Painting of Billy Waters, 1815

This painting is of Billy Waters, an actor and musician who lived in London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is believed to have been painted by the artist Sir David Wilkie in 1815. Billy Waters was one of at least 10,000 people of African origin who lived in London in the early 19th century. Like many former slaves he had fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War. It was during this period that he lost his leg.

Waters was a popular and well-known figure, playing his fiddle and entertaining children outside London’s West End theatres. He was elected ‘King of the Beggars’ just before his death in 1823. He was one of several African personalities featured in the publication Life in London (1821). Waters was represented in this publication by a rather cruel caricature made by the famous caricaturist George Cruikshank. Wilkie’s portrait is a more realistic representation. In this painting, Waters is portrayed as dignified and proud. Although in public he often acted the clown, this painting suggests a more serious and powerful side to him.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK

Accession reference: National Maritime Museum, ZBA2427