Bust of Bill Richmond?

by Jerry Leibowitz

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 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 dated 1758. The Yale Center assumes it has a copy of the Getty work, and assumes it to be a studio copy. I suggest otherwise.

 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. There are those who think Harwood may have dabbled in fraud and forgery and believe that some works in major museums thought to be ancient are the product of his hand. I can only suggest that the available evidence shows him to be more craftsman than artist, and 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. My opinion, uneducated though it may be, is that the YCBA sculpture is an original bust of a black man who was born a slave and came to be named Bill Richmond and the Getty Bust is a copy and its date is wrong. I do not know if it was Harwood or another who misdated the Getty Bust but since I am convinced that the sitter was Bill Richmond, I am convinced that the date on the Getty Bust must be wrong.

We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with a Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest families in the world.  Famously, an American slave teen who was to take the name “Bill Richmond” was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. 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 and due to disagreements with his Commander, he returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his 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. At certain points in the War, both sides promised freedom to slaves who served as soldiers in their army. To the degree that some of these former slaves were runaways or not classified as soldiers, their status after the war was uncertain. 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, any slave who is on actual British soil is a free man while on British soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Duke of Northumberland, Bill Richmond now in England, became educated, acquired a trade, and otherwise seemingly took his place as a free British subject. Later in life, he revolutionized the sport of boxing grew quite famous and once fought for the title of Champion of England. He later became both a boxing teacher , an instructor to both former slaves and English gentlemen such as Lord Byron, and an owner of perhaps the first sports bar in London where he was beloved by his customers. I suspect that the Yale sculpture was carved at the time Bill Richmond was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sculpture’s physique speak to Bill Richmond’s past as a slave or fighter. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Dukes of Northumberland 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 Yale and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time.

 If not Houdon, I can suggest other great artists who could have had a hand in creating the masterpiece at the YCBA. Both  Joseph Wilton and Joseph Nollekens did work for the Northumberlands during this time period. Also there was a young Antonio Canova who knew Francis Harwood and whose early sublime busts were created during this period. Many great sculptors were doing great work at this time, and Harwood was never considered to be one of them.

The American victory in its War for Independence led to another adventure in the life of Bill Richmond. The darndest thing happened…the victorious Americans who were all about freedom wanted their slaves back. In the years between the British surrender of 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the status of former slaves under the control of the British was uncertain. The British insisted on honoring their commitment to those slaves who fought as soldiers in their army and papers were issued on their behalf. Yet in the confusing time, even some freed blacks with papers were re-enslaved. Bill Richmond had not been a soldier and had no papers, but at least he was in Britain where he had some security. Yet there was well reasoned apprehension on the part of many in Britain that in any treaty which would ultimately be signed, Britain might agree to relinquish its former slaves who had no papers. I presume that neither the (soon to be) Duke nor Bill Richmond was keen on seeing slave Bill returned to slavery in America. 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. Perhaps this is how the 1758 date made its way to the Harwood copy of the sculpture.

Francis Harwood had spent his life providing reasonable facsimiles of classical sculptures. Now, in the early 1780’s he was near the end of his life. I suggest, with absolutely no proof, that Francis Harwood copied the existing masterwork Bust of a Man and signed it, verified it, and perhaps he falsely dated it. Perhaps this was done to give Bill Richmond a false ID. I admit that the date of 1758 was farfetched, as the subject was a man who clearly was younger than that, but the concepts involved in providing a false ID had not yet been perfected. The scar above the eye and impressive physique would testify to the fact that it was Bill Richmond. The year 1758 may have been picked because it predated any American conflict and would therefore provide an unassailable cover. It also may have been inserted to establish a twenty year absence from America, which is often a statutory period for the abandonment of property. Thankfully, we know of no attempt to “repatriate” and re-enslave Bill Richmond. However, we do know that the Treaty of Paris of 1783 is a convoluted document which many believe required all British officers to return their former slaves to their “rightful” owner.

There is some thought that the sculptures are unfinished because if they were taken from life they should have borne the name of the sitter. But what name did the person who came to be known as Bill Richmond have in 1781? As a slave child he had no official name in America. Once in England, the slave child was then sent to Yorkshire by the Northumberlands where he was educated and taught the family trade of cabinetry. The town of Richmond, in Yorkshire, is possibly where his last name was derived (and probably not Port Richmond on Staten Island or Richmond Virginia as supposed in some accounts). In 1781 this young man was probably a person without a name and that is exactly how the sculpture depicts him.

Upon the 1863 death of Algernon Percy, The Fourth Duke of Northumberland, at least one of the two busts was catalogued. The catalogue of the Fourth Duke’s property at Yorkshire 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 1865 catalogue strongly suggests that Algernon Percy thought the sitter was Bill Richmond. As a teenager Algernon Percy undoubtedly knew Bill Richmond well and probably went to see him box earlier in the century. I also 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 the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland in 1911 a bust 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. This is likely the Getty Bust. It indicates that the Northumberlands probably owned both busts of the famous boxer, which is not surprising since the collection of sports memorabilia is not a new phenomenon. The Yale Bust probably left the Northumberlands hands  after 1865, and was largely unaccounted for until acquired by Paul Mellon whose collection forms the basis of the collection of YCBA.

To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a sculpture entitled Bust of a Man, which depicts the bust of a former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It is an important piece of American History as well as a sculptural masterpiece. It was probably created in the late 1770’s or early 1780’s and just might be (sorry YCBA) French. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture, probably created in 1782 or 1783, created and signed by the lesser British sculptor, Francis Harwood. It was misdated either by Francis Harwood or for some other purpose at some other time. 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 two recasts and then the original Houdon (head remaining) and the Yale Bust of a Man

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