dispute that he was a beloved great fun smart guy.
I suspect that the YCBA sculpture was carved at the time the former slave was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sitter’s physique speak to his past as a slave or fighter in America. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Northumberlands were famous for their discerning eye and willingness to spend considerable money on their art. With the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, Britain and France, while technically still at war over the American conflict, were able to resume a certain amount of trade. The great sculptors of France, most specifically Jean Antoine Houdon, were exploring the issue of slavery in their works. In 1781, Houdon carved a bust of a black woman, thought to be a study for the “attendant” in a fountain sculpture of a bather, of which only the head remains and is located at the Musee Municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons. This sculpture was later used by Houdon in an allegory of slavery and freedom. As can be seen from the recast sculpture, now in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris, this sculpture is the spiritual kin to the Bust of a Man at the YCBA and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time. In his early catalogue of the works of Houdon, Charles Henry Hart lists a work called “Negerin” under the category of “Busts of Men”. To my knowledge, this work is unaccounted for and may be an early plaster version of the work later produced by Houdon or his studio in black limestone which is at the YCBA . If not Houdon, I can suggest other great artists who could have had a hand in creating the Bust at the YCBA. Joseph Wilton and Joseph Nollekens, each did work for the Northumberlands; as did Antonio Canova whose early sublime busts were created during this period. Interestingly, Nollekens held Francis Harwood in low esteem and both he and Houdon were plagued by copiers such as Harwood whose copies of their works, whether purposeful or not, were attributed as original works. It is possible that Harwood signed his copies to placate the true artists. It is also possible that for economic purposes dates were added later and it is these dates which continue to confuse art historians and add uncertainty to the true nature of the works.
There is some thought that both the Getty and YCBA Bust of a Man are unfinished because they do not bear the identity of the sitter, which would have likely been carved into the base upon completion. But what name did the former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond have in 1781? Official papers could not be issued on his behalf as the British government only issued papers to those slaves who fought as soldiers for the British Army and not to runaway youths who attached themselves to the British in an unofficial capacity. In 1781, the victorious Americans who were all about freedom were demanding return of their “stolen property” including their former slaves. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 included a convoluted provision which many thought required the British officers to return their former slaves, at least those who did not serve as soldiers. As wealthy as the Northumberlands were, Lord Percy was politically and socially vulnerable because of his quick exit from the war theater. It would not look good for a British General to violate the terms of a treaty. This young former slave suddenly had a questionable status in England which did not include a real identity. That is exactly how the sculpture depicts him. As a slave child he had no official name in America. Once in England, no papers could be issued on his behalf. In reality, in 1781 he was a young adult without a name. In fact, it may have been his questionable status which had prompted the Northumberlands to move him from cosmopolitan London to rural Yorkshire where he could not easily be found and claimed by some former owner.
Upon the 1863 death of Algernon Percy, The Fourth Duke of Northumberland and younger son of the Second Duke, at least one of the two Busts was catalogued. The catalogue of the Fourth Duke’s property at Yorkshire, where Bill Richmond once lived, lists the sculpture as “A fine bust in black marble-W. Richmond the Pugilist-on Italian marble plinth”. The Getty thinks this is their Bust, but I find that questionable since there is no mention of Harwood, no date, and it is my understanding that the Getty Bust is not black marble but painted sandstone. I suggest that this more accurately describes the YCBA Bust! The existence of the 1865 catalogue strongly suggests that Algernon Percy thought the sitter to be Bill Richmond. As a teenager Algernon Percy undoubtedly knew Bill Richmond well and probably went to see him box as did many noblemen who were great fans of boxing (Put up your Dukes!). I suggest that this catalogue presents the best evidence of the identity of the sitter. The fact that the Bust turned up in Yorkshire where Bill Richmond was known to have lived in 1781 also speaks to him as its likely sitter. Upon the death of Algernon’s younger wife in 1911, a Bust in her possession was catalogued as “A carved Black Marble Bust of a Negro, 27 in. high, by F. Harwood, on circular marble plinth”. No date is given. Perhaps this is the Getty Bust. The YCBA Bust, if owned by the Northumberlands, would probably have left the Northumberlands hands after 1865, when the title of Duke of Northumberland fell into the hands of distant cousins, and much of their valuable art collection was sold. The “Houdon” Bust was largely unaccounted for until acquired by Paul Mellon and later the YCBA. The Dowager Duchess retained the Harwood Bust which has found its way into the Getty collection.
Bill Richmond spent his life making a great name for himself. He was born and lived his early life without one. Algernon Percy, a respected worldly man also known as “Algernon the Good” for his good works, apparently believed the bust to be that of the boxer Bill Richmond. But now, due to a date placed on a sculpture possibly by a suspected forger, the art community has taken Bill Richmond’s name away from the sculpture and ironically has left it as nameless as the young slave. They may be right that Bill Richmond was not the sitter. I have tried to read all available information on the subject and I remain unconvinced either way. To me, until proved otherwise, I think the sculpture at the YCBA should be titled as follows:
Bust possibly of W. Richmond the pugilist, as a youth circa 1778-1781. Artist unknown, possibly after Houdon’s “Negerin”. Disputed by 1758 date and signature of Francis Harwood on similar work.
To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a black limestone sculpture now entitled Bust of a Man, which possibly depicts a former American slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It may be derived from an original Bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon catalogued as “Negerin”. The original Bust was probably created in the late 1770′s or early 1780′s for the Second Duke of Northumberland, who freed the former slave and brought him to England. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture in painted sandstone, incorrectly labeled as black stone, signed by the British sculptor, Francis Harwood bearing the date 1758 which appears suspect. The spiritual sisters of these sculptures are located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons and the Musee Nissim de Camondo, in Paris. Further investigation should be undertaken to determine if they were created by the same hand.
Below: The Francis Harwood Bust of a Man at the Getty, The recast Houdon, the original Houdon and the YCBA Bust of a Man