Completed North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 20th C 79 Who is the sitter in this portrait by William Charles Penn?

Topic: Subject or sitter

This half-length portrait of a black man is one of three portraits of unnamed black sitters at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum by this leading Merseyside artist.

Two are studies, possibly of a model or acquaintance of the artist, but this sitter is dressed smartly and posed in a manner suggesting a more formal portrait intended for exhibition.

In 1927, ‘Will C. Penn’ exhibited 'An Unconventional Portrait' as no. 483 at the Royal Academy. Could that be one of these? I think he exhibited a lot at the Royal Academy and Liverpool, so there may be potential threads there. Only one of these three paintings is dated, according to Art UK's records, and that's ‘Head of a Black Man’, 1929.

Andrew Shore, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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Andy Mabbett,

Is the red-with-gold-bands tie significant (representing a school, for example), or just decorative?

Tony Tibbles,

A report of Penn's one man show at the Blue coat Chambers in 1939 comments '...his "Coloured Gentleman " apart from its general merits, shows lovely painting in its skin tones.' Liverpool Daily Post 22 February 1939.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think 1939 is a better fit for the dress than 1920s.

Kieran Owens,

The Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, of Wednesday 18th May 1927, in its review of paintings by Northern artists at the RA exhibition, describes "An Unconventional Portrait" thus:

"Mr. Will C. Penn styles his picture 'An Unconventional Portrait' (483), but the adjective applies to the sitter, who is in his shirt sleeves, busy in his conservatory, rather than to the painting, which is quite normal, a fresh, vigorous piece of work, the head particularly successful." So this Discussion's portrait is not that work.

In a review of Penn's etchings, dry-points and pencil drawings, held at the Rushworth Rooms in Islington, Liverpool, the Liverpool Echo, of Saturday 5th December 1931, mentions that, amongst other offerings, were works of uncommon depth and richness. "Typical of this are the impressive print in line and grain of a fine and familiar 'Head of a Negro' and the 'Portrait of a Musician', a virile work.

Penn also showed "Coloured Gentleman" at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters exhibition in Piccadilly in October 1936. It is, perhaps, the same painting as the one exhibited in 1939, as mentioned above.

Martin Hopkinson,

Could it be the batsman George Headley, only surpassed by Bradman among his contemporaries?

He made 169 not out in the 2nd test at Manchester 22-25 July 1933
George Alphonso Headley 1909-83
Overall his test average was only surpassed by Bradman and the much later South African , Graeme Pollock - full details of his career can be found on cricinfo
He made 76 not out in the West Indies' 1939 match against Lancashire at Aigburth, Liverpool
Penn taught at Liverpool School of Art

Louis Musgrove,

Or pehaps V A Valentine of the 1933 tour???

Martin Hopkinson,

The cricinfo site has quite a range of photos of Headley
Vincent Valentine only played 2 Test Matches with limited success

Martin Hopkinson,

Bridgette Lawrence's Masterclass . The biography of George Headley, Leicester 1995 is the main book on Headley

Brenda Lambourne,

The style of suit and tie match online pictures of various members of the West Indies 1939 team. Is Learie Constantine a possible candidate?

Martin Hopkinson,

Constantine had a much thinner face than this. Headley's grandson Dean , another fine Test Player, Dean Headley, fast bowler for Middlesex, Kent and England, is still alive and should be able to recognise his grandfather
George scored a century in each innings of the 1939 Lord's Test Match, a feat not repeated until 1990!
He had done this before in Georgetown in the 1930 England tour of the West Indies too!

Manto Psarelli,

Many thanks for the update Marion.Hopefully we will get to hear from them soon.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think our man has a more ovoid, less triangular face and more prominent cheekbones than Martindale.

Osmund Bullock,

I rather doubt this is a West Indian test cricketer: neither his face nor his physique nor the way he holds himself (slouched back into the chair) suggest to me that he is a fit young sportsman. The hair seems unlikely for one, too - rather tricky getting and keeping your cap on over that, I'd have thought. And the maroon-ish jacket should be a blazer with a badge, not a suit with a hanky stuffed in the top pocket. Conceivably one of the entourage, I suppose, but not a player.

Osmund’s points are valid concerns in relation to the cricketer suggestion. Sukyella mentioned an interesting point that there has been a long history of West Indians playing in the Lancashire cricket league since the 1930s. However, another line of enquiry might be to focus on the black community in pre-Windrush Liverpool, as explored by social historian John Belchem If no-one knows him personally and is better placed to contact him, I would be happy to try to see if he might be able to help us further along with ideas or direction.

Jacinto Regalado,

Yes, I thought of something like a jazz musician, but he looks more like a boxer to me, though obviously I could be wrong about that.

Martin Hopkinson,

Has anyone looked through the catalogues of the exhibitions in which this portrait might have been exhibited, particularly those of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Liverpool Autumn Exibitions [these ended in 1933],and the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts?

Many thanks indeed to Victoria Griemann for emailing us her thoughts about the sitter, with a story very much of its time:

'Recently I visited your website Art Detective and came across the thread on William Charles Penn/portrait of a black man. Due to my current tech problems I did not register to comment, but would like to send you a few lines regarding the possible identity of the sitter.

I believe this to be a portrait of the heavyweight boxer Joe Lewis. He had a very characteristic downturned mouth and deadpan expression. This reserved and neutral expression was presented to the world on the recommendation of his management in an attempt to distance himself in the public mind from another black athlete of the time who had drawn the fury of whites through what they perceived to be extravagant and haughty behaviour.

Re the Liverpool connection: as a promotional gag, Joe Lewis was signed on as a player by Liverpool Football Club in 1944. I believe the tie might be the club tie of the day and perhaps the portrait was commissioned to commemorate this part of the club's history. Should that be the case, I'm sure the Liverpool FC archivist could confirm and/or help you further.

Best regards,
Victoria Griemann'

Would anyone be able to help by contacting the Liverpool FC archivist please?

Louis Musgrove,

Fantastic work Victoria- spot on- Joe Louis.

Wearing my temporary 20th c. portraits-coordinator hat, that looks like a good suggestion but one needing better confirmation from Liverpool or otherwise before coming to a firm conclusion. JL was a very celebrated figure and, if it is him, it seems astonishing that such a good portrait should have apparently so easily lost its identity.

Jacinto Regalado,

I do not think this is the great boxer Joe Louis. He had a remarkably gentle-looking face with softer features than this sitter, with less prominent cheek bones and a more pointed chin.

Jacinto Regalado,

Also, in 1944 Joe Louis was 30, and this sitter looks older than that.

Osmund Bullock,

It's circumstantially an attractive idea, but I am far from convinced by the likeness. At its most basic, Louis had a very much paler complexion than our sitter, and the facial features really don't tally. For example JL had the semi-permanent puffiness around the eyes typical of a professional boxer; I see no sign of that here.

There are numerous photographs of Joe Louis in 1944 to be found on the web - he had enlisted in the US Army in Jan 1942, but by '44 his job was enlistment/morale-boosting publicity - he travelled over 21,000 miles and fought 96 exhibition bouts in front of 2m troops, but was just as famous and popular with civilians. Here is a good press photo taken in England in April that year - there are many others:

Like Pieter, I have my doubts that a portrait of such a renowned (and much-loved) figure would have lost its identity so quickly. And since he was in the Army 1942-45, we again have the problem of that hairstyle.

Jacinto Regalado,

Our sitter is not Joe Louis. The faces and ages do not match.

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis had what some people call a "sweet" face which sometimes looked rather sheepish, despite his great prowess as a pugilist. Also, as Osmund noted, he was relatively light-skinned, certainly lighter than our sitter.

The MCC Library and Archive cannot identify this sitter as a West Indian cricketer. West Indies did not tour wearing maroon colours until the 1950s, they did not wear maroon trousers and the blazer has no badge.

Following their suggestion, I have contacted the Black Cultural Archives.

Martin Hopkinson,

The most likely places to find this sitter is to go through Penn's exhbits in the catalogues of Liverpool and Manchester annual exhibitions, if this has not been done already

Jacinto Regalado,

This man need not, of course, have been a notable figure, but if he was, I expect a musician of some sort is most probable.

Martin Hopkinson,

One idea which I do not think that we have considered is that the sitter might be an American minister of reliigion. This was a period when ministers were beginning to cross the Atlantic to tour Britain to preach the Gospel

S. Elin Jones,

Can I just mention that William Charles Penn was also a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy from 1931, and exhibited 58 times between 1931 and 1961.

Jacinto Regalado,

Why could this not be the picture mentioned by Tony Tibbles in the second comment of this discussion?

Kieran Owens,

Penn exhibited at the Royal Cambrian in 1931 and then next from 1945 until 1961. Of all 58 works shown, there were only five paintings of people, the rest being either of flowers or landscapes. The five figurative works were:

1948 - 1) D. A. Clarke Smith [British actor (1888 - 1959)] and 2) Negro Study

1952 - The Slave

1954 - Arthur

1957 - E. Hope Prince [Editor of the Liverpool Echo]

Osmund Bullock,

I see no reason why it should not be, Jacinto - nor why the one found by Kieran with the same title exhibited two or three years earlier at the ROI should not be it as well. I attach the two original articles. But without a more detailed description, or something else to tie them together, it's difficult to take this further. I suppose the exhibition catalogues might hold a clue (size, perhaps?) - but the NAL doesn't appear to have a copy of either...not that we could see it any time soon even if they did. But the ROI, at least (Penn was a member), must surely have copies of their own old catalogues?**

As ever we must ask the Collection, once they are able to regain access, if there's anything helpful on the back - or better still, for an image of it. (As an aside, would it not make sense to do that automatically when first approaching them about a possible discussion?) If it was exhibited twice, there must be a fair chance of there still being a label or number that relates to one or both of the venues - the more so since it remained with the artist's family until 1974 (the donor was the artist's eldest son).

**The ROI's archive is apparently held by the V&A at Blythe Road.

Martin Hopkinson,

Given that Liverpool was a substantal port, could the sitter have been enployed by a shipping line - perhaps as a purser?

The curtain in the background could well be the same as in the Williamson's Iris in a red glass vase , which may be simnilar in date

The portrait was not in the catalogue of the Sandon Studios Society Deember 1939 - January 1940 Liverpool Artists Exhibition held under the auspices of Liverpool Corporation [on line] - this did include paintings by Penn

Dear Williamson Art Gallery and Museum

Following Osmund Bullock's comment last week on 6 November please could you be kind enough to reply if you are in a position to regain access to your Collection and note if there is anything helpful on the back of this portrait, or better still take photographs of the back, as well as provide any other information in your records, to help advance this discussion. If that is not currently possible, when do you think you might be? Thank you.

Osmund Bullock,

Thanks for that, David.

Martin, I agree that the irises ( ) likely belong to the same period as our portrait - as well as the curtain, Penn's palette has a very similar range of colours. Other works that should be considered in the same context include two portraits of identical size to ours (the only such on Art UK). The first is this unidentified woman, whose dress and hair certainly suggest mid/late-1930s to me: - the blue curtain can be seen again. And though the tonal range is more muted, this one of the artist's two younger children, Arthur (b. 21 Oct 1922) & Dora (b. mid-1924) must also date from the mid-1930s: All three works were, like ours, gifts from the painter's eldest son Herbert to the Williamson, and one might wonder if the lady could be Penn's wife...but in fact the sitter is too young. (Ellen) Maud (née Baxendale) was born 14 Feb 1879 - she and Will married quite late, in 1914, when they were both in their mid-30s. She is of course also too old to be Dora, unless it is a post-war work, which I much doubt.

Hints of the same palette can also be seen in some portraits of the 1940s, e.g. (already noted by Kieran), and The first two might perhaps be sitting in the same chair, though it's depicted slightly differently.

Osmund Bullock,

That looks rather greyer to me, Kieran, though it may just be the reproduction.

The 1939-40 Liverpool exhibition you mention, Martin, was according to the Liverpool Daily Post, a joint enterprise to which the Sandon Studios Soc was but one of three contributing art groups. See attached. Where did you find the catalogue? Like his one-man show the previous February-March, it was held at the Bluecoat Chambers; so it would perhaps have been surprising had he exhibited the same work at the same venue twice in one year.

Liverpool City Archives holds many Walker Gallery Autumn exhibition catalogues, and gives details of works shown by Penn, mainly portraits, illustrated in them. They list an outlier in 1913, then at least one in 9 of the 12 years from 1922-33. But then, puzzlingly, the list continues with one each in 34/35, 35/36, 36/37, 37/38, and 38/39 - those must have been different winter exhibitions, I suppose, though the (archive) catalogue continues to cite them as 'Walker Art Gallery: Autumn Exhibitions'. Very odd. None, though, I think, can be our work - but one or two might possibly enable identification of other unknown sitters amongst the Art UK group. One is a portrait of his wife exhibited in 1934/5, which I would like to see.

To see all the Walker works listed go to the Advanced Search at and put 'Penn' in the top box, and '708.5 AUT' in the second one.

The Archives catalogue also lists other publications, etc, they hold which illustrate portraits by Penn, and biogs of him. His name is listed in several different ways, so to see everything you have to search for 'Penn', and ignore the one-third that relate to others of the name.

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Martin Hopkinson,

The Sandon exhibition had a separate single catalogue held by Bluecoat Chambers and can be found on the Bluecoat Chambers site.[] There was no indication that this was not a stand alone enterprise
With the Walker Art Gallery closed due to the war, Frank Lambert, its go-ahead Director, was very active in the organisation of exhibitions at the Bluecoat for several years
It could well be that the Buecoat have other pre war catalogues than those chosen for this site
There is a very abbreviated outline history there - probably launched in connection with Bryan Biggs and John Belchem's very recent book published by Liverpool University Press - Bluecoat, Liverpool. The UK's first arts centre
The nearby private Athenaeum Library might well have Sandon Studis catalogues too

While this sitter's identity may eventually appear in a paper record, I suspect it would already have done so if anywhere obvious.
A better tack - but one more for the collection to consider - is to start a specific search in the Liverpool area, using wider local/social media than Art UK, to see if anyone recognises him as a relative, friend etc. He may just be someone Penn asked to sit as a model, or if 'notable' only in a local context.

Whaley Turco,

First of all Can WC Penn Paint or what. The English North South divide at its best. As for who He is, I haven't a clue. Though to my eye the suit, the haircut and the sitting posture look American. Late 40s early 50s.. I would also point out that he has a bit of the night club air about him. Which seems to mark him as a musician.

I notice that the Williamson has yet to reply to David Saywell’s request (9 Nov 2020) for further documentation to the Williamson. This may be because the Williamson is under threat of having its Wirral Council budget withdrawn, and therefore closure, in order to make savings necessary to plug the Council’s necessary anti-Covid19 public health and social welfare expenditure. The Friends of the Williamson are today presenting to the Council a 12,000 signature petition (including my own) against its potential closure. I think we should all wish them the best of luck in fending off closure.
Even if the Williamson is closed the Council would still have to find the costs of maintaining the building and its collections. They would thus only be saving staff costs.

Manto Psarelli,

Thank you for that important note Xanthe. I too am following closely. Let's hope the petition is successful.

Janet Gibson,

Could it be Paul Robeson actor and political activist? He performed in Liverpool in 1949?

Jimaa Alaa,

Hi look like Albert John "Mvumbi" Luthuli in his early years

Emailing the collection again, I get the same automatic reply as in October 2020 that our contact works part time and it may be some time before the email is read. The building is open half days Wednesday to Saturday, so I'll call to see what can be done.

Apologies for the delay in picking up this query. I will check the frame when I am next in the gallery, with the caveat of course that frames can be reused for paintings of the same size.
It is my belief that mostly, when Penn did not record the name of a sitter, it was because the painting was not a commission and the sitter not a celebrity of any sort. Penn enjoyed a technical challenge and I think he would view his occasional use of non-white sitters in this light.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, thank you for responding with an offer to check the frame and reverse, and helpful comments about Penn.

The painting is on hardboard and is unframed. When it was lent to the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool for exhibition a couple of years ago a frame was borrowed from another painting by the same artist.
There are no labels on the reverse prior to its accession to the Williamson's collection and it is unsigned.
These things support my belief that it was not exhibited in Penn's lifetime and he viewed the sitter as a challenge to his technique.
Should any other information emerge I will append it.

Can I repeat my suggestion to the Williamson that they publish the image in Liverpool area outlets, online or otherwise and assuming that is where Penn painted it, and see if anyone with a connection to the sitter materialises to say who it might be. There may be people around who remember him, so better sooner than later

Mark Wilson,

I'm not surprised that this is unframed. This was in of a group of 12 donated to the Williamson by his son Herbert Penn in 1974. Presumably they were in his studio after his death in 1968 ( Osmund discussed some in the batch above on 9/11/2020. Herbert was a Director of the local building firm Tysons but moved to Cotswolds ( presumably on retirement and this may have coincided with the gift of these to the Williamson.

The actor D A Clarke-Smith's is the only portrait that is definitely named, so these were clearly not commissioned works and were presumably kept in the studio because Penn was proud of them or they had some meaning for him, though perhaps not for his son, so they're not family ones.

As discussed before there's no need for a Black sitter to be anyone famous and the community in Liverpool is long-standing and Penn painted several of its members, including another picture in this set. There's also the possibility of University students from abroad (the sitter could well be in that age group). Given the pose I wonder if this is someone modelling for a group - was Penn a member of the Liver Sketching Club or similar?

I wonder if this is a picture from the 50s. The dress and hair could match and the latest dated of Penn's pictures on ArtUK is from 1958, so he clearly painted into old age.

Marcie Doran,

Mark, my comment is off-topic but the Art UK entry for one of the 12 donated paintings, “The Good Companions (Arthur and Dora)”, states that it is a family painting (
“A portrait of two of Penn's children, a delightful informal study, with the family dog.”
Dora and Arthur were Herbert’s younger siblings.

Louis Musgrove,

I have found Duncan Grant's painting of 1918- practically identical to Roger Fry's ?? Hmn!
Secondly Glyn Philpot's Melancholy Man is possibly the same man?
Looking like our sitter was a regular model in the London area-I would suggest. As several articles say- british paintings of people from the Caribbean are rare at this time.

1 attachment
Jacob Simon,


Penn was based in Liverpool and this remains the most likely location for the painting under discussion. So it is not easy to see how our portrait can be of the same man as depicted by Roger Fry and Duncan Grant.

The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum posted (20/07/2021): “mostly, when Penn did not record the name of a sitter, it was because the painting was not a commission and the sitter not a celebrity of any sort. Penn enjoyed a technical challenge and I think he would view his occasional use of non-white sitters in this light.” As Mark Wilson posted (22/07/2021): “As discussed before there's no need for a Black sitter to be anyone famous and the community in Liverpool is long-standing and Penn painted several of its members, including another picture in this set.”

In preceding posts several well-known people have been suggested, only to be rejected as sitters on grounds of likeness or date. It may be more profitable to pursue, as some have outlined, Penn’s Liverpool background to see whether documentation survives naming his models for non-commissioned portraits.

Martin Hopkinson,

Too young, I think at the time of Penn's portrait and not much like our man
There is a biography of Nelson of 2017 by Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and in Britain and Jamaica

Nelson' s dates 1916-63
Grant began painting him in 1938. Talen prisoner of war in 1940 and was again in London 1944-5 - he was pretty unwell then

Kieran Owens,

Louis's attachment above is Duncan Grant's painting know as "West Indian - Fitzroy Street, 1918". In 1916, William Charles Penn was living at 131, Canning Street, Liverpool and by 1920 was at 2, Caroline Place, Birkenhead. Given the geographic distance between London and Liverpool, is there any reason to suppose that Penn would have been painting the same sitter as Grant and Fry in 1918?

Louis Musgrove,

Just to add a bit about the 1918 sitter-I think Bonard painted the same man-titled "Constantin".

Clothing can be deceptive but are the suit and tie also likely to be pre-1920? The dress strikes me as post WWII. The general cut is still a standard conservative one now,

Norrette Moore,

OK perhaps not Patrick Nelson, but there were other models at the Slade as quoted in the article.

I was comparing the Penn painting in question to Louis' attachment by Grant which I believe are the same man. Neither has a widows peak. I don't think distance is a problem, and can see reasons why any artist in the UK would want to visit the Slade school.

Will look up some more about Penn.

Jacob Simon,

Attempts to identify our man purely on the basis of deemed likeness, as with other portraits that have been discussed in Art Detective, will very likely fail unless there is supporting documentation.

I maintain that our painting was probably painted in Liverpool given the background of the artist. Liverpool is where the answers may lie. However, if we are suggesting that Penn travelled to London, say to the Slade, we need to document this.

Lastly, models are inherently difficult to identify if indeed our portrait depicts a model, as is likely, rather than being a commissioned portrait.

Norrette Moore,

Born and trained in London, exhibited there on a few occasions, as well as visiting Paris & Europe. I'm sure he had his summers free.

Apologies, Jacob. But I'm interested in this story, of a very similar sitter by Fry, Grant, Penn and Bonnard across ~2 decades. If there were easily obtained documentary evidence then this thread might not exist in the first place.

In research, first postulate, then examine and test the details.

I believe one can switch off notifications for thread one has no interest in.

All things considered it now seems unlikely that this sitter can be identified, though as usual much helpful information has been produced in the process – unless Norrette or anyone else would like to work on this longer? There have been no comments since April.

Pieter suggested that the Williamson could try publishing the image in Liverpool area outlets, online or otherwise, assuming that is where Penn painted it, to see if anyone with a connection to the sitter might come forward. I'll ask if Art UK could help with that, after which it might be time to give up if no one has more to add.