A history of Black British Design: Who painted Francis Williams?

During my last trip to the V&A, I came across the portrait of Francis Williams, a Jamaican Scholar who was involved – even if tangentially it seems – in numerous spats with racist philosophers such as David Hume.

As my ‘Global Warwickshire’ research project is on Black makers in the 18th-19th centuries, what piqued my interest was the fact that the artist is unknown. Considering how learned black people – especially men like Francis who were still determined to give back to the community – were part of collectives e.g. Sons of Africa and supported each other in various ways, I couldn’t help wonder if the artist might have been another talented black individual, albeit currently nameless.

There’s a lot of discourse about the style in which he’s painted: could it be caricature or emphasising his intelligence?

Instead I decided to look at it from an Africanist/indigenous (Taino) perspective where one often sees an emphasis on the head:

A lot more needs to be learned about Francis Williams and the Black milieu at this time, and as I am no art historian, this isn’t me saying this counts as evidence of a definite link. However, as a Black designer whose entire methodology is centred on looking at things from different perspectives, to question the framing is everything.


References of interest

Mathematicians of the African diaspora 

A portrait of an early black writer

Francis Williams the Jamaican Horace

Of Monkeys and Men: The Genesis of a Fabricated Racial Experiment in Edward Long’s History of Jamaica


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