This Museum Needs Your Help Identifying the Subject of a 19th-Century Painting

Nobody knows the name of the child in “The Black Boy,” but a museum in Liverpool is hoping someone will recognize him

Portrait of black child looking at viewer
Liverpool artist William Lindsay Windus painted The Black Boy in 1844. National Museums Liverpool

In 1844, English artist William Lindsay Windus painted a portrait of a Black child, dressed in torn clothing and gazing directly at the viewer. Since 2007, The Black Boy has been on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England—but no one knows who the child was or how he came to sit for Windus 180 years ago.

Now, the museum is asking for the public’s help identifying the child in hopes of someday telling his story. The National Museums Liverpool—which runs the International Slavery Museum—has created a webpage and a corresponding Google form for people to submit tips.

Museum officials hope that descendants of Windus or the boy will come forward. They’re also interested in any materials—like documents or letters—related to the Liverpool Academy of Arts, of which Windus was a member in the 1840s.

Curators hope to display new interpretive materials alongside the portrait that will “delve deeper into Liverpool’s Black history, the experiences of Black children in Britain and the Black presence in 19th-century British portraiture,” per the webpage.

The quest to learn more about The Black Boy is funded by Understanding British Portraits, a professional network that aims to improve knowledge about portraits in collections across the United Kingdom.

Kate Haselden, a researcher with Understanding British Portraits, has been leading the efforts to learn more about the 19th-century portrait, which is the only oil painting depicting a lone Black child in the entire National Museums Liverpool collection.

“It would be an incredible thing to not only reunite his name with that portrait, but also to give him the justice that he deserves in being a named subject,” Haselden tells BBC News’ Jonny Humphries, adding: “Everyone has a name, and everyone has a story.”

Much of what historians do know about The Black Boy comes from a listing in a catalog written in 1891, reports the Guardian’s Donna Ferguson. It claims that Windus met the child in front of Liverpool’s Monument Hotel, which was run by Windus’ mother and was where the artist was living at the time.

Windus learned that the boy was a stowaway trying to escape slavery in America, and he paid the child to run errands for him, according to the catalog listing. Later, the boy was returned to his parents when a relative stumbled upon the painting and recognized him.

Historians are skeptical of this account, partly because it sounds like a story Windus (or someone else) could have cooked up to help the painting sell.

“It is not certain if this touching anecdote is true or not,” per the painting’s online listing.

They’ve also been able to glean some information by studying the artwork with X-rays, which show that Windus painted several other faces on the canvas before deciding to paint the child.

Some of Windus’ aesthetic choices—such as having the child look directly at the viewer and illuminating his face—suggest the artist was trying to convey the boy’s innocence and “invoke empathy for his pitiful subject, but in a dignified and slightly confrontational way,” writes the Guardian.

“His story is central to the development and history of our city, and he deserves to be more widely acknowledged,” Haselden tells the publication.

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