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Searching for the young Black man in the portrait of William III

Part I: Legacies and Provenance

Date: 17 May 2024

Author: Dr. Mishka Sinha and Camilla de Koning

A young Black man dressed in blue and gold holding a helmet stands beside William III (1689- 1702) in a portrait that is a focal point of our exhibition: Untold Lives: A Palace at Work. It has hung in several royal palaces including Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, St. James’, and Kensington Palace, for at least 200 years, yet the identity of the young man in the painting remains hidden from us. Who was he? Where did he live and when? Why is he in the painting with William III? And how can historians unravel the mystery surrounding him?

In the first post of a two-part series, Dr. Mishka Sinha, Curator of Inclusive History, and PhD student at Historic Royal Palaces and University of Manchester, Camilla de Koning, pick up this fascinating search from picture to archive and back again.

A portrait of William III, shown at three-quarter-length, in armour and holding a baton in his right hand; behind him a young Black man holds his helmet

Image: William III (1650-1702) with a page c.1670-1832. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Legacies of Untold Lives

The final section of our new exhibition, Untold Lives: A Palace at Work, is about legacies. As we find ourselves in the last room before we leave the exhibition space, visitors are invited to pause and reflect on the legacies we have tried to recover - and reckon with.

Firstly, there is the legacy left by those who worked here, of the palaces themselves and the objects they hold, which they cleaned and maintained, cherished and protected from fire, damage and the ravages of time. These places and objects are preserved and passed down to us. There are legacies from the Royal Family that those who served them received and kept – locks of hair, keepsakes and precious objects given as a mark of appreciation for their service.

Last but not least, there are legacies of stories and lives that we continue to explore and research – and some are more difficult and painful to contend with than others. They are shadowed by histories of injustice and exploitation, and the continuing impact of colonial violence.

An exhibition space with a elaborate, embroidered gold chair in the centre of a large display case. A painting of William III with an unknown young man hangs on the wall

Image: The Legacies room, in the Untold Lives: A Palace at Work exhibition at Kensington Palace. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024 

In this last room of Untold Lives, we are faced with a painting by an unknown artist of a young Black man, a little in the background, cast into shadow, standing beside William III, Stadholder in the Netherlands (1672-1702) and King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1689-1702).

The painting represents a focus for what we as historians and curators have tried to do within the exhibition and more widely in our research on the histories of those to whom conventional recorded history does not always do justice.

This is especially true of those who may have arrived here as a result of colonial and imperial expansion, violence, enslavement, displacement and dispossession. In the case of the young man in the painting of William III, historical records are silent on who he was, where he came from, how he lived, and even where he lived – in England, or the Netherlands. Least comfortable of all to acknowledge is the possibility perhaps that he was painted not to represent an individual but a presence, a symbol of William III’s overseas interests and wealth based on the transatlantic trade in enslaved people both in the Netherlands and in England that monarchs from Charles I to George III invested in.

Our research into the young Black man and this painting is at the heart of our exhibition, and marks our commitment to discovering the histories of those who have had their identities and histories taken away from them: but it continues to be a work in progress.

The painting

The research to discover this young man’s identity begins at the painting itself. What can it tell us about him? Little is known about this painting. We don’t know who made it, when it was made, and if it was commissioned by the Royal Family themselves or by someone else, and then presented to them. One of the paintings’ labels states that it was moved from Windsor Castle on 25 April 1832, but this only confirms the first known presence of the painting at that time.

The history of the painting before this time eludes us even more. The most reliable source on paintings in the palaces are the inventories made by officials in the royal households. Most of the time this was the responsibility of the Surveyors of the King’s or Queen’s Pictures. These inventories were often made after a change of monarch, a death within the Royal Family, a significant remodelling of a palace, or an extensive rehanging of the royal art collection. William is described as ‘King William III’ in a label connected with the frame. This, together with the height of William’s wig and the fact that it looks lightly powdered suggests the painting was made after he acceded the throne in 1689, since portraits of William before he became King show him with flatter wigs and darker hair. However, we cannot be absolutely sure of the date. The grand frame for the painting is probably original and contemporary with the portrait, but the label is not original and cannot be used to date the painting.

Even in the relatively short period of 144 years before the 1832 label was created, at least 30 inventories were made of paintings in the possession of the Royal Family that were hung or stored in their dwellings. Some of these lists describe one palace and a hundred paintings, but most of the inventories span three to five palaces at a time and describe over 2,000 paintings. During our research, we looked through every single list before 1832, but there is no record that definitively describes this particular painting of William III and the young Black man beside him.

However, this fact cannot be taken simply to mean that the painting was not in the Royal Collection before 1832. Portraits were often described as 'portrait of the king' or 'king William’, without mentioning who else might be in the painting or even such details as size, or type of work. This is especially true of older inventories. Alternatively, the painting could have been an undocumented gift or purchase by a later monarch.

Symbol or a historic individual?

The painting itself therefore raises more questions than it can answer about the identity of the young Black man standing beside William III. And one of the biggest questions is: was the young man a real person or was he included in the painting as a symbol? And if he was painted to represent a symbol or an idea rather than to represent a person who was present at the time, then what was he made to symbolise? These were questions that we sought to answer as we moved onto the next phase in our research.

Discover Untold Lives at Kensington Palace

Untold Lives

Until 27 October 2024

A new exhibition at Kensington Palace, uncovering the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over 300 years ago.

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Searching for the Young Black Man in the Portrait of William III, Part II

24 May 2024

The next step in our search was to look at sources and pictures on William III's life before he arrived in England, and his first court, to attempt to discover more about this young man, and why he might have been painted with the King.

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