The Genius of Hard Work

I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner

Lending his name to the Turner Prize, held annually at Tate Britain, J.M.W Turner is one of the most notable artists in British history. Galleries across the UK and further afield display Turner’s paintings, and Tate Britain devotes their Clore Gallery to a permanent exhibition of Turner’s work. Since 2020, a self-portrait of Turner has decorated British £20 notes, with a backdrop of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. So, what makes Turner one of Britain’s most loved artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in April 1775 in Covent Garden, London. He preferred to go by his middle name, William, the same name as his father, who worked as a barber and wig maker. Turner’s mother, Mary, gave birth to his little sister in 1778, who passed away shortly before her fifth birthday. Mary suffered greatly from this loss and spent time in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and Bethlem Hospital until she died in 1804.

Following his sister’s death, Turner went to live with his maternal uncle and namesake, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford. The earliest examples of Turner’s artwork were produced at this time, before being sent to Margate, Kent, in 1786. While in Margate, Turner painted scenes of the town, which his father displayed and sold in his shop for a few shillings each, boasting that his son “is going to be a painter”.

In 1789, Turner started studying with Thomas Malton (1748-1804), an English painter of topographical and architectural views. Malton specialised in views of London and taught Turner by getting him to copy examples of his work and prints of British castles and monasteries. In the same year, 14-year-old Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts, earning a place as an academic probationer the following year when he submitted a watercolour to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

During his first few years at the Academy, Turner focused on watercolours. He travelled around Britain to produce sketches of architectural buildings, particularly those in Wales and Cambridge. In 1793, he painted a watercolour of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. The painting reveals the spires of King’s College Chapel hidden behind the hall and the River Cam flowing in front. Instead of submitting this artwork to the Summer Exhibition, Turner sent in The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol, which is now lost. Yet, comments given at the time suggest older artists were impressed with Turner’s “mastery of effect”.

In 1796, Turner turned his hand to oil painting and exhibited Fishermen at Sea at the annual exhibition. The artwork depicts fishermen on a boat upon a rough sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight. On the left, the Needles, a row of jagged, chalk rocks look threatening in the gloom of the stormy sky. The cold light of the moon shines through a break in the clouds, which contrasts with the warm glow of the fishermen’s lamp. Critics commented on Turner’s ability to combine the fragility of human life with the power of nature. The painting helped establish Turner as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner gained one of his earliest patrons in 1797 at the age of 22. Walter Ramsden Fawkes (1769-1825), a politician, invited Turner to visit him at Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire. Fawkes allowed Turner to explore the grounds belonging to the Hall and commissioned a series of watercolours of the area. In one painting, Turner depicted Fawkes and his companions grouse shooting on Beamsley Beacon in the Yorkshire Dales.

Around 1802, Turner travelled to Europe, visiting several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy. While in France, Turner studied at the Louvre in Paris but also spent some time on the coast, capturing the stormy sea on canvas. He particularly enjoyed trips to Venice, where he combined two of his favourite subjects, architecture and water.

Turner did not always paint the landscape as he saw it. Instead, he imagined scenarios, such as Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm, which he painted in 1812. Turner took inspiration from several places, including the Alps in Europe and a storm he witnessed while staying at Farnley Hall with his patron. Combining these elements with his imagination, Turner depicted the Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247-182 BC), leading his troops across the Alps in 218 BC. Whilst the general is not visible, the tiny silhouette of an elephant in the background represents his presence. According to the history of the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy with North African war elephants.

The stormy painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps shared parallels with the ongoing Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The conflicts began in 1803, shortly after Turner studied at the Louvre. Turner painted the scene three years before the end of the conflicts when the winning country remained uncertain. It is unusual for a British artist to depict their enemy as Hannibal, but Turner was referencing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps in 1800. After already taking power in France, Napoleon was determined to seize parts of Italy.

Not all of Turner’s European scenes contained storms and he showed an equal talent for depicting calm skies. In 1817, Turner visited Dordrecht in the Western Netherlands, where he made sketches of the harbour. The following year, Turner produced a painting based on these drawings, which he titled Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed. Known as The Dort for short, the painting depicted “a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes,” as John Constable (1776-1837) recalled in 1832. Constable also thought it was “the most complete work of a genius I ever saw.”

After displaying The Dort at the Royal Academy in 1818, where critics rated it “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited,” Turner sold the painting to Walter Fawkes for 500 guineas. This is the equivalent of more than £40,000 today.

Around 1820, Turner returned to Farnley Hall, where under the guidance of Walter Fawkes, he produced illustrations for the five-volume Ornithological Collection. Fawkes was a keen natural historian and animal lover, allegedly purchasing a wild zebra to live on his land. Turner’s watercolours of birds and fishes prove his capability for producing detailed, delicate studies, not only expressive landscapes.

Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) praised Turner’s natural history drawings, particularly “the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish”. Whilst Turner also painted animal studies later in his career, particularly of fish, this style of artwork is often left out of biographies and exhibitions about Turner. Yet, those who come across these animal pictures are struck by the differences between these paintings and Turner’s landscapes. French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), for instance, wrote enthusiastically to his son after seeing Turner’s watercolours of fish in the National Gallery.

Whilst Turner’s animal paintings are not amongst the artist’s well-known works, there is more information about them than his personal life. Turner had very few friends and spent the majority of time with his father, who worked as Turner’s studio assistant for 30 years. William Turner Senior’s death in 1829 greatly affected his son, who suffered bouts of depression. Much of Turner’s life is told through letters and accounts by other people, particularly artists at the Royal Academy, who either admired or despised him.

Turner allegedly had an affair with an older woman called Sarah Danby and fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana. According to the 2014 biopic Mr. Turner, Turner refused to acknowledge and support the children. The film also revealed he spent 18 years living with the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. During this time, he went by the name “Mr Booth” to disguise his true identity.

Irrespective of his private life, Turner continued painting expressive landscapes, which became less detailed, focusing instead on colour and light. On the evening of 16th October 1834, a fire broke out at the Houses of Parliament, turning the sky dark with smoke. Thousands of people witnessed the blaze, including Turner, who felt inspired to capture the colours of the fire and sky on two canvases. Whilst the crowds stood on the other side of the River Thames, watching in horror as the fire spread rapidly throughout the building, Turner hired a boat to take him closer to the inferno, where he filled two sketchbooks with drawings from different vantage points. The watercolours on canvas are based on these sketches and were not painted en plein air.

By 1838, Turner’s reputation had spread to the continent, where King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) of France presented him with a gold snuff-box. In the same year, Turner painted one of his most famous works, The Fighting Temeraire. The watercolour shows the HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships used in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames towards Rotherhithe. Some art historians believe Turner added symbolic meaning to the composition. The famous ship appears almost ghostly in comparison to the dark tugboat, potentially symbolising the ship’s fate. When the Temeraire reached its destination, it was broken up for scrap. The setting sun may also symbolise the end of the ship’s life.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from sketches he made, which was Turner’s preferred approach. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, completed in 1839, is another example of this method. Turner visited Rome twice, yet spent twenty years painting views of the city. Modern Rome is the final artwork in the series, depicting a mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In the foreground, Turner included an imagined group of goatherds and other modern workers, going about their work in a city rich in history.

Some of Turner’s landscapes involve events he did not witness, for example, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, yet he usually combined elements from sketches made throughout his career to produce dramatic scenes. The Slave Ship, painted in 1840, is one such example. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a scene that only those on board the ship witnessed. In 1781, a slave ship owner ordered 132 sick and dying slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance payments. The insurance policy did not cover slaves who died of natural causes onboard the ship.

The crew on the slave ship Zong kept quiet about the incident, but the British public soon learnt of the massacre after one of the surviving slaves, Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), confided in Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. Sharp argued with the slave-owner, accusing him of murder, but received the response, “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Whilst a judge ruled that the shipowner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence, the man got away with slaughtering innocent lives. Nonetheless, the incident inspired abolitionist movements and turned many people against slavery, including Turner.

In hindsight, Turner’s late landscapes bordered on Impressionism, an art movement that did not appear until the 1860s. Yet, Turner is never described as an impressionist, and his style drew mixed reactions from his contemporaries. When commenting on Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one critic likened it to “soapsuds and whitewash”, greatly offending the artist. John Ruskin, on the other hand, wrote that the painting was “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

To some viewers, Snow Storm is a smear of dark, grey colours, and to others, it depicts a paddle steamer caught in a snow storm. Rather than using watercolour, Turner painted with oils but tried to replicate the same style. Instead of blending colours, Turner built the scene in layers, giving the picture texture. The monochromatic colours emphasise the darkness caused by the storm, but the steamboat is almost lost amid the swirling greys.

Whilst Turner always had a distinctive style, the looser, darker, indistinct paintings of his mature period coincided with the death of painter and clergyman Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-42). Despite the age difference, Daniell and Turner became close friends after the death of Turner’s father. Acquaintances suggest that Daniell provided Turner with the spiritual comfort needed to “ease the fears of a naturally reflective man approaching old age.”

Throughout his life, Turner always refused to let anyone paint his portrait. Before Daniell embarked on a voyage to the Middle East, he persuaded Turner to sit for John Linnell (1792-1882). Turner reluctantly agreed but only stayed long enough for Linnell to observe him during a dinner party. Linnell produced the portrait from memory.

Daniell set off to tour the Middle East in 1840, aiming to capture the foreign landscapes in watercolour. During the return trip in 1842, Daniell fell ill with malaria and passed away at the age of 38. Distraught at the news, Turner declared he would never form such a friendship again.

Turner’s paintings from the 1840s may represent his grief, but they also capture the changes in Britain. Turner lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in factories, machines and electricity. In 1844, he painted Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts an oncoming steam train in the countryside during a summer rainstorm. In 1838, the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), ran its first trains. Turner captured the train travelling over Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also designed by Brunel.

Although the railway and steam train are the main focus of Rain, Steam and Speed, the hazy atmosphere almost obscures them from view. Art historians often comment that Turner was ahead of his time and among the very few painters who considered industrial advancement an appropriate subject of art. The blurred elements of the painting suggest the train is travelling at speed. It also symbolises that modern technology is advancing forwards at a rapid pace. At almost seventy years of age, Turner had seen more changes in Britain than any of his predecessors.

Not all of Turner’s later works were dark and stormy. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), for instance, shows an early morning view of Norham Castle from across the River Tweed. Turner visited the Northumbrian castle in 1797, where he produced a highly detailed watercolour painting. His later version of Nordham Castle is based on the original but much less refined with vague outlines of the scenery. The castle appears to be shrouded in mist, which the sunlight is fighting to shine through.

On 19th December 1851, Turner passed away from cholera while staying with Sophia Caroline Booth at her house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Royal Academician Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) took charge of Turner’s funeral arrangements after writing to friends and family “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral near Sir Joshua Reynolds, who played a large part in establishing Turner as an artist.

Turner bequeathed his finished paintings to the British nation, leaving instructions for a special gallery to house them. After 22 years of debating the location of the gallery, the British Parliament allowed Turner’s paintings to be distributed and lent to museums and galleries, thus going against Turner’s wishes. Fortunately, the art collector Henry Vaughan (1809-99) purchased over one hundred of Turner’s watercolours, which he bequeathed to British galleries instructing they should be “exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge”.

In 1910, a large number of Turner’s paintings arrived at the Duveen Turner Wing at the National Gallery of British Art, now called Tate Britain. In 1987, the gallery constructed a new wing, known as the Clore Gallery, specifically for their collection of Turner’s work. The gallery was met with approval from The Turner Society, established in 1975, who declared that Turner’s will had finally been carried out.

The prestigious Turner Prize, established in 1984 in the artist’s honour, annually awards one controversial British artist £25,000. Whilst many critics debate whether some of the entries count as art, the artists are encouraged to change the course of art history and step away from traditional methods. Turner’s work may appear traditional today, but at the time, many found his style controversial and modern.

In 2005, the BBC conducted a poll to discover Britain’s greatest painting. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire won first place, followed by John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The Bank of England selected the same painting for the background of the first £20 British banknote printed on polymer, which came into circulation on 20th February 2020. The note also features Turner’s self-portrait from 1799.

Whilst Tate Britain boasts the largest collection of Turner’s work, his paintings and drawings belong to galleries throughout the world. In London, the British Museum holds several watercolours, and the National Gallery displays Rain, Steam, and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire amongst others.


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Looking Sharp

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

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.

Granville Sharp

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.

William Sharp (1729-1810)

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.

Granville Sharp the Abolitionist Rescuing a Slave from the Hands of His Master – James Hayllar

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 Sharp

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.

The Slave Ship – J. M. W. Turner

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. 

Medallion, 1787

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”.

A white glass medallion of Granville Sharp by Catherine Andras 1809

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

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.


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