Mayor removes Gainsborough painting from office over slave trade link

Mixed race mayor removes Gainsborough painting of 18th century aristocrat from her office over his links to the slave trade and replaces it with one of African-American ‘mother of modern medicine’

  • Cleo Lake removed portrait of Lord Nugent from the walls of City Hall in Bristol 
  • The Lord Mayor of Bristol has now replaced it with a picture of Henrietta Lacks
  • Earlier this year, she took down a portrait of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston

A Lord Mayor has removed a portrait of a politician linked to the slave trade from her office and replaced it with the picture of an African-American woman.

Cleo Lake took down the ‘dull and dated’ portrait of Lord Nugent holding the 1750 Act of Parliament, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, from the walls of City Hall in Bristol. 

The Mayor has replaced the portrait with a painting of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells became the source of the HeLa cell line and central to modern medicine.

Cleo Lake previously took down a portrait of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, whose ships transported nearly 100,000 Africans to the Americas

Cleo Lake (left) and Bristol artist Helen Wilson-Roe (right) with the new Henrietta Lacks painting

WHAT WERE LORD NUGENT’S LINKS TO THE SLAVE TRADE?

The politician Robert Craggs Nugent was known for his charm and ‘jovial manners. ‘ 

He was married three times and used his wife’s wealth for his own political advancement. 

Artist Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of the Earl which went on to become one of his celebrated masterpieces. 

The portrait hanging in Cllr Lake’s office signalled the launch of an artistic link between Bristol, Ghana and Virginia in the US which would have been linked 250 years ago by the triangular transatlantic slave trade.

The 1750 Act dissolved the Royal Africa Company and transferred its assets to the African Company of Merchants – the slave trading posts that existed in what is now Ghana.

This was an important step in turning the transatlantic slave trade from a lucrative one for Bristol merchants into a trade that took place on an industrial scale.  

Source: The Holburne Museum and Tate 

Earlier this year, the Mayor took down a portrait of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, whose ships transported nearly 100,000 Africans to the Americas.

The Green Party councillor has been at the forefront of the campaign for a new museum or heritage centre detailing Bristol’s role in the slave trade, and its abolition.

She said: ‘The portrait will be kept safe until such time it might be displayed elsewhere in a relevant context.

‘I do not think that such portraits should grace the walls of the office of the first citizen of a forward looking, creative and diverse city like Bristol.

‘They do not resonate anything positive to me personally and have no connection to who we are as a city today nor the vision for our future.

‘They are dull and dated at best and I was not willing to preside and concur with the status quo of keeping them there nor miss the opportunity to usher in some change however symbolic.’

Cllr Lake added: ‘I think it is important to keep certain historic artefacts but if a decision was made to sell the portraits then I would advocate that any funds should be ring fenced towards educational and development initiatives or a centre that could use heritage and culture to create opportunities and jobs.’ 


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Cleo Lake with the Lord Nugent painting hanging on the wall behind her

The Mayor has removed two portraits from her office, and replaced them with different pictures

WHO WAS HENRIETTA LACKS? 

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920. 

The mother-of-five died from cancer in Baltimore in 1951 at the age of 31.

Her cancer cells were taken and tested and became among the most important cells in 20th century medical history, as they are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalised cell line. 

But the cells, code named HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names, were taken without her knowledge.

The cells are now used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. 

They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine. 

Source: Hopkins Medicine 

Cllr Lake replaced the Colston portrait with a modern painting of a lion, and has now replaced the Lord Nugent portrait with one of Henrietta Lacks, painted by Bristol artist Helen Wilson-Roe. 

The Mayor said: ‘I also do not wish the removal of portraits to be a divisive issue. I know it is emotive and I respect other views which people are entitled to have.

‘I do not see the topic to be exclusively about race either because although the legacy of enslavement is ongoing with serious issues such as Afriphobia and inequality, we should perhaps also reflect on what might have been happening to the ordinary folk of Bristol and surrounding areas around that period which would of course have involved workhouses and other horrors.

‘I am quite surprised when proud Bristolians of working class heritage defend elite characters like Lord Nugent and Colston apparently claiming them as part of their culture which they arguably were not. 

‘By contrast, Henrietta Lacks is a woman whose immortal cells have impacted the whole world and therefore through medicine and science we all have a connection to her so surely today she is worthy of celebrating.’ 

Cllr Lake replaced the Colston portrait with a modern painting of a lion, and has now replaced the Lord Nugent portrait with one Henrietta Lacks

Both the portrait of Colston and the one of Lord Nugent are being kept in storage by Bristol’s museums service.

Cllr Lake said she wants to display them publicly again, but in an appropriate setting. 

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