In the National Gallery, is a painting called The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), a German neoclassical painter. Zoffany, who spent his early years in England under the patronage of George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), captured the Sharp Family making music aboard their pleasure boat, Apollo, with All Saints Church, Fulham in the background. The Sharp siblings regularly appeared on the River Thames with their instruments to entertain the public on the banks.
Produced between 1779-1781, Zoffany’s painting indicates the wealth of the family through the portrayal of the upper-class fashions of the 18th century. Their musical boating parties attracted many people, evidencing their popularity, particularly among local dignitaries and even royalty. Yet, the family came from a more humble background.
The siblings grew up in Durham with their parents, Thomas Sharp (1693–1759), Archdeacon of Northumberland, and Grace Higgons, the daughter of English clergyman and travel writer George Wheler (1651-1724). Although they had an honourable upbringing, they did not have the financial advantages of the upper classes. Through sheer determination, love of music and fondness for each other, the Sharps worked their way up the ranks, first giving recitals at one of the brother’s home, before performing fortnightly water-borne concerts on their large barge between 1775-1783.
Seated in the centre of the painting is the most well-known of the Sharp siblings. Granville Sharp, born in Durham in 1735, played a variety of instruments, including the clarinet, oboe, flageolet, kettle drums, harp and a double-flute. He also sang with an impressive bass voice, which George III described as “the best in Britain”. Respected for his musical skills, Granville often signed his name G#, but it was not only in music that he made his name.
At the time of Granville’s birth, he had eight older brothers, although only five survived infancy. Five sisters soon followed, bringing the total number of children to 14. Their parents put away money for the children’s education, but by the time Granville reached his teens, the money was exhausted. Although he began his schooling at the all-boys school in Durham, Granville and his siblings received most of their tuition at home.
At the age of 15, Granville travelled to London to work as an apprentice for a linen draper. He found the work tiresome and longed for opportunities to hold discussions, arguments and debates. To fuel his passion, Granville took an interest in his fellow apprentices, learning Greek in order to debate the orthodox Bible with a Socinian colleague (someone who believes in God and Christian ideals but not the divinity of Jesus). He also learnt Hebrew so as to have theological discussions with a Jewish friend.
Not all of the Sharp brothers entered apprenticeships. The eldest, John, followed his father’s footsteps and was ordained into the Church. Whilst their father had not found wealth in that position, John worked hard to establish a miniature welfare state in his home in Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland where he was the perpetual curate. During his career, John oversaw the establishment of a school, a library, a hospital, and the first lifeboat service.
At the age of 14, William Sharp (1729-1810) moved to London to study surgery. His exceptional skill and demeanour attracted the patronage of George III, who hired William as his private surgeon. After attending to Princess Amelia (1783-1810), who was often in poor health, the king offered William a baronetcy, which he turned down. Although William was well-off, he never forgot his past and paid attention to the needs of the poor. He considered his high position in society to be a stroke of luck, so established a free surgery for those denied such good fortune.
Like Granville, his brother James came to London as an apprentice. After completing his apprenticeship in ironmongery, James rose through the ranks to become a pioneer of the industrial revolution. James enjoyed making music in his spare time, often meeting with Granville and William, as well as his sisters Elizabeth and Judith who had also moved to London. The siblings usually met at William’s house in Mincing Lane, where they also gave concerts. Unfortunately, James passed away before the family began performing on the Thames.
Granville’s apprenticeship came to an end in 1757, the same year both his parents passed away. He quickly secured himself the position of Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London, a civil service position, that also provided enough free time to pursue his musical talents and intellectual hobbies. Being so close to his siblings, both familially and geographically, allowed his passion for music to flourish. He also discussed his work with his brothers, who informed him of the goings-on in their careers.
On a visit to William’s surgery in 1765, Granville met a young black slave with severe wounds to his head. The slave, Jonathan Strong, originally from Barbados, received the injuries from his master David Lisle, who bashed the young lad repeatedly over the head with a pistol. After almost blinding him, Lisle discarded Strong on the streets where he was discovered and taken to William’s free surgery. Granville assisted William to treat Strong, but his condition was so severe, they needed to transfer him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Out of the kindness of their hearts, Granville and William paid for Strong’s four-month stay.
After Strong left hospital, the Sharp brothers continued to look after him. When he was strong enough, they found him employment with a Quaker apothecary, where he worked for a year and a half before being discovered by his previous master. David Lisle, a lawyer, believed he still owned Strong, despite discarding him in the street two years previously. Lisle wished to sell Strong to his friend James Kerr of Harley Street for £30. Kerr owned a plantation in Jamaica and wanted to ship Strong to the Caribbean to work there. Lisle and Kerr employed two men to kidnap Strong but did not anticipate the slave’s new contacts.
Following his capture, Strong managed to get word to Granville, who immediately went to the Lord Mayor of London to plead his case. The Lord Mayor, possibly Sir Thomas Davies, in turn, spoke to Lisle and Kerr about their claim on the slave. Kerr produced the bill of sale to prove he had purchased Strong from Lisle, but without more evidence, the Lord Mayor ordered Strong’s release from his imprisonment. The case, however, was far from over.
Almost immediately after his release, a second kidnap attempt took place, this time by West India Captain David Laird, who threatened to take Strong straight to James Kerr. Fortunately, Granville witnessed the attack and claimed he would charge Laird with assault if he did not let the young man go. Meanwhile, Lisle tried to sue Granville £200 for taking his property. When Granville approached his lawyers on the subject, they told him Lisle had every right to claim Strong as his possession. Unable to “believe the law of England was really so injurious to natural rights,” Granville spent the following two years studying English laws.
Lisle soon gave up the fight, but Kerr remained determined to win his case. After two years of persisting, the court dismissed the case and fined Kerr for time-wasting. For the first time in his life, twenty-year-old Jonathan Strong was a free man. Sadly, his freedom did not last long, and he passed away five years later.
Granville’s association with Jonathan Strong earned him the moniker “protector of the Negro”. A couple of slaves approached Granville for support, hoping for similar results, but the courts were reluctant to be involved in human possession disputes. At this time, British organisations were the largest slave traders in the world. Slave labour was vital for the British economy, therefore, owners were reluctant to free their slaves.
Determined to put an end to slavery, Granville published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery: Or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men in England in 1769. He expressed the view that “the laws of nature” make everyone equal and it is only laws imposed by society that state otherwise. He demonstrated that slavery was illegal because the freedom of a man was priceless. Granville received support from James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) of Cranham Hall, the founder of the American state of Georgia. Together, they unsuccessfully attempted to convince British leadership to give slaves the same rights as Englishmen.
Slavery had never been authorised by law in England and Wales. Granville used this to his advantage when learning of the plight of another black slave in 1772. James Somerset, an enslaved African, travelled to England with his American owner Charles Stewart in 1769 but managed to escape a couple of years later. Unfortunately, slave hunters found Somerset and locked him in a ship bound for Jamaica. Before Somerset attempted to flee, Charles Stewart had him baptised as a Christian. On learning of his capture, three of Somerset’s Godparents complained to the courts. When Granville heard of the case, he supplied the lawyers supporting Somerset with his formidable knowledge of English laws.
Granville proved that slavery was illegal under English law, so Somerset became a free man the moment he stepped on English soil. Although the court case lasted five months, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-93), announced James Somerset’s freedom and ended the proceedings. Somerset and his supporters celebrated the result, but this was not the end of slavery. Whilst it was illegal to own a slave in England, the law condoned using slaves in overseas territories.
Plantation owners in the Americas continued to exploit slaves, abducting them from their homes in Africa and forcing them to work in harsh conditions in a foreign land. In 1781, 60 slaves died from neglect and over-crowding aboard the British slave ship Zong, causing the crew to take drastic action, massacring over 130 slaves by throwing them overboard. To add to the morally corrupt event, the shipowner tried to claim compensation for the loss of his property at sea.
Granville learnt of the massacre in 1783 from Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), a freed slave from the Kingdom of Benin. Horrified by the events aboard the Zong, Granville immediately involved himself with the court case against the Liverpool merchant claiming insurance. The merchant’s lawyer John Lee (1733-93) claimed: “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Granville argued that jettisoning slaves was murder and should be punished accordingly. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed Granville’s accusation but ruled the slave owner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence.
The more Granville learnt about the lives of slaves, the greater his wish to abolish slavery entirely. He was not alone with this wish, but the largest groups of anti-slavery protesters were Quakers, a domination forbidden from participating in Parliament. In 1787, nine Quakers and three Anglicans established the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but to make an impact, they needed someone with parliamentary connections. A vote unanimously elected Granville, one of the Anglican founders of the society, to present their petitions.
Due to modesty, Granville refused to chair the meetings for the society but regularly attended for the following twenty years. Parliament rejected many of their petitions, but they continued to work tirelessly nonetheless. The society received support from other anti-slavery campaigners, including the founder of the Wedgwood company Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), who arranged the production of anti-slavery medallions, and the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1883), who presented the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, albeit unsuccessful. Through Granville’s connections, the society also received support from abolitionists in America.
Granville made attempts to return freed-slaves in Britain to their native countries. Many worried they would return to slavery, so Granville drew up plans for a new Christian society called “The Province of Freedom”. The first attempt struggled from the start, with fires on ships and many Africans returning home before the plans were fully operational. The first settlement, named Granville Town, lasted a few months before local tribes burnt it down. A second attempt to create “The Province of Freedom” proved more successful. With the help of a former American slave, Thomas Peters (1738-92) and British brothers, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and John Clarkson (1764-1828), Granville helped to found the port city Freetown in Sierra Leone.
In 1807, the society’s hard work paid off when the Houses of Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act/Act of Abolition. When Granville, now 71 years old, heard the news, he fell to his knees in prayer. Many of the original abolitionists did not live to see the result and Granville received the affectionate accolade of the “grand old man of the abolition struggle”.
As well as anti-slavery campaigns, Granville supported American colonists, which meant resigning from his job due to its support for the British forces fighting in America. Away from politics, Granville enjoyed his music but also established the British and Foreign Bible Society (now known as the Bible Society) with Wilberforce and Methodist preacher Thomas Charles (1755-1814) to spread the use of the scriptures throughout the world. Initially, the society focused on printing bibles in Welsh but soon produced bibles in Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. They sent Gospels abroad in the languages of the Iroquois and Romani people in Canada and America to make the Bible accessible for more people. By 1824, the British and Foreign Bible Society had “distributed 1,723,251 Bibles, and 2,529,114 Testaments—making a total of 4,252,365.” Today the society is global with 150 Bible Societies around the world.
Granville Sharp passed away on 6th July 1813 before he had the chance to see the full effects of the Slave Trade Act. His tomb lies beside the graves of his siblings William and Elizabeth in All Saints Church, Fulham, which is visible in the background of the painting of the Sharp family.
“Here by the Remains of the Brother and Sister whom he tenderly loved lie those of GRANVILLE SHARP Esqr. at the age of 79 this venerable Philanthropist terminated his Career of almost unparalleled activity and usefulness July 6th 1813 Leaving behind him a name That will be Cherished with Affection and Gratitude as long as any homage shall be paid to those principles of JUSTICE HUMANITY and RELIGION which for nearly half a Century He promoted by his Exertions and adorned by his Example“Inscription on Granville Sharp’s tomb
A memorial in Westminster Abbey remembers the life of Granville Sharp and, in 2007, he featured on the 50p Royal Mail stamp issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. His is also memorialised in Granville Town in Sierra Leone and Granville in Jamaica, both named in his honour.
The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany intrigues viewers, who wonder about the identity of the musical family and the reason behind their public concerts. At a glance, it is impossible to tell that one family member made such an impact in the 18th century, helping to bring about changes that continue to shape our societies today.
Granville’s legacy suggests that not everyone has forgotten him, but the majority of people have not heard his name. It goes to show how quickly good deeds of others are overshadowed by new events, which in turn get buried beneath the ever-growing pile of history. In an attempt to discover the Sharp Family in Zoffany’s painting, a lesser-known period of Georgian Britain has emerged. Next time you view a portrait of someone you have not heard of, “google” them. You may be surprised by what you learn.