"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Benjamin Lay

This 1750-58 portrait of Benjamin Lay (c. 1681-1759) by William Williams  hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
"Quaker reformer Benjamin Lay was a key figure in the emerging antislavery movement prior to the Revolutionary War. Having witnessed slavery's horrors while working as a merchant in Barbados, lay dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause. He was forced, however, to leave this Caribbean island in 1731 in the wake of intensifying hostility by local slave owners. Settling in Philadelphia, he resumed his campaign, writing pamphlets and speaking out at Quaker meetings. His efforts ultimately compelled the Philadelphia Society of Friends in 1758 to pass a resolve expelling those members who owned slaves.

This portrait of the diminutive activist was commissioned by Benjamin Franklin, whose printing shop had published one of Lay's most stinging abolitionist tracts. Here, Lay stands before the cave­like dwelling in which he and his wife lived and holds a treatise 'on happiness' by English Quaker philosopher Thomas Tryon." -- National Portrait Gallery
 William P. Cole referred to Lay as "The Quaker  Comet" based on this  quote from Lay's biographer Robert Vaux.
"If the comparison be admissible, he appeared rather like a comet, which threatens, in its irregular course, the destruction of the worlds near which it passes, than as one of those tranquil orbs which hold their accustomed place, and dispense their light, in the harmonious order of heaven." -- Robert Vaux, 1815.
This painting, commissioned by Benjamin Franklin (or some say by his Wife, Deborah) was nearly lost. Maine Antique Digest tells how it was found:
"One Saturday in August 1977 at a Brown Brothers auction in Buckingham, (Edwin) Hild saw a painting on a wooden panel sticking out of a box lot of old frames and bought the lot for $4. He sold the frames for $3 before he left the sale and kept the painting. The painting was of a hunchback dwarf with skinny legs wearing brown breeches, a waistcoat, and a broad-brimmed hat and holding a cane and book by Thomas Tryon that advocated healthful living. He was depicted standing next to a basket of fruit in front of a cave. “I showed the picture to a few people who suggested I take it to Winterthur for conservation because the wooden panel was split,” said Hild.

At Winterthur, (Patrick) Bell and (Edwin) Hild learned that the name “Benjamin Lay” painted on back of the panel was the name of the sitter, not the painter. Winterthur had a rare print of Benjamin Lay engraved by Henry Dawkins. Lay was a Quaker reformer and abolitionist who stood just 4'7" tall. On the print it said it was a copy after a painting by William Williams Sr. Benjamin Rush noted that this print was “to be seen in many houses in Philadelphia.” Now it is a rare print.
One of Dawkins' prints also belongs to the National Portrait Gallery.

"Although Benjamin Lay stood just four feet, seven inches tall, this Quaker reformer raised a forceful voice against slavery. Born in England, Lay arrived in Philadelphia by way of Barbados, where the treatment of slaves horrified him. Vocal in his opposition, Lay described those who kept slaves as 'proud, lazy, tyrannical, gluttonous, drunken, debauched . . . the Scum of the infernal Pit.' In 1737, Lay publicly condemned Quaker slave owners in a book published by Benjamin Franklin.

Late in life, Lay saw his views broadly adopted by other Quakers. This print by Henry Dawkins, based on the painting by William Williams on view in gallery E152, came, as physician and statesman Benjamin Rush noted, 'to be seen in many houses in Philadelphia.' In it, Lay appears in front of the grotto that served as his study, holding a tract by Thomas Tryon advocating healthful living." -- National  Portrait Gallery

This stipple engraving by William Kneass appears in Memoirs of The Lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford : two of the earliest public advocates for the emancipation of the enslaved Africans, by Robert Vaux, 1815.


Hear Retropod: The Quaker abolitionist who was disowned for condemning slave owners, The Washington Post, August 31, 2018.

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