Saturday, 5 April 2014

Did Thomas Bewick Design 'The Kneeling Slave- Am I Not a Man and a Brother''?

An astonishing find was made this winter in a Northumberland field next to the 18th-century George Hotel at Chollerford, – part of the bowl of a clay pipe with the ‘Am I Not A Man and A Brother image’ on it. ( It was found by Ron Brown of the North East AAG Archaeology consultancy (

This finding is significant because it suggests that the Gateshead area pipe makers were using the famous image which is most associated with the potter Josiah Wedgewood. It is a small indication of the degree of support for anti-slavery across the classes in the North East as shown by the work in the 2007 Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery Project. But it could have more significance if, as I have been arguing since then, that the image was based on a design by Northumberland engraver Thomas Bewick, a known supporter of the anti-slavery movement. The pipe could therefore be an artefact representation of perhaps the North East’s most influential and powerful contribution to the anti-slavery movement, which finally found its success in the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies under Northumberland’s Earl Grey’s Government in the 1830s.

When designing its 2007 commemorative badge the Great North Badge Company states that its ‘inspiration … is taken directly from Wedgwood's medallions. The badge's ornate belt border being based upon a contemporary engraving by the well-known artist Thomas Bewick.’ (

Bewick's Full Engraving

A full engraving by Bewick sets the kneeling slave in the plantation background and it was reproduced in John Sykes Local Records collection of events in Northumberland and Durham. Thomas Hugo's 1866 book 'The Bewick Collector contains the following note written years before by the North East collector John Bell: “Bewick took a deal of pains with this cut. It was done for a Society in London and Newcastle, 1787, in which there were Sir John E. Swinburne, Mr. Thomas Bigge, and others, who were particular friends. It has since been much hacked, by being used for everything which had any allusion to Negroes or the Slave Trade....” While this is not conclusive, it suggests that there may be a strong case for Bewick being the designer of the image for the London Society’s seal in 1787, which was then quickly interpreted by Wedgewood’s designers into the jasperware medallion in the same year. The reference to a Society in London and Newcastle in 1787 is perplexing, because no evidence has been found for the existence of an anti-slavery society that year in Newcastle. The Newcastle Society was not established until 1791. There may have been an informal grouping of anti-slave trade supporters because Newcastle Corporation was to submit one of the first petitions from the provinces to Parliament in 1788. That was the year Swinburne became an MP.


Mediallion Version

A medallion style version of the kneeling slave with plantation background was used on the front cover of the printed play Princess Zanfara by William Hutchinson a solicitor, antiquarian, and freemason based at Barnard Castle published in 1789. Another version was used for the tract published in December 1791 by the newly formed Newcastle Anti-Slavery Society giving details from the inquiry into the slave trade by the House of Commons. In discussing this in his book Popular Politics and British Anti-slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion John Oldfield writes Bewick’s interpretation of the London Committee’s seal gave fresh life to what was by now a familiar image.’ The image went on being used in Newcastle publications to 1830.

I have an image of a page of a printed publication showing both of these images which discusses both the 1789 and 1791 images. ‘We learn from John Fenwick, Esq, of Newcastle, that Thomas Bewick engraved two cuts of the Negro kneeling. One of these was cut for an Abstract of the Evidence given in reference to the Slave Trade .. published at Newcastle and the other for the “Princess of Zanfara” …Fenwick was one of the Secretaries of the Newcastle Anti-Slavery Societies and donated many of his anti-slavery tracts to the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society. Given the massive number of notes taken in the 2007 Project I unfortunately cannot link the image of the page to the reference to the publication this was printed in. This appears to confirm that medallion images reproduced in Newcastle publications were by Bewick.

Raising the Question

I first began to raise the question of whether Bewick is the original designer of the kneeling slave image, and whether Wedgewood took his inspiration from Bewick, when I was Archival Mapping & Research Officer for the 2007 Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery Project. I shared the idea with a wider audience in my talk on slavery and abolition in the North East at the 1807 Commemorated Conference at the University of York held in September 2008, and in January 2011 in my talk at the British Society for 18thC Studies Annual Conference at Oxford University.

I asked Jenny Uglow, author of the superb biography of Bewick Nature’s Engraver, whether she knew anything about it, but she did not.

Bewick, who financially subscribed to the abolition cause in 1792, had a clear moral philosophy and supported radical causes throughout his life. But he was not an organiser. He was one of the hundreds of supporters whom organisers need to be able to sustain movements through the peaks and troughs of campaign activity. To have that support requires a climate of opinion that organisers can energise. As a leading engraver he leant his skills to the cause.

Geting Up-to-date

I have not undertaken any more work on the issue in the last three years because of concentrating on other research interests. Now thanks to Roger Holly asking me for information about John Fenwick, I decided to see if anything new had gone onto the web that might throw more light. I was very pleased to find that the British Museum features several of the uses of Bewick’s design in its on line collection of images.

Its notes on the front cover of Zanfara state: ‘This famous image originated in 1787 as the design for the seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade; it was produced in many versions, probably the best known being the jasper-ware cameo by Josiah Wedgwood, a member of the Society (see 1887,0307.I.683). A small version is included in a scrapbook of wood-engravings in P&D, 166*.d.1, 1928,1126.71.’ The design attribution is given to Bewick with a question mark. It takes the same approach with the Society’s Abstract of the Evidence to the House of Commons Committee on the slave trade published in 1789.

It is more confident about attributing the same image used on the Newcastle Religious Tract Society’s published edition of Hannah More’s The Sorrows of Yamba (1823): ‘Print made by Thomas Bewick.’ (

Given there is no mention in his autobiography of the image, I think it is time to reassess Bewick’s role in anti-slavery, his links with other activists like Clarkson, Swinburne and Bigge, and his contribution to the visual campaigning imagery. I leave it to others to decide on what should be done and how it should be done.

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