John Rising (1753-1817), William Wilberforce, 1790

Title: William Wilberforce

Date: 1790

Artist: John Rising (1753-1817)

Hull Museums Service, Hull, UK

EMu user since 2006

marchThis portrait of William Wilberforce depicts him at the age of 29 as he was taking up the cause in Parliament for the abolition of the Slave Trade. The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1790, listed as a Portrait of a Gentleman (Mr. Wilberforce).

Born in Hull in 1759, William Wilberforce came from a prosperous merchant family. Aged 17 he attended Cambridge University where he became friends with William Pitt, who was to become Britain’s youngest-ever prime minister. Wilberforce himself became the youngest member of the House of Commons when he became MP for Hull, aged 21. It’s said that as a young backbencher, he was known as the Nightingale of the House of Commons because he had such a distinct and melodious speaking and singing voice. He and Pitt were said to be the political celebrities of the 1780s - their charm, wit and position made them greatly sought after in upmarket drawing rooms and social circles.

But in 1784 Wilberforce's life changed radically when he converted to Christianity. Rather than strive for personal success, he worked to a higher calling. Can one serve God and one's nation in parliament? he asked.  Wilberforce refused to be beaten on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, which suffered more than twelve defeats before it finally received royal assent on 25 March 1807.

William Wilberforce continued to campaign for the freedom of slaves throughout the British Empire. He died on 29 July 1833 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. 

His birthplace is now preserved as the Wilberforce House Museum, and was the first museum dedicated to slavery when it opened in 1906.

Image reproduced courtesy of Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council.