William Wilberforce junior

Between 17 July and 4 November 2001 The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, hosted an exhibition devoted to the painter, John Linnell. The exhibition reveals a fascinating link to Wilberforce’s eldest son, William Wilberforce, junior (1798-1879), whose disastrous financial speculations were to force his parents to leave their home in 1831.

In 1824 Linnell painted a portrait for  Wilberforce junior of his wife, Mary (née Owen), whom he had married in 1820. If you scroll down to 53, you will see the following information;

‘A dispute arose on the terms of the commission leading Wilberforce to write to Linnell in a letter dated 22nd July (MS3307-2000) that, “I am not now prepared to pay you for yr. picture & I shall therefore again request you to send for it immediately …” Linnell replied the same day (MS3312-2000) reminding Wilberforce of the terms that had been agreed and adding he considered the contract binding. An entry in Linnell’s journal for 4th August, the date given on the sketch, records a meeting with Wilberforce at which he received payment for the painting. Thus Wilberforce obviously backed down and it seems the sketch must refer to this.’

There is also an amusing sketch by Charles Heathcote Tatham: The Finale of William Wilberforce junr. which depicts the young man being hanged.

The  portrait of ‘Mrs Wilberforce junior’ (watercolour and gouache over graphite on scored Mrs William Wilberforce and child, by John Linnell, 1824gesso ground) is in the Paul Mellon Collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and is in the public domain. (Unfortunately, it is wrongly described as being a portrait of Mary’s mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Wilberforce.) The child is her son, William, born on 6 December 1821. In August 1824 Mary gave birth to another son, Robert, who was to die at the age of sixteen months. The portrait was presumably done in the early stages of her pregnancy or after the birth of her child. The background may represent Hampstead Heath, as both Linnell and the young Wilberforces were living in Hampstead at the time.

In his dispute with the painter, William junior was acting in character. He was  thoroughly untrustworthy and unreliable, inheriting his father’s inability to manage money, but completely lacking his strong moral compass. It is painful to read the elder Wilberforce’s grief-stricken diary entries about his anxieties for his son. After a disastrous venture into dairy-farming, Wilberforce junior ran up debts in excess of £50,000 (over £3 million in modern money). In 1831 he and Mary left for Switzerland, where he remained until his debts were settled.

The Wilberforce family never seem to have thought much of daughter-in-law, Mary. However, Wilberforce was clearly concerned for her welfare. In his will he left her an annuity of £500 ‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce’. This was the legal phraseology that protected married women’s property rights in the days before the Married Woman’s Property Acts. Wilberforce wasn’t a feminist, but he was clearly well aware of the vulnerability of women.