James II portrait in 11 Downing St 'under review' due to slave links

James II portrait hanging in Rishi Sunak’s 11 Downing Street drawing room is ‘under review’ because the king’s Royal African Company shipped slaves to the Americas

  • 17th-century painting hangs above fireplace in Chancellor’s official residence in a space used for formal receptions
  • The Stuarts played key role in slave trade; King Charles II granted charter to Royal African Company, of which his brother King James II was a member
  • Company shipped vast numbers of slaves from Africa to Americas and did not cease dealing in slaves until 1731
  • Portrait will undergo a historical ‘interrogation’ by Government Art Collection
  • A portrait of King James II on display in Rishi Sunak‘s drawing room at 11 Downing Street is ‘under review’ due to its links to the slave trade.

    The 17th-century painting sits above a fireplace in the Chancellor’s official residence in a space used for formal receptions.

    It will undergo a historical ‘interrogation’ by the Government Art Collection (GAC) owing to the Stuart king’s links with the Royal African Company, which was responsible for shipping vast numbers of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

    The slaves were kept in appalling conditions on ships and suffered dehydration, dysentery and scurvy. 

    As Duke of York and later king, James led the company, which had a monopoly on British trade with West Africa, including gold and silver.

    A portrait of King James II (pictured) on display in Rishi Sunak's drawing room at 11 Downing Street is 'under review' due to its links to the slave trade

    A portrait of King James II (pictured) on display in Rishi Sunak’s drawing room at 11 Downing Street is ‘under review’ due to its links to the slave trade

    The 17th-century painting currently hangs above a fireplace (above) in the Chancellor's official residence in a space used for formal receptions. It will undergo a historical 'interrogation' by the Government Art Collection owing to the Stuart king's links with the Royal African Company, which was responsible for shipping vast numbers of slaves from Africa to the Americas

    The 17th-century painting currently hangs above a fireplace (above) in the Chancellor’s official residence in a space used for formal receptions. It will undergo a historical ‘interrogation’ by the Government Art Collection owing to the Stuart king’s links with the Royal African Company, which was responsible for shipping vast numbers of slaves from Africa to the Americas

    The company held its monopoly until 1698 and did not cease dealing in slaves until 1731.

    Mr Sunak is believed to have asked for the portrait, painted circa 1660 by John Michael Wright, to be installed in the drawing room during a re-hang of Government-owned artwork in the summer, according to The Telegraph.

    Artworks from the GAC are displayed in UK Government buildings across the UK and the world.

    The collection is said to be designed to promote British art and aid cultural diplomacy.

    The vast collection of works began being compiled in 1898 and now boasts over 14,000 pieces dating from the 16th century to the present day – and they are mainly works by British artists in a broad range of media.

    Mr Sunak is believed to have asked for the portrait, painted circa 1660 by John Michael Wright, to be installed in the drawing room during a re-hang of Government-owned artwork in the summer

    However, the GAC, which is part of the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport, now intends to pursue a historical ‘interrogation’ to highlight ‘hidden narratives’ in its thousands of artworks.

    The review was instigated under the leadership of GAC’s director, Penny Johnson, who unveiled a £50,000 commission earlier this year to look into ‘colonialism’ earmarked for display in official British buildings around the world.

    It is believed that changes to artwork in Number 11’s drawing room would be under the remit of the Chancellor – but the GAC helps to choose pieces for any re-hang asked for by politicians. 

    Although the King James II portrait’s interpretation may be under review, the painting will not be taken down due to the Government’s policy to ‘retain and explain’ potentially controversial objects rather than remove them.

    The GAC told The Telegraph: ‘The reinterpretation process will be an opportunity for reflection, interrogation and challenge and will be carried out in line with the Government’s policy guidelines on ‘retain and explain’.

    ‘In line with the Government’s position, the GAC will not be removing any pieces of artwork.’

    King James II and his family’s links to the African slave trade

    James II (1633-1701) reigned as King of England, Ireland, and Scotland (as James VII) from 1685 to 1688.

    The last Stuart monarch in the direct male line, he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution (1688–89) and replaced by William III and Mary II. 

    James II was a Roman Catholic and this alienated most of Britain. 

    The revolution, engendered by his religious beliefs, permanently established Parliament as the ruling power of England.  

    The Stuarts played a key role in the slave trade when King Charles II granted a charter to the Royal African Company, of which his brother King James II was a member.

    Slaves were kept in torrid conditions on ships and suffered dehydration, dysentery and scurvy. 

    More than 20,000 died during the crossings and their bodies were thrown overboard. 

    The company held a monopoly on the trade until 1698, when a change in the law opened African trade to all English merchants. 

    The Royal African Company did not cease dealing in slaves until 1731.  

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