The drawing is a study for the table used in Richmond’s oil portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
The son of a wealthy Hull merchant, William Wilberforce first entered Parliament in 1780. His conversion to evangelical Christianity five years later deflected him from an orthodox political career, and thereafter he devoted his life to prayer and meditation and to scrupulous attention to his duties in Parliament. He and his associates, known collectively as ‘the Saints’, had two objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of contemporary morals. His bill abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies finally became law in 1807. Wilberforce was obliged to wear a brace, or girdle, round his chest and this accounts for his somewhat contorted posture in the finished portrait.
Richmond began the painting at Wilberforce’s home on Battersea Rise, south London, in 1832. It was painted while Wilberforce’s attention was diverted by the Rev. C. Forster’s attempt to draw him into an argument on the subject of slavery. Sometime after the portrait had been completed, Richmond documented that the picture had been a turning point in his professional life which had made him known to a wider circle of people, the friends and admirers of William Wilberforce.’ Samuel Cousins engraved the portrait for two-hundred guineas of which Richmond borrowed £100 from his friend Charles Porcher, paying the balance out of his savings. It sold in large numbers, exalting Richmond’s reputation as well as bringing him considerable profit.