North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 20th C 33 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


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.

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