Depictions of enslaved African children on Martins Bank, and chained figures on the Nelson Monument

The Martins Bank building on Water Street (1932) and the Nelson Monument on Exchange Flags (1813) are two of Liverpool’s architectural treasures. Both have been said to depict, or allude to, enslaved Africans. Reliefs on the entrance to the bank is said to include two enslaved African children with wrist and ankle restraints. The two children have been said to be holding money bags that represent the wealth plundered from Africa. The monument to Nelson has four chained prisoners of war, that since unveiling, have been have reminded people of Liverpool’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In this post we see what evidence there is to support these claims, and investigate if there are alternative interpretations.

Introduction

Comparisons between the chained figures on Nelson’s monument to enslaved Africans on were drawn the moment it was unveiled in 1813. The figures on Martins Bank appear to have escaped criticism until the end of the 20th century. What is remarkable is the proximity of the two sites, both are right next to the Town Hall (a building with links to the slave trade, and contemporary to it). The town hall features a decorative frieze that has symbols relating to world trade, including Africa. Once known as the Exchange, the area around it was the commercial centre for merchants directly involved in, or profiting from, Liverpool’s slave trade.

In the mid 18th century the Exchange was surrounded by inns, coffee houses and brokers offices were goods of every description were sold; from rum, cotton and sugar, to ships, houses and country estates. Here were also everything a merchant would require to enter the trade. Everything from sugar pans and furnaces for the plantations in the West Indies, to chains, shackles and guns to enable the transportation of enslaved Africans. Most shocking are the auctions of enslaved people in Liverpool. These occurred within a minute’s walk of the Exchange.

Originally the area behind the Exchange was a crowded butchers’ market known as the Shambles, the Exchange Buildings opened in 1808 (construction commenced 1803), and the square formed between them and the town hall was covered with paving flags. This led to its name ‘Exchange Flags’. (Not after the practice of merchants exchanging flags that represented their business, as it is sometimes incorrectly stated). The Nelson Monument was situated close to the site of a public house that dated from at least the late 16th century named Merlin’s Cave (HSLC paper page 107). The monument was moved to a more central position in the Flags in 1866.

The area surrounding Exchange Flags has rightly become the focus of tours giving information of the slave trade, but is there any evidence to confirm the artistic depictions on Martins Bank and the Nelson monument really depict enslaved people?

The paving flags that gave the site its name can be seen on the bottom right of this image. In a bizarre move for a historic site, the area was cobbled a couple of decades ago.
Graphic – Saturday 05 May 1877. British Newspaper Archive.

Enslaved African Children on Martins Bank

A blog on the Liverpool Museum’s website provides a perfect introduction into the idea that the reliefs depict enslaved African Children when the author describes the sites visited on a tour given by the late Eric Lynch:

Along the tour I also saw figures of European bankers who financed the trade. The old Martins Bank building strikes a nerve; at one of the entrances, there is an image of the Roman god Neptune with his hands placed on the heads of two African children. The image represents nothing more than greed, pride and arrogance. The city tour was uncomfortable yet unforgettable.

Liverpool Museums blog
Image: John Bradley, Wikipedia
“In the doorway, in sculpted stone panels, is King Neptune, lord of the waves, holding two young African slave boys. It’s a nod to the shipping lines and the exploited who formed the basis of the bank’s wealth. Above them is the grasshopper, the symbol of Martins Bank and to the side, the Liver bird, symbol of the Bank of Liverpool”.
Text and image from ‘Searching for my slave roots’ By Malik Al Nasir, as told to Ed Thomas. BBC News

The twin reliefs appear on both sides of the office worker’s entrance, not the main entrance to the bank. On the photograph above the restraints can be seen on the childrens’ wrists and ankles. The tight curls of the hair on the two boys certainly appear to depict African children, although the facial features may appear to be more European. The child on the left is holding an anchor representing Liverpool’s maritime trade. The child on the right is holding a set of scales to represent commerce. Liverpool is represented by Neptune Neptune who has his hand resting on the heads of the children. This gesture has been said to symbolize the oppression of Africa.

Between the two reliefs is an impressive brass doorway featuring a stylized fusion of ancient Egyptian and classical art, with Norse mythology thrown in for good measure. All to convey Liverpool’s story as a mercantile centre whose wealth founded by the sea.

Link to the slave trade via Heywood’s Bank
In 1966 Martins Bank building was designated as a Grade II listed building, the description was amended in 2007(the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Slave Abolition Act) to include the bank’s links to the Slave-trade via Heywood’s Bank who they had absorbed. The Heywood brothers had invested in at least 125 slaving voyages:-

While the original Martins Bank is not known to have any direct links with the slave trade, banks were inextricably linked to the trade in eighteenth-century Liverpool, supplying the credit essential to a risky business which offered relatively long-term returns. The Heywood brothers, having been left a fortune by their father, established themselves as Africa merchants, engaging in at least 125 slaving voyages.

The relief sculptures at the entrance to 4 and 6 Water Street have provoked controversy in Liverpool since the late twentieth century. Some see them as dignifying, or accepting unquestioningly, the role of slavery in Liverpool’s economy; whilst some see them as a more general celebration of the international aspect of Liverpool’s trade and prosperity. Either way, the fact that the subject was chosen in 1927-32 is an indication of the extent to which Liverpool’s former involvement with the slave trade has been embedded in its economic culture.

Historic England Listing

Also in 2007, Liverpool historian and author Ray Costello stated that the images reflected the fact the bank was founded on the slave trade:-

Liverpool’s rise, says local historian Ray Costello, is summed up in the carving on a bank facade: two Black children supporting Liverpool as Neptune. ”What it really means is that this bank was founded on the slave trade,” Costello said.

‘Anniversary revives images of slavery, English bicentennial of abolition recalls Liverpool’s role in trade’, ROBERT BARR, Associated Press, 2007 via Yo! Liverpool

After the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a petition was brought on Change.org for the removal of the reliefs entitled ‘Remove the racist relief on Martins Bank Building’. The petition links the images to ‘the rise of British fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s’ and ‘white supremacist propaganda promoting the oppression of the Black community in 20th Century Britain’. To date it has received just over 2,000 signatures:-

The stone relief at the entrance to Martins Bank Building on Water Street depicts the oppression and slavery of two African children. The relief was created during the rise of British fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, therefore not a historical depiction of the slave trade, but rather white supremacist propaganda promoting the oppression of the Black community in 20th Century Britain. The memorialisation of the oppression and slavery of Black people is an act of violence and perpetuates the systems of structural racism in society that this current movement is calling so loudly to dismantle. With one of the oldest Black communities in the UK, Liverpool has an essential duty to rightfully acknowledge their Black history and how the city can amplify, not oppress, the Black voices that have made Liverpool the city it is today. 

A blatant depiction of child slavery should have no place in any city, especially Liverpool which was built on the back of Black individuals. Liverpool needs to further recognise its complicity in the slave trade and address its violent past. We are asking for this relief to be removed out of respect for past and present Black lives in Liverpool.

Petition at Change.org

Jessica Moody’s excellent 2020 publication The persistence of memory: Remembering slavery in Liverpool, ‘slaving capital of the world’ analyzes how Liverpool has addressed it’s historical connections to the Slave-trade. The passage on Martins Bank includes this quotation from David Lewis’ Walks through Liverpool History (2004):-

an unsettling reminder of the slave trade greets visitors through the carvings of African children that stand at the sides of the building’s entrance, holding bags of gold, their heads bowed under the palms of a sea god

The persistence of memory: Remembering slavery in Liverpool, ‘slaving capital of the world’

The reliefs are not the only artwork in the bank that have a strong resemblance to African children. Inside, the ceiling has this twin tailed merman, with what can only be described as an Afro hairstyle:-

Another relief inside the bank shows similar figures gathering crops in their cornucopia, and pouring the contents of their labour into a large container. The enlargement of the photograph is not very clear, but it appears from this, that unlike those on the doorway, the figures do not have (what have been interpreted to be) manacles on their wrists and ankles.

A desription of the building when it opened said ‘the new headquarters of Martins Bank possesses many distinctive features, and probably ranks as the most important bank headquarters outside London. its commanding position in the very centre of the city, at the top of Water-street. Of the reliefs on the entrance the same article said the external decorations were ‘symbolical of the banking and commercial activities of the city and port’. Exactly which ‘activities’ the reliefs referred to was not specified:-

Liverpool Journal of Commerce – Wednesday 11 March 1931. British Newspaper Archive

Why would a bank in the 20th century chose to have a depiction of enslaved children on their building?

It appears that little or no serious research has been ever conducted into the reason why a bank would choose such an image. After all, it seems unlikely that a bank would choose to welcome their customers and/or staff to their new head office with a depiction of them as slaves, subservient to Liverpool.

The opening of the head office of Martins Bank came 125 years after Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 that prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire, and 99 years after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that saw the abolition of the institution of slavery. Why then would a banking institution chose to include such offensive images relating to Liverpool’s involvement in the Slave-trade? Was it the bank’s decision or was the artist making a subversive statement on the institutions history?

As yet, no documentation has been found to prove the artist’s intent. But clues can be found in other works by Tyson Smith, and in particular, other sculptural collaborations with Rowse.

The bank was designed in 1927 and completed in 1932. The architect was Herbert J. Rowse and the decoration was by George Herbert Tyson Smith. The bank was erected at the height of the Art Deco movement, an aesthetic inspired in no small part by African art. African culture became a major influence for artists in the first decades of the 20th century. Ancient Egyptian art was particularly influential, culminating in the discovery of the artifacts in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

The name Art Deco was derived from the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, in Paris, 1925. The following year Paul Guillaume, a dealer in African art, made a reference to the huge influence Africa had at the exhibition:-

At the Great Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, the predominance of the negro motif was obvious among the really new and distinctive notes in interior decoration. The trends in the design of modern furnishings, posters and newspaper advertising show that this motif was introduced in every area of delicate and applied art…The most important lines of influence were a clearer understanding of the nature of design in every discipline, and in particular the possibility of applying negro sculpture principles to a resurrection of artistic traditions that had been considered dead. We could almost say that there is a form of feeling in it, an architecture of thought, a subtle expression of the deepest life forces that have been extracted from negro civilisation and introduced into the modern artistic world

Paul Guillaume, 1926 via Art Deco and Africa, Johnny Pitts, 2013. afropean.com

Tyson Smith was no exception to this influence, as can be seen in this sculpture by him from 1914 below. Does this nude figure holding a vase depict an enslaved Egyptian girl?

Image credit

There are many references to Ancient Egypt in Liverpool’s architecture, many are catalogued here. The influence is particularly evident in Rowse’s work. His designs for the Martins Bank building feature many influences from the period.

The stunning, often eclectic, designs of Martins Bank can be viewed in all their glory in the beautiful video commissioned by the new owner, and developer, Kinrise. This features a local roller-skating troupe Rollerdrome:-

Evidence that is was Rowse that chose the Egyptian influence for the reliefs on Martins Bank is shown by his other buildings, with decoration created by two other sculptors Edmund C. Thompson, assisted by George C. Capstick. The Rowse building with perhaps the strongest Egyptian influence is his George’s Dock Ventilation tower (decoration by Thompson and Captick). In that case, even a humble Toll Booth was treated with the same reverence as a Pharoah’s tomb.

The relief panel on the ventilation tower is strikingly similar in both theme and execution to Tyson Smith’s reliefs at Martins Bank. A dominating central figure is flanked by what appears to be two figures in Egyptian clothes holding tools. Thompson included a Toblerone-esque row of pyramids, just in case the reference was unclear.

Design for Relief Sculpture of Building for George’s Dock Ventilation Station
Edmund Charles Thompson, 1934. Text and image: National Museums Liverpool

Tyson Smith’s personal contribution to Martins Bank was the mythological theme. Sometimes this clashes with the architect’s vision, as can be seen with the amazing ceiling design of the boardroom. But compared to the rest of Rowse’s scheme, the room looks like a medieval banquet hall transplanted into the Art Deco masterpiece.

The question is, did Rowse and Tyson Smith depict enslaved children on Martins Bank? Or is it a misinterpretation?

Apart from why a bank would approve, or commission, a recognition of wealth accrued from slavery, the reliefs raise several other questions. If they really depict enslaved children, was it a comment on Liverpool’s wealth gained by the slave trade, or was it a result of the Art Deco fascination with African/Egyptian art?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume they are enslaved children

In that case, surely the board of the bank must have been oblivious to the fact. After all, it would seem to have been an act of either incredible naivety, or arrogance and insensitivity, to pass Rowse’s plans for the building. With Rowse’s Egyptomania, Tyson Smith must have been instructed by him to adapt his style to fit the brief, for at least part of the building. Isn’t it more likely that Tyson Smith thought it appropriate to include enslaved children from Ancient Egypt, rather than those taken from West Africa during the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

If it was an ill-considered theme, inspired by the Art Deco movement, this would be in contrast to another theory that has been suggested previously, that it was the sculptor’s comment on Liverpool’s role in the slave trade.

Assuming the reliefs were a highly inappropriate depiction of slavery merely for the sake of decoration, then few (white) people would have batted an eyelid at what would now be seen as demeaning and racist sculptures. Perhaps this may be the reason why it took them so long to be noticed? After all, it appears it was Black Liverpool historians that first drew attention to them. If merely for decoration, their portrayal on a bank could be more of a reflection of the racial attitudes of Britain when the building was erected, and for the best part of the ensuing 90 years.

Alternative interpretations will be looked at further down this post.

Nelson Monument, Exchange Flags

Now to the other work of art in Liverpool that have been said to depict enslaved Africans, the Nelson Monument. It was designed by Matthew Cotes Wyatt and sculpted and cast by Richard Westmacott (Knighted 1837). Unveiled on 21st October 1813, this was also erected after Slave Trade Act of 1807, but importantly, it had been proposed before it in 1805. The Nelson monument on Exchange flags is literally just around the corner from the bank.

Below the statue of Nelson are four chained figures ‘in allusion to Lord Nelson’s signal victories’. Dejected and mournful – lamenting the loss of their four crowns, which Victory has handed to Nelson, held aloft on his sword.

in his left hand a sword, upon which Victory personified is putting a fourth crown to indicate his fourth naval victory, Trafalgar.

Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Terry Cavanagh, Liverpool University Press, 1997

Controversy has always surrounded this monument, comparisons between the chained figures and enslaved Africans have been made since the day it was unveiled over 200 years ago.

Nelson Monument Liverpool. The central figure of Nelson on a pediment is surrounded by four prisoners of war representing Nelson’s victories. These figures have often been interpreted as depicting enslaved Africans although they have European features. Image credit

The prisoners on Nelson’s monument compared to enslaved Africans

As they are chained, and executed in blackened bronze, the similarity to enslaved Africans has often been remarked on. Although Nelson (like most bronze statues), is the same colour (oil-rubbed bronze has a dark, almost black matte appearance), and the four chained figures have Caucasian hair and features.

The example below shows that just a couple of weeks after the monument was unveiled, a correspondent felt compelled to defend it, and explain what the four figures really represented.

It would occupy too large a portion of your valuable paper where I to rebut all the illiberal and malicious attacks which have been made on this noble and costly production. I shall therefore, content myself with answering one or two of the principal objections which have made to it. And, in the first place, a prodigious outcry has been raised against the four figures in chains, who are represented in such doleful dumps, sitting at the foot of the pedestal. What a shocking sight is it (these gentlemen exclaim) to behold this galling exhibition of slavery in Britain! for, as the poet says,-

“Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free; They touch our country, and their shackles fall”

In answer tall this, l would beg leave to ask, are not these figures intended to represent prisoner of war? and have we any assurance that they have been put on their parole? For my part, I never trust a Frenchman, and ‘I have not the least doubt, that if the chains were taken away, these mounseers would quickly scale the palisades, and take French leave, without waiting for the ceremony of being regularly exchanged.

As to the misery which is so visibly depicted in their countenances and postures, I have no hesitation in saying that it is all feigned, in order to excite sympathy in the bystanders, and to induce them to ease item of their chain. I, however, warn the Committee to be on their guard, and even to employ some loyal blacksmith to examine their fetters once a week ; for, should they get loose, as far as I can judge from their size and muscular appearance, they would be more than a match for a whole posse of constables.

Letter to the Editors of the Liverpool Mercury, signed N/Y. Liverpool Mercury – Friday 05 November 1813

The American author Herman Melville, best know for his 1851 novel Moby Dick, mentioned the comparison in his semi-autobiographical Redburn (1849). Melville had stayed in Liverpool for a month in 1839, he would return in 1856 :-

At uniform intervals round the base of the pedestal, four naked figures in chains, somewhat larger than life, are seated in various attitudes of humiliation and despair. One has his leg recklessly thrown over his knee, and his head bowed over, as if he had given up all hope of ever feeling better. Another has his head buried in despondency, and no doubt looks mournfully out of his eyes, but as his face was averted at the time, I could not catch the expression. These woe-begone figures of captives are emblematic of Nelson’s principal victories; but I never could look at their swarthy limbs and manacles, without being involuntarily reminded of four African slaves in the market-place

Redburn: His First Voyage. Being the Sailor-boy Confessions, Herman Melville, 1849. See pages 197-198

Description of the monument, by the committee that commissioned it

Unlike the figures on Martins Bank, we do know what the figures on Nelson’s monument were intended to depict, because they were described in detail before the statue was even cast. The chained figures represent four victories; Vincent, Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.

DESCRIPTION OF THE MONUMENT.

On a basement of Westmoreland marble stands a circular pedestal of the same material, and peculiarly suitable in colour to the group which it supports. At the base of the pedestal are four emblematic figures of heroic size, in the character of captives, or vanquished enemies, in allusion to Lord Nelson’s signal victories. The spaces between these figures, on the sides of the pedestal, are filled by four grand bas-reliefs executed in bronze, representing some of the great naval actions in which the immortal Nelson was engaged. The rest of the pedestal is richly decorated with lions’ heads and festoons of laurel; and in a moulding round the upper part of it, is inscribed, in letters of brass, that most impressive charge delivered by this illustrious commander, previous to the commencement of his battle off Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty.”

The figures constituting the principal design are Nelson, Victory, and Death; his country mourning for her loss, and her navy eager to avenge it, naturally claim a place in the group. The principal figure is the Admiral, resting one foot on a conquered enemy, and the other on a cannon. With an eye steadfast, and upraised to Victory, he is receiving from her a fourth naval crown upon his sword; which, to indicate the loss of his right arm, is held in his left hand.

William Roscoe’s description of the monument. Manchester Mercury – Tuesday 02 November 1813

Thousands of French prisoners in Liverpool

The sight of depressed French prisoners of war in Liverpool was not confined to a statue. Just a few years before the monument was commissioned, there had been thousands of them in the town’s prisons.

French Prisoners, George Murgatroyd Woodward, 1783 ‘A procession of seven chained and emaciated prisoners (three-quarter length) walk from right to left. Image: recordoffice.wordpress.com

The people of Liverpool had been interacting with French prisoners for decades. With little provisions, they earned money by making decorative arts for the inhabitants of Liverpool from straw, and even the bones from their meals. Clock and watch repairs were also carried out. These transactions were conveyed from their cells via a basket on a rope. The same baskets were also used to collect alms.

The Transport Board replied to a complaint by a Mr. John Poynder to Lord Liverpool. This related to stopping French prisoners trading in goods they had made, (including obscene toys):-

requests the magistrates to help in stopping the traffic with prisoners of war in prohibited articles, straw hats and straw plait especially, as it has been the means of selling obscene toys, pictures, &c., to the great injury of the morals of the rising generation

Prisoners of war in Britain 1756 to 1815; a record of their lives, their romance and their sufferings
by Abell, Francis. 1914

Sculpture on the town hall made by a French prisoner
It appears that the craftsmanship of the prisoners was even put to use by the Corporation, William Gawin Herdman wrote in 1843 that one of the frieze sculptures on the west side of the Town Hall was executed by one of the French prisoners in the prison:-

The sculpture on the frieze at the west side of the present Exchange was executed by one of the French prisoners, when confined in the borough gaol, which shews a cable laid hawser-way

A hawser being ‘A cable or heavy rope used to tow or moor a ship’, this was most likely to have been the two panels featuring an anchor as both are very similar being almost mirror images of each other.

In 1798 there had been 4,009 French prisoners in Liverpool out of a total of 30,265 in Britain. Richard Brooke’s description of Liverpool in the years 1775 to 1800, tells of the high mortality rate of the prisoners, many buried in the graveyard of St. John’s church (Now on the site of St. John’s Gardens)

In general the prisoners were ill-clad, and appeared dispirited and miserable ; and the mortality amongst them was very considerable : the hearse was constantly in requisition to convey from the gaol the corpse of some poor Frenchman to the public cemetery at St. John’s Church.

A plaque (by Tyson Smith no less) was installed in 1924.

TO HER SONS WHO DIED IN CAPTIVITY
IN LIVERPOOL 1772 – 1803 AND WHOSE
BODIES LIE HERE IN THE OLD CEMETERY
OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
FRANCE EVER GRATEFUL

The 1801 census for Liverpool shows that 1,786 prisoners of war were being held at the Great Howard Street Borough Gaol.

1801 census for Liverpool showing 1,786 prisoners of war being held in the Borough Gaol. Image: Find My Past

For more information on French Prisoners in Liverpool, see Miscellaneous notes

Did William Roscoe suggest the inclusion of the chained figures?

The committee was formed for the monument in 1805, and subscriptions commenced on the 15th November (The Battle of Trafalgar where Nelson had died had only taken place on the 21th October). The committee included many of the towns merchants that were involved in the slave trade, either directly as slave merchants, or traders in slave-produced goods. It also had an abolitionist amongst its ranks, William Roscoe. Roscoe is one of Liverpool’s most celebrated sons – remembered as an author, poet, solicitor, politician (briefly), banker, and promoter of the arts. Most of all, Roscoe is championed as one of a very small group of men in Liverpool that were opposed to the Slave-trade (mostly anonymously). In 1806 (one year after the nelson monument committee was formed) Roscoe stood briefly as an MP for Liverpool, during his time he cast his vote in favour of the abolition of the slave trade.

The learned Roscoe was also the town’s arbiter of taste, with a vast library and collection of art and rare prints (although he lost the library when he became bankrupt). It is safe to assume then that Roscoe would have played a leading role in the artistic planning of the monument. It has been suggested that the inclusion of the chained figures was as the request of Roscoe, who could not resist an allusion to the slave trade – the proposals being submitted before the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

Public feeling ran high in Liverpool against the apparent destruction of its commercial wealth; there were violent demonstrations against Roscoe on his return to the city following the Act, and, as a consequence, he was to lose his seat at the next election. Considering the date of the design and its selection (1806-7) and the monument’s situation in the area of the Exchange, the prisoners could be interpreted as an expression of the City’s commercial interests. However, with Roscoe’s initial control over the
project, it could equally suggest the suffering and nobility of the enslaved. The second, and more immediately recognisable reference to local conditions in this
part of the monument relates to Liverpool’s wartime role as host to large numbers of French prisoners.

NELSON THE CITIZEN HERO: STATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGTATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGE OF MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE 1805-18, ALISON YARRINGTON, 1983

Two of the designs submitted, from George Bullock and Matthew Cotes Wyatt, were strikingly similar and featured four chained figures with Nelson on a pedestal. Alison Yarrington noted that none of the other monuments to Nelson in Britain included chained figures (via Jessica Moody):-

Unlike other monuments to Nelson in Britain, both of these design proposals for the Nelson monument featured chained prisoners, perhaps this indicates that they were part of the original brief?

Where concessions are made through murmurings of the possible allusions to slavery, these appear, as argued above, behind the comforting guise of Liverpool’s much-celebrated anti-slavery campaigner. Further, whilst a number of other memorials to Lord Nelson were constructed in towns and cities nationally at this time, no other designs included chained figures, and yet two of the designs proposed for Liverpool by different artists, both with local connections, did so. Additionally, the Liverpool designers were submitting their compositions up to February 1807, in the midst of abolition debates and a mere month before the Act of Parliament outlawing slave trading by Britain was passed.

The persistence of memory: Remembering slavery in Liverpool, ‘slaving capital of the world’, Jessica Moody, 2020
An unsuccessful design submission by George Bullock. Image: Alison Yarrington ‘Public Sculpture and Civic Pride 1800-1830’, via Jessica Moody ‘The memory of Slavery in Liverpool”‘ 2014.
Wyatt’s chosen design that was executed by Richard Westmacott. Image: Alison Yarrington ‘Public Sculpture and Civic Pride 1800-1830’, via Jessica Moody ‘The memory of Slavery in Liverpool”‘ 2014.

It is likely then, that the inclusion of the chained figures was part of the design brief, and it is also likely that Roscoe was central to that process. Interestingly, Bullock had come to Liverpool from Birmingham just a few years before the design competition, and had earned the patronage of Roscoe. (See Moody p. 241, footnote 90)

Was Bullock’s design chosen first but later rejected?

Bullock must have been either convinced that his design would be chosen, or the committee had a last minute change of heart, because in May 1807 an article was published that led with:-

A splendid Naval Monument, the memory of the late Lord Nelson, is about to erected at Liverpool, by public subscription. It is to be executed by Mr. George Bullock, sculptor, of that place, for 8000l.

Saunders’s News-Letter – Monday 04 May 1807

Further indication that Bullock’s design was initially chosen comes from the text below:-

Mr. Bullock has published the following description of the model, which has been approved by the Committee

Of the four chained figures, Bullock wrote:-

on the sub-plinth are seated four nautical figures, emblematical of the four great battles fought ; those figures not convey any idea of captivity, more than is absolutely necessary to show defeat

Saunders’s News-Letter – Monday 04 May 1807

In what could be seen as an example of nepotism, the committee finally chose an ‘unsolicited’ design by Wyatt, over those by ‘Flaxman, Rossi, Nollekens, Westmacott and Bacon’ who were asked by the committee to submit designs (see page 322). Wyatt had connections with John Foster Senior who had been designing the Exchange Buildings. Foster had been apprenticed to London Architect, Jeffrey Wyatt, and the Exchange extension was a collaboration with James Wyatt, who possibly also worked with him on the Exchange Buildings. The committee lamented the death of James Wyatt in the 1813 report:-

However, it is evident that despite the fact that the committee had only invited leading sculptors to submit designs, an unsolicited design by the inexperienced Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862) was selected. Foster, who had succeeded Roscoe as chairman during the latter’s absence in 1806-7, had many connections with the Wyatt family and his control over the monument’s site must have been a major factor in the selection of Wyatt’s design.

NELSON THE CITIZEN HERO: STATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGTATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGE OF MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE 1805-18, ALISON YARRINGTON, 1983

Alternative interpretations of the two sites

The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.

Charlotte Brontë

All art is open to interpretation, and every person’s view is equally valid, therefore it’s not our place to contradict what anyone takes from the Tyson Smith reliefs, or Matthew Cotes Wyatt’s chained figures. But, as well as interpretation, the appreciation of art also benefits from research, in an attempt to understand the artist’s original intention.

For well over half a century it appears that pedestrians on one of Liverpool’s busiest streets walked past Martins Bank without noticing the children depicted on the reliefs. But once pointed out, the Martins Bank reliefs appear to be an obvious depiction of enslaved African children. It seems incredible that the significance was not noticed earlier.

This interpretation for the Martins Bank reliefs is a relatively recent assessment. It appeared for the first time towards the end of the 20th century when Liverpool historians began to re-examine the city’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Like the chained prisoners of war on Nelson’s monument, they have created a focus for debate and in doing so have helped the city come to acknowledge it’s past and its shameful profiting from human misery. For that reason the Slavery interpretation has provided a physical connection to the past and has enabled us to be educated about our history. Perhaps that’s more important than statues themselves?

After research however, there are alternative explanations…

Borrowed themes in Liverpool’s public art #1: Martins Bank

As shown earlier, Herbert Tyson Smith himself was inspired by earlier works, he borrowed from classical mythology to create the decoration for Martins Bank by including twin tailed mermaids and mermen, cornucopia and Neptune etc. Norse mythology was also an inspiration as a Viking Queen is also included, alongside a woman in what appears to be a Tudor headdress holding a printing press. The Ancient Egyptian influence can be seen in his interpretation of the Liver Bird, this looks more like a Sacred Ibis:-

A bronze panel by George Herbert Tyson Smith, Barclays Bank, Water Street. This female attendant, holding a printing press, is on the central doorjamb of the main entrance. The building (1927-32), by Herbert J. Rowse, is the former headquarters of Martins Bank. AA029379. 11/04/2002. © English Heritage. NMR. Text and image: National Museums Liverpool
Image: Alamy

Evidence for Rowse’s and Tyson Smith’s reasons for including the supposedly enslaved figures does not appear to have survived. But, what if a similar relief existed elsewhere? Luckily one such sculpture exists and the meaning behind it is known.

Friends’ Provident and Century Life Office, 37-39 Corn Street, Bristol, 1933

Work commenced on the building in 1931 (before the opening of Martins bank) and was completed in 1933, (just one year after Martins Bank). The architects were Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and A.W. Roques. The reliefs were the creation of Joseph Hermon Cawthra (1886–1971). Yorkshire-born Cawthra was a contemporary of Herbert Tyson Smith and their work has many much in common. His works cover Britain including one in Merseyside – the Bootle War Memorial.

The building on Corn Street features two reliefs above the entrance, one bears a striking resemblance to that of Martins Bank. These represent the virtues of Peace, Plenty, Benevolence and Prudence. Like Martins Bank they borrow heavily from classical themes including the cornucopia that Tyson Smith used so often. The similarity with right hand relief and Martins Bank will be instantly apparent. It has a classical figure with her hand on the head of a nude boy who is making an offering of money. In this case the money is a collection box but the boys foot is resting on a money bag. No wrist or ankle restraints are depicted but the boy has curly hair not unlike the Liverpool relief, albeit far less stylized.

Peace and Plenty is shown on the left and Benevolence and Prudence on the right. Image credit
A comparison of the Bristol statue with that of Liverpool’s – On both the main figure is resting their hand on a chubby child, both depict children holding money, on Cawthra’s it is a money box on Tyson Smith’s a money bag with a draw string that is similar to the bag the the Bristol child is resting his foot on. Both feature curly hair but their is no mention of the child being African on Cawthra’s sculpture.. The treatment of the hair of the main characters is also similar.

The boy holding the money is a Putto

So, unlike Martins Bank, we know exactly what the Bristol reliefs represent, the boy Prudence by holding a box containing his savings (Prudence – showing care and thought for the future). More importantly the boy is described as a Putto:

The second figure group, entitled Benevolence and Prudence, has the matching girl, again with an S-shaped pose, but here more restful, head downward turned to gaze at the plump naked cherub or putto representing Prudence, who holds up a collection box while one fat little leg is raised to place the foot on a moneybag; a second bag in relief has a £ sign helpfully inscribed upon it. Benevolence is symbolised by the girl holding an olive branch in one hand, and the other resting, benevolently, on the forehead of the putto. Hermon Cawthra was the sculptor, and these figures are typical of his style.

Bob Speel

This in turn is an older artistic theme that had been used in architecture, the Hôtel des Monnaies, Paris (completed 1773) has statues representing Law, Prudence, Force, Commerce, Abundance and Peace.

Just as they were for an insurance company, ‘Plenty, Benevolence and Prudence’ are far more likely themes for a bank to choose – than slavery, theft and oppression.

Designed by the architect of ‘architect of Liverpool Cathedral and telephone boxes’. Western Daily Press – Saturday 13 May 1933. Image: British Newspaper Archive
A paragraph from the article above explains that the child represents Prudence by holding a money box to be ‘symbolic of the virtues’ of the life assurance offices. Image: BNA

What is a Putto?

A Putto (plural Putti) appears in art as a chubby child, usually naked, and sometimes with wings. Putti were often used to depict Cherubs, Eros or Cupid.

Putti, cupid and cherubs appear in all forms of religious and secular art, often acting in a supporting role to the central character. These anonymous characters help to tell a story without distracting from the central, identifiable characters. Their generic appearance acts as a useful tool to enable the viewer to focus on the central characters in the allegory.

Putti are a classical motif found primarily on child sarcophagi of the 2nd century, where they are depicted fighting, dancing, participating in bacchic rites, playing sports, etc.

The iconography of putti is deliberately unfixed, so that it is difficult to tell the difference between putti, cupids, and various forms of angels. They have no unique, immediately identifiable attributes, so that putti may have many meanings and roles in the context of art.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putto

But, if Tyson Smith’s reliefs were Putti, why would they have manacles on their wrists and ankles? The Roman statue of a ‘Chained Putto‘ below may provide the answer as it represents ‘a complex allegory representing Cupid, in chains and without wings’. Just like the Martins Bank reliefs, this statue has been interpreted to depict an enslaved child, in this case incorrectly. Cupid is in chains because he was punished by the goddess Nemesis for tormenting lovers. His wings were taken away and he was chained to a rock.

Chained Putti, Roman art. Image: www.uffizi.it

Chained Putti, Roman Art

The work depicts a crying boy, chained at the waist and by one foot. The unusual image, brought to Florence from Villa Medici in Rome before 1625, has not failed to arouse the curiosity and antiquarian interest of scholars since the 18th century, when it was interpreted as a “weeping slave”. In actual fact, the figure is a complex allegory representing Cupid, in chains and without wings. The motivation for the singular punishment was suggested by comparisons with other sources, such as epigrams kept in the large collection known as the “Palatine Anthology”, where the little god is described as having his wings removed and being punished by the goddess, Nemesis, whose role as avenger for wrongs suffered does not even save Cupid, who is used to tormenting lovers: “Who bound your hands to the pillar in a fast knot?/ Who opposed fire with fire and guile with guile?/ My boy, no tears! Do not wet your sweet face!/ For you take delight in the tears of young men”, is an example from a charming composition by Antipater of Thessalonica. The marble is a copy of an original that is presumably from the late Hellenistic period (1st century B.C.).  A garland on the support pillar and the skull of an ox on the base are references to a sacred context, and would seem to suggest a link between the figure or better still, the original prototype – documented, as well as by this copy in Florence, by other examples from the imperial period – to the decoration of a gymnasium. In this sense the hairstyle of the putto, with curled hair in leather ties, is similar to that found in images of athletes. This detail is placed in the context of the work in quite a complex, evocative way, since athletic competitions were also placed under the protection of the goddess, Nemesis. Modern integration, at the nose, neck, stomach, hands and pubis have not distorted what would have been the original appearance of the work.

Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi

African hair on the Martins Bank reliefs

If Tyson Smith’s reliefs do indeed portray Putti, then could the tightly curled hair of the two boys may not represent African children but instead a highly stylized, Art Deco interpretation of the classic Greco-Roman iconography?

How best to describe his (Tyson Smith’s) subsequent sculptural legacy? The mermen on Spinney House and Martins Bank come straight from mythology but resemble pulp-comic caricatures with their beefcake physiques, fin-like girdles and spectacular fish-tails – ‘classical motifs reduced to geometric stylisations’ as one scholar puts it.

Old man of the sea, 2011, www.theliverpolitan.com

Other examples of Putti or Cupid in Chains:-

Victorian high relief cameo featuring Cupid in Chains. Image: Rubylane.com
Chained cupid circa 1900. Image credit
Sometimes the chains are made from garlands like on this Valentine card.

Neptune with Putti:-
Neptune and the ‘enslaved children’ appear together on Martins Bank. Being both characters from classical mythology, Neptune and Cupid or Putto appear together often in art.

Venus and Cupid in Neptune’s Chariot, c. 1583 by Bartholomeus Spranger. Image credit
Neptune, Amphitrite and Cupid, Valerio Belli. Image credit

In some cases Cupid even appears in the guise of Neptune himself, like this example below.

Cupid winner of Neptune Giovanni Battista Piranesi Image credit

Putti with money:-

A large gilded bronze Putto depicted as removing a full money pouch symbolic of wealth and prosperity. Mounted on a later metal base. Image credit

Putti to symbolize industry and commerce:-

Victorian putti from a frieze on the Corn Exchange in the Port of Leith. Image credit

As the lobby in Water Street that features the bas-reliefs was on the office worker’s entrance, not the main entrance, perhaps the children were intended to represent the industrious bank staff gathering the money for the institution that oversees and looks after them?

An alternative explanation of the ankle and wrist restraints on Tyson Smith’s reliefs

Many depictions of chubby cherubs and Putti feature rolls of fat on the wrists and ankles. Could it be Tyson Smith included these in a very stylized way? Yet another ‘geometric stylisation’?

This small selection of Putti images show twin lines on the wrists and ankles that are similar to the wrist and ankle bands seen on the Martins Bank reliefs.

Compare what have been interpreted as manacles on the wrists and ankles, to the treatment of the rolls of skin on the necks and buttocks – all comprise of two parallel lines.

Of course, this explanation does not rule out Rowse/Tyson Smith depicting them as African children – enslaved or otherwise. The hairstyle on the twin-tailed merman on the ceiling certainly looks more African than stylized Roman or Greek hair. He used every possible influence in his art, then why not incorporate Africans as well? If so, whether this was intended as a statement against slavery, or just a patronizing gesture, is not known.

If he did intend to convey a hidden message this may be the reason the design was approved by the bank, as the figures look so similar to the traditional way they are are portrayed.

Borrowed themes in Liverpool’s public art #2: Nelson’s Monument

As mentioned earlier, two submissions for Nelson’s monument featured chained captives. This suggests to us that it was probably part of the brief, and if so, likely to have been under the instruction of Roscoe.

But this theme was actually borrowed from a much earlier work – almost 200 years earlier. The monument of the Four Moors in Livorno, Italy (1617) features four prisoners of war representing the victories of Ferdinando I over the Ottoman Turks. Unlike those on Nelson’s monument that all have European features, two of the Four Moors are African. A model for one of the figures was actually enslaved. And just like Liverpool, the Italian monument has always been controversial.

The similarity between the figures on the monument to Ferdinando I, and Liverpool’s Nelson monument is instantly apparent:-

Two hundred years earlier that the Liverpool monument is the Four Moors in Livorno. Image credit
Image credit
Image: VictorianWeb

(As a side note, Livorno was originally known in England as Leghorn – the workplace of the Earle family – also on the Nelson monument committee in Liverpool).

The Four Moors (Quattro Mori), represented Ottoman prisoners of war, but like Liverpool’s monument to Nelson, they have also been interpreted as being slaves:-

Although the four chained prisoners are meant to represent the victories of Ferdinando I over the Ottomans, there may also be a different interpretation due to the presence of the statue with the black African characteristics; Ferdinando II, grandson of Ferdinando I, completed the monument and he may also have been involved in slave trade activities in West Africa in the 1660s, in cooperation with the Genoans.

Monument of the Four Moors

If the Four Moors was an early example, the theme itself was ancient:-

The idea of bound captives at the foot of a strutting “conqueror” is practically as old as art itself. We see such figures on the Arch of Titus and Column of Trajan—a defeated population bound, with hands behind backs, usually being pushed forward by a mounted military commander.

Mark Rosen

Back in 1983, Alison Yarrington had already made this comparison to the Four Moors, and to another, Pigalle’s Citizen on the pedestal of the Statue of Louis XV :-

Such figures (the four figures of the prisoners) were a traditional means of representing a monarch’s dominion over the four quarters of the globe, for example, Pietro Tacca’s four bronze slaves for the Monument to Ferdinand I, de Medici (1615-24, Livorno) from which Westmacott seems to have borrowed the idea of the oblong-link chains securing the figures to the monument. However, in their less contorted and thoughtful poses they are closer to Pigalle’s Citizen on the pedestal of the Statue of Louis XV (1765, Reims, Place Royale).

NELSON THE CITIZEN HERO: STATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGTATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGE OF MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE 1805-18, ALISON YARRINGTON, 1983

Other examples of four chained captives
The monument featuring the four captives soon became a popular theme, such as La Fontana dei Mori in Marino (1632) and the equestrian statue to Friedrich Wilhelm Elector in Berlin (1708).

Two more of its imitators were erected in France, one to Henri IV and another to Louis XIV.

The Bronze Equestrian Statue of Henri IV (1553 – 1610). on the Pont Neuf, Paris.
 
Originally commissioned from Giamblogna by Maria di Medici the wife of Henri IV and Regent of France unveiled 3 August 1613.
 and completed by Pietro Tacca the Slaves by Pietro FrancavillaErected 1618.
Image and text: english18thcenturyportraitsculpture.blogspot.com/

Spot the difference

Yarrington did not mention another monument that featured four captives – the statue to Louis XIV in Paris:-

Louis XIV statue, Place de Victories, Paris. Image: Ancient Statues in royal squares, www.unjourdeplusaparis.com

Closer inspection reveals a striking similarity between the monument to Louis XIV in Paris and Nelson’s monument in Liverpool:-

La statue initiale de Louis XIV. www.parislenezenlair.fr
Portrait of Martin Desjardins by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1686, with the monument in the background
Hyacinthe Rigaud • Public domain
One of the panels from the Nelson Monument in Liverpool. Image: historicengland.org.uk
One of the panels from the Louis XIV monument, ‘The Peace of Nijmegen’, Louvre. Image: Louis XIV Victory Monument

The composition and theme of the monument to Louis XIV is almost identical to the monument to Nelson in Liverpool:-

• Both have the main subject raised on a central pedestal, at their feet are four chained captives representing victories in battle.

• Between the captives on both of the monuments are bronze reliefs depicting heroic scenes.

• On both, the hero of the monument has a female figure him, bestowing on him an honour. In the case of Louis it is Victory placing a wreath on his head. In Nelson’s case to quote Roscoe; ‘he is receiving from her a fourth naval crown upon his sword’ from ‘Victory‘.

With so many themes and design features in common, there can be little doubt that the monument to Louis XIV was the inspiration for Liverpool’s monument to Nelson. But it is interesting to return to Bullock’s description of his design for the Nelson monument. He claimed it had no outside influence (adventitious) nor any foreign attributes:-

possessing the peculiar recommendation in being indebted to no adventitious ornament for its support ; no Heathen Mythology here introduced, nor any foreign attribute.

Saunders’s News-Letter – Monday 04 May 1807
Louis XIV Place des Victoires. Image: histoires-de-paris.fr
Image: Bob Speel, www.speel.me.uk

Destroyed during the French Revolution
There is a very interesting aspect of these three monuments (Louis XIV and Henri IV in Paris, and Ferdinando I In Livorno). In a nine year period between 1790 and 1799, the first two had been destroyed and the Four Moors had been defaced and was threatened with destruction. Just six years later Liverpool were planning to create their own version.

The statues were destroyed, along with others, as part of the traditional statue-toppling that occurs in war, protest and regime change, in this case it was the French Revolution. The four captives were removed from the Louis XIV monument in 1790 (they are now in the Louvre) and the entire monument was pulled down in August 1792. Henri IV’s monuments was also destroyed in August 1792 (the four captives are also in the Louvre).

Pulling down the statue of Louis XIV in August 1792, the four captives had been removed in 1790.
‘Prieur, Jean-Louis, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, RF 6229’, collections.louvre.fr
Anonymous 1792 etching of a statue of Louis XIV in Paris being torn down by revolutionaries. dailynorthwestern.com

The choice of using four captives on the monument of Louis XIV had been controversial from its unveiling in the 1680s, just as it would be in Liverpool over 120 years later:-

The caesura of the mid-1670s prepared the way for the second shift in Louis staging of his image. Part of the reason for this shift can be traced back to the
controversial building of a twelve metre high bronze monument Place des Victoires in Paris. This provoked uproar in 1685-86, and further damaged France’s image
abroad. Many details of the monument caught people’s attention, but the one that caused the greatest sensation was the image of the bronze captives chained to the
foot of the statue of Louis. The attributes of these figures identified them as the nations defeated by France. The slaves decorating the monument clearly depicted
the Empire, Spain, Holland and Brandenburg.
As a consequence of such insults, the Parisian monument came under a rolling barrage of fire. No other monument in the
history of early modern art caused so much controversy
: satirical representations of this monument can be found from the moment of its construction, right through
to the middle years of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Image Battles under Louis XIV: Some Reflections, Hendrik Ziegler

Indeed, the statue was even used as an example of how not to design a square by Lousix XIV’s senior official:

Louis XIV’s senior official Louis Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain specifically referred in a letter to the Académie des Inscriptions to the “reliefs, slaves, and inscriptions of the statue of the Place des Victoires” as the example not to follow while aiming at something “wise and reasonable” for the new square

Louis XIV Victory Monument

Toppled because it was ‘Offensive to the new spirit of freedom’

In 1790, the statues of the captives, deemed an offense to the new spirit of freedom, were “liberated” and initially relocated at the Louvre Palace. On 10 August 1792, during that day’s insurrection, the monument’s main statue was toppled to be melted into cannons. Parts of the decoration, including the four bronze reliefs, were salvaged by Alexandre Lenoir for his Musée des Monuments français.

Louis XIV Victory Monument.
The four captives from the base of the Louis XIV monument, removed in 1790 and now in the Louvre, Paris. Image: Wally Gobetz
The four captives from the base of the Henri IV monumnet. Now also in the Louvre. Image: Mark Rosen

The original statue of the Four Moors would survive, but only just. In 1799 the French briefly occupied Livorno. The statue was removed and it was intended to erect a statue of Liberty in its place, but the Four Moors eventually returned (minus the bronze ‘Trophy of Arms‘ that was originally at the feet of Ferdinando):-

General Miolis, commander of the French republican troops who occupied Leghorn, was gravely shocked at this Statue, and he commanded the municipality to replace the statue of “that monster” with a statue of Liberty. The tyrant who had fought for the freedom of the seas and his slaves who had sought to destroy that freedom were duly removed; but fortunately the French left Leghorn before the idol of Liberty could be set up, and the statue of Ferdinand with the four moors was restored to its place with much pomp and circumstance on July 23rd, 1799.

The Pall Mall Magazine 1898-11: Vol 16 Iss 67

General Moilis described the depiction of the four chained figures in way reminiscent of Melville’s later comments on Nelson’s monument:

a monument to tyranny, insulting humanity. 4 captives, chained to the pedestal and 100 times more courageous than the ferocious Ferdinando that treads on them… offer a distressing spectacle

THREAD: As part of the ongoing discussion of statues being removed, toppled, and thrown into harbors, there’s one in Livorno, Italy, that is getting renewed attention: the monument to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, more popularly known as the QUATTRO MORI (“Four Moors”). Mark Rosen, threadreaderapp.com

Why on earth would Liverpool choose to imitate the despised and toppled monument to Louis XIV?

What is remarkable is that 15 years after the people of France toppled these statues with captives, Liverpool would choose a theme for a monument in Liverpool that was near identical.

Roscoe was also a supporter of the arts and a collector, he was also a patron of artists. An example of his (later) patronage was the esteemed sculptor John Gibson who was given access to Roscoe’s art and print collection at Allerton Hall. Through studying Roscoe’s collection Gibson became acquainted with the designs of the great Italian masters and eventually went to Rome to live and work. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a lithograph of the Four Moors, and that of Louis XIV, were amongst Roscoe’s collection.

The toppling of the statue of Louis XIV (as part of the actions of August 1792) made news across Britain at the time (just like Bristol’s toppling of Colston in 2020). It would appear it would later became the inspiration for the Liverpool Monument. But knowing that these statues were then destroyed in France, it is baffling why Roscoe would choose a theme that was so hated by the French that they pulled down two of them, and almost a third.

Roscoe’s thoughts on the French Revolution
Roscoe had initially been a supporter of the Revolution. In 1789 he had published ‘An Ode to the People of France’. In 1790 he published ‘Unfold, Father Time’ to celebrate the taking of the Bastille, presented with at a meeting of Liverpool’s ‘Friends of Liberty’, elsewhere known as the ‘Liverpool Jacobins‘. In 1791 he published ‘O’er the vine – cover’d hills and gay regions of France.’

But Roscoe’s initial enthusiasm turned to despair in 1792 when ideas of liberty turned bloody. This would end with the execution of the monarchy and 1,400 perceived enemies to the Republic.

The Republic of France was declared, and soon the King was put on trial. The Revolution became more and more radical and violent. King Louis XVI was executed on January 21 1793. In the six weeks that followed some 1,400 people who were considered potential enemies to the Republic were executed in Paris.

French Revolution, The National Archives

Roscoe’s son Henry wrote of his father’s despair in his 1833 biography of William:-

As the revolution proceeded, — as the confidence of the people in the sincerity of the king decreased, — as the passions of various parties became more and more exasperated, — as the threats of foreign interference were redoubled, the aspect of political affairs in France grew darker and darker. It now became evident that despotism, amongst its most hateful qualities, possesses that of rendering those who suffer under its influence unfit for the wise enjoyment of freedom, until after a long and too often a sanguinary education ; — that it is vain to expect from slaves, the discretion, the forbearance, and the magnanimity of freemen ; and that the fatal retribution of the crimes of governments is found in the madness of the people

The life of William Roscoe, Henry Roscoe, 1833

Those who, like Mr. Roscoe, had witnessed with delight the birth of freedom in France, and watched anxiously over its cradle, — who had looked for peace, and happiness, and improvement, as the great results of the revolution, beheld with grief and dismay the alarming vicissitudes of its progress. The last hope of the friends of France seemed to expire on the scaffold of the Brissotines.

The life of William Roscoe, Henry Roscoe, 1833

In a letter to the Marquis of Landsdowne, Roscoe wrote of this stage of the revolution, and in particular the execution by guillotine of ‘Verniaux‘ ‘the most particular object of my regard’. Of the abolition, and later, execution of the monarchy he wrote:-

As to the great point which the French think they have gained by the destruction of their monarchy, I think it of little consequence ; not that I am become a believer in the maxim, that ‘whate’er is best administered is best,’ but because I think that a monarchy is capable of being as well constituted for the happiness of a people as a republic.

The life of William Roscoe, Henry Roscoe, 1833

Perhaps these events affected Roscoe’s decision to replicate the statue of Louis XIV? After all, the destruction of these monuments had been a symbol of the events of August 1792. If the reformer in Roscoe sympathized with the revolution, the art collector and historian in him would have been outraged by the destruction of artistic public monuments.

Another Westmacott statue with a chained figure

Richard Westmacott, who modelled and cast Wyatt’s design, also created two other monuments to Nelson himself. One in Birmingham (1809) and the other in Barbados (1813). Neither featured chained figures. The original marble pedestal in Birmingham had had figures on the pedestal representing the town as ‘a dejected attitude, murally crowned, mourning her loss; she being accompanied by groups of genii’. Westmacott did design another monument that had a chained figure – William Pitt the Younger at Westminster Abbey:-

Close up of the chained figure on the William Pitt the Younger monument, Westminster Abbey, Image: www.westminster-abbey.org

This figure represented Anarchy in chains, subdued by Pitt:-

Mogg’s new picture of London; or, Strangers’ guide to the British metropolis
By Edward Mogg. 1848

A statement of slavery by William Roscoe?

It’s possible of course that the theme of the chained prisoners may have appealed to the abolitionist in Roscoe, indeed the ‘paternalistic’ image of a chained slave pleading ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ became the symbol of the Abolitionist campaign. As the committee had resolved to erect the monument in 1805, and the design was passed in 1807, (the same year as the Act was passed), it has been suggested (Yarrington, 1983) that Roscoe managed to incorporate the theme into the Nelson monument. It would have certainly at the forefront of his mind.

Although, this premise is based on none of the other members of the committee (being slave merchants, slave owners, and merchants trading in slave-produced goods – and therefor opposed to abolition) having no say whatsoever in the design process.

A celebration of Nelson for protecting Liverpool’s commerce
The report of 1813 shows that the monument was there to not just remind the people of Liverpool of the “lamented death of the great and illustrious hero.’ The report is very clear that by placing the in the ‘area of the Exchange’ (the commercial centre of Liverpool) it would display a vindication of their rights and the protection of their commerce, at a period when they were threatened with destruction by a vindictive and powerful enemy.

This point is stressed elsewhere in the report. It claimed that ‘the sympathy of a grateful people’ was perhaps felt more strongly in Liverpool because it was ‘a great commercial community’:-

So not only do we know that the four figures represented four victories, but also why Liverpool merchants felt compelled to erect it – because Nelson had protected Liverpool’s wealth.

Nelson has seen his own share of controversy in recent years, due in no small part to views he expressed in a letter sent from HMS Victory to a sugar planter in Jamaica. This had been in 1805, the same year he died, and the Liverpool monument committee was formed. A statue to him in Bridgetown, Barbados was taken down in 2020:-

I have ever been and shall die a firm friend to our colonial system, I was bred as you know in the good old school and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions, and neither in the field or in the Senate, shall their interests be infringed while I have an arm to fight in their defence or a tongue to launch myself against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies

The private letter written in June 1805 and sent from ‘HMS Victory at sea’ to Simon Taylor a sugar planter of Jamaica

It may relevant to look at the dates more closely; the theme for the design dated back to the committee in 1805, the closing date for the proposals was 1st February 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed on 23rd February and did not come into effect until 1st May. Therefore the design was chosen on the eve of abolition, but it was actually conceived when the vast majority of Liverpool merchants were publicly ‘vindicating their rights’ and ‘protecting their commerce’ by campaigning to keep the slave trade going.

In 1807, on the eve of Abolition, 1,283 slaving vessels were cleared from British ports, of which 1,099 were from Liverpool. Liverpool had almost established a monopoly.

From Slavery to Citizenship, Richard Ennals, 2007

In 1983, Alison Yarrington acknowledged the monument’s ‘expression of the City’s commercial interests’ but suggested that Roscoe’s control of the committee ‘could equally suggest the suffering and nobility of the enslaved’. (page 325)

Yarrington’s premise that Roscoe may have wanted the four figures to represent ‘the suffering and nobility of the enslaved’ would mean that he must have managed to hijack the committee’s intention to erect a grand monument to protected commerce. As Yarrington stated, Roscoe was not only on the monument committee, but the chairman of it from its inception until Foster took over in 1806/1807 (possibly when Roscoe lost his seat after the ‘violent demonstrations against Roscoe on his return to the city following the Act’ (page 322). Roscoe would have to be congratulated for pulling off such a daring (considering the previous violent demonstrations), and accomplished, act of subterfuge. If only because the committee included so many merchants who were defending their own particular commercial interests that had been disrupted by the war – the slave trade.

Roscoe, and most of the other small band of (mostly anonymous) Liverpool abolitionists, didn’t have the best track record for heroism, as demonstrated when Thomas Clarkson and Alexander Falconbridge visited the town in 1787:- ‘Prudently, the Liverpool abolitionists did not offer them the hospitality of their homes but persuaded them to lodge at the King’s Arms tavern where they might have direct and uninhibited contact with the seamen and captains who frequented’. That ‘direct and uninhibited contact’ saw Clarkson being attacked during his stay, and was nearly thrown over the Pier Head.

The alternative explanation for the statues of the four captives is that Roscoe was simply impressed with the French statue to Louis XIV, mourned its demise, and plagiarized it for monument in Liverpool. That it was to likely to be controversial was surely inevitable.

Summary

We will never know for sure what both artists intended for the two works of art in Liverpool. An understanding of the artistic themes used by the two artists does however give us a better understanding of how they came to exist. Itude for saving Liverpool’s finacial bacont is apparent that both works of art followed existing artistic themes. In both cases other examples have been found that are very similar. The importance of this aspect has been previously been overlooked.

Whether those themes were chosen to secretly acknowledge the slave trade, or have been misinterpreted, is a mystery. One thing is for certain, once these interpretations are pointed out, it’s difficult not to see them as such.

Both Martins Bank and Nelson’s monument have served as a focal point for Liverpool’s role in the slave trade, in the process becoming almost unofficial memorials to the slave trade. Both too have caused people to stop and reflect, have stirred debate, and in the process enabled discussion. Far from being a bad thing, isn’t that what art is there for?

What’s your opinion?

We hope you have enjoyed this post and we’d love to hear your views. Maybe you have some information we are not aware of? Feel free to join the debate and leave a comment.

Miscellaneous notes

French prisoners in Liverpool

From the 1750s onwards, French prisoners had been kept at the Tower of Liverpool on the corner of Water Street, and at the Powder Magazines (see Brooke, page 135). The medical care of these prisoners was initially the responsibility of the untrained, yet senior surgeon at the infirmary, James Bromfield.

Bromfield then passed on the huge responsibility of looking after the 600 prisoners to his 17 year old relative Henry Park to ‘without even the affectation of superintendence’. Park took the trouble to learn French and ‘there gained much of the experience which led to his subsequent eminence in his profession’ (See Memoir of the Late Henry Park, Esq., surgeon, of Liverpool.)

In 1786 a new Gaol had been erected in Great Howard Street but was not initially occupied by criminals, instead the French prisoners were moved there. By 1798 there were 4,000 French prisoners in Liverpool. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) would see a further influx.

Colonel Stanley affirmed that the prisoners were generally well treated : he had lately been in Liverpool where 6,000 were confined, and found the officers had every indulgence, three billiard tables, and that they often performed plays.

Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, 1793-1815, Patricia K. Crimmin

Liverpool’s Dr, Currie was called on by one of his friends to visit the prison. A scarcity of food in Britain had seen prices rise, this was passed on with the Governments’ contract to prisons. The French prisoners were also said to be ‘addicted’ ‘by the fatal spirit of gambling’. This saw them staking their food and rations. Some of the prisoners had to bribe their jailers for provisions:-

Dr. Currie immediately repaired to the prison ; and, struck by the squalid, shivering, and emaciated appearance and symptoms of its inmates, unhesitatingly concurred in the opinion just mentioned. That the miseries of captivity should be aggravated by such a cause appeared to him as revolting to humanity, as he felt assured that it was repugnant to the intention, either of the English Government or its subordinate agents, the Transport Board.

MEMOIR OF THE LIFE, WRITINGS, A^D CORRESPONDENCE OF JAMES CURRIE, M.D. F.R.S. OF LIVERPOOL, William Wallace Currie, 1831

The French Commissioner in England, wrote a letter on October 29, 1800 that stated that the death toll of that month had ‘greatly exceeded that of four previous months’:-

My letter from Liverpool states that the number of deaths during the past month has greatly exceeded that of four previous months, even when the depôt contained twice the number of prisoners. This sudden mortality which commenced at the close of last month, is the consequence of the first approach of cold weather, all, without exception, having failed from debility. The same fate awaits many more of these unfortunate beings, already half starved from want of proper food, and obliged to sleep upon a damp pavement or a few handfuls of rotten straw. Hunger and their own imprudence, deprived them of their clothes, and now the effect of the cold weather obliges them to part with a share of their scanty subsistence to procure clothing. In one word, their only hope is a change in their situation or death.

Prisoners of war in Britain 1756 to 1815; a record of their lives, their romance and their sufferings
by Abell, Francis. 1914

Liverpool maintained a French prison until at least 1802 when over 1,100 were liberated after the Peace of Amiens, just 3 years before the committee was formed for the Nelson Monument. In 1811 it was converted to house debtors:-

Soon after the Peace of Amiens, 1802, eleven hundred were liberated, some of whom had been there for years.

One of these men had accumulated three hundred guineas by his manufactures.

As no book alludes to Liverpool as possessing a war-prison after 1802, it may be concluded that it ceased to have one after that date. This, I think, is probable, as it was eminently unsuitable owing to its position and its proximity to disturbed Ireland.

Prisoners of war in Britain 1756 to 1815; a record of their lives, their romance and their sufferings
by Abell, Francis. 1914

Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser – Tuesday 17 September 1844. British Newspaper Archive

Further reading:

Tyson Smith: Old man of the sea. The Liverpolitan

NELSON THE CITIZEN HERO: STATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGTATE AND PUBLIC PATRONAGE OF MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE 1805-18, Alison Yarrington, 1983

The persistence of memory: Remembering slavery in Liverpool, ‘slaving capital of the world’, Jessica Moody, 2020

Report of the Committee for Superintending the Erection of the Monument to the Memory of the Late Right Honourable Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, in the Area of the Liverpool Exchange; Compleated Oct. XXI. MDCCCXIII. 1813

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