(BBC)–A portrait of Welsh slave owner Sir Thomas Picton labelling him a hero will be “re-framed” with more context given about his life, National Museum Wales (NMW) has said. A group is advising the museum on the future of the painting, which is in one of its galleries in Cardiff.
National Museum Wales called on the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP) to decide the future of its large portrait of Picton, which currently hangs in the Faces of Wales gallery inside the Cardiff museum.
Scrutiny of the memorials to Picton has intensified since the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Cardiff council voted in July to remove a marble statue of him from its Hall of Heroes at City Hall.
Its director, Fadhili Maghiya, said the painting should remain on display but with added detail about Picton’s actions as a slave owner.
“The same day that Cardiff council were voting to remove the statue of Picton, we came to a decision that we want to re-frame Picton and to tell the story of Picton in his whole complexity,” he said.
“We are not about the erasure of culture, or the element of removing things for the sake of removing things because of their historical significance.
“We believe that history should be told in its complexity, and in its good, bad and ugly way of being presented.”
Picton has been celebrated as a hero who died at the Battle of Waterloo.
But as Governor of Trinidad he abused the slaves he owned, and was known as a tyrant even at the time.
But as governor of Trinidad in the 1790s and early 1800s, he authorized the use of torture on local people, including 14-year-old Luisa Calderon who was accused of stealing around £500 in 1801.
The investigating magistrate sought, and was granted, permission from Picton to obtain a confession through the use of picketing.
Widely used as a punishment in the British army, picketing involved the victim being suspended off the ground by the wrist, with their only means of supporting their weight being to stand on an upturned peg.
The peg was not sharp enough to break the skin and inflict permanent injury, but caused the victim excruciating pain.
Already unpopular for his ruthless treatment, the incident was investigated by a commission headed by William Fullarton, and, in 1803, Picton was ordered home to stand trial in London.
Dr James says that in the two years the case took to come to court, interest in it had mushroomed, helped in part by the fact that the prosecution was led by notable reforming lawyer William Garrow.
“Pamphlets and newspapers were doing the rounds, there were even etchings for sale, depicting what this girl had had to undergo on Picton’s orders,” he said.
“Garrow’s involvement, combined with the fact that this exotic-appearing girl, Luisa Calderon, was brought over to give evidence in person meant that the trial attracted unprecedented interest.
“At the heart of it were a clash of different times and values. Britain was becoming more enlightened and liberal, while the reality of life in the colonies remained dangerous and violent.”
Although convicted, Picton later had the verdict overturned, arguing that Trinidad had still been subject to Spanish law, which permitted the use of torture.
It damaged his reputation at the time, with the Duke of Wellington describing him as “a rough, foul-mouthed devil, but very capable”. It was his performance on the battlefield which led to his veneration by some, and his death prompted a flurry of memorials including the obelisk in Carmarthen.
The painting of Sir Thomas Picton which hangs in the National Museum in Cardiff was a gift from the Earl of Plymouth in 1907 but is much older, and is believed to have been hung in the Royal Academy in London in 1816.
National Museum Wales director of collections, Kath Davies, said it wanted the SSAP to decide on the future of its painting.
She said: “We do recognize that we have to look again at how we display Picton and we agreed as a museum that perhaps the voices, the curatorial voice, should lie elsewhere on this occasion.
“There are a number of ideas under consideration, and the group is taking its time to consider every angle.