The family of Sir William Young

This oil painting dates from 1766 and shows the family of Sir William Young. Young was one of the most prominent and effective pro-slavery campaigners in the House of Commons. He was a plantation owner in St Vincent and Tobago, where he later became governor.

The composition was painted by Johann Zoffany (1734/5 – 1810) when Sir William Young (1725 – 1788) became a baronet and was appointed Governor of Dominica. The family are all wearing theatrical Van Dyck costume, which was very popular at the time in family portraits. The young African man steadying the boys on horseback may have been a slave brought to England by Young from one of his West Indian plantations. He does not wear a metal collar, which was sometimes worn as a sign of a slave’s status. This, and his familiar manner with the child on horseback, suggests that he may have been regarded as more of a servant than a slave although he was by no means free. This portrayal may be a reflection of the growing change in attitudes towards slavery in the late 18th century. However, African people were also often included in family portraits as a status or fashion symbol, or to provide artistic contrast.

© National Museums Liverpool

Accession reference: National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery WAG 2395