The Glassford Family Portrait and Cultural Value

In what ways has the cultural value and use of the 1767 painting, ‘The Glassford Family Portrait’ by Archibald McLauchlan changed since its acquisition by Glasgow Museums in 1950?

This article examines the cultural use and value of the family portrait of John Glassford, a late eighteenth century Glasgow merchant, painted by Archibald McLauchlan in 1776. It will first describe the historical context of the painting by examining Glasgow’s links to slavery through the tobacco trade. In doing so it will provide the historical background to Glassford’s commissioning of the painting. The essay will then use theoretical approaches drawn from art theory and postmodernism to analyse the ways in which the painting was used by Glassford to fashion his identity as a man of empire. It will then consider the acquisition and display of the painting by Glasgow Museums and ask how this relates to the ways in which its use and value have changed over time.

John Glassford of Dougalston (1715–1783) was one of the wealthiest merchants of his time, trading principally in tobacco.[1]Glassford also invested in tanneries, dye works, operated a chain of stores in Virginia where he sold iron and metal tools; large quantities of cotton fabrics of low to medium quality to make clothing for planation workers,[2]and ‘life-style’ commodities to plantation owners, transported in his fleet of ships which carried his tobacco from Virginia to Glasgow.[3]In 1761 Glasgow landed 47 million lbs of tobacco, importing 98 per cent of Scottish tobacco, and 40 per cent of Britain’s entire import.[4]During 1773-4, Scots controlled over half the key areas in Chesapeake, virtually monopolising Virginia and its inhabitants.[5]Glassford Group exported 3214 Hogsheads of bright-leaf [6]to Holland and Northern Europe alone in 1775.[7]With the Scottish population at 9 per cent of Britain it is clear that Scottish merchants and plantation owners relied on another commodity that passed through British ports: slave labour.[8]Empire ships transported 3.4 million African slaves until slave trade abolition in 1807. Of 20 million African enslaved by Europeans, 10 million died during the process of capture and transportation.[9]

The ‘Triangular Trade Route’ took British ships loaded with metal wares to Africa where the cargo was traded for saves.[10]The ‘middle passage’ of the route took ships to colonies in the Caribbean and Americas. The ships returned with tobacco, sugar, and rum, which were the ‘conspicuous components in the emergence of consumer societies in the eighteenth century’.[11]By the late 18thand 19thcenturies, sugar, like tea became staple household commodities. Solow argues that ‘by 1750 the poorest English farm Labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea’.[12]Rum from West Indian molasses helped satisfy eighteenth century Britain’s drinking needs, and when added to stored water on navy ships, helped neutralise bacteria on long journeys. 

The goods of empire are very much on display in Glassford’s portrait, and these need to be examined to assess just how and why Glassford used them as a system of symbolic forms to shape his identity. In this case, Erwin Panofsky’s thesis is useful. Although tensions exist between Aby Warburg’s approach to examining visual culture, and Panofsky’s,[13]Warburg’s disciple offers helpful theoretical paradigms for analysing objects and people in the Glassford portrait. From Warburg, Panofsky drew upon a deductive, ‘iconological’ approach to interpretation.[14]Panofsky’s analysis takes three distinct forms: first, a close look at the portrait reveals Glassford, his children, and his wife collected in a room with rich, lustrous carpets, a window and a mirror. The portrait was painted in Shawfield Mansion[15]which was one of the top three mansions in Glasgow at the time.[16]Jean, the daughter of Glassford’s first wife, Ann Coats, plays the lute.[17]By further identifying visible forms,[18]the children are well dressed and the mirror reflects Virginia Street, important given Glassford’s connection with Virginia’s tobacco trade. The garden can be viewed through the window. Panofsky’s method demands viewers construct links to other artworks, concepts and texts.[19]The lute is symbolic of harmony and education.[20]Or, as with seventeenth century Dutch paintings which Glassford collected and admired,[21]the lute, often played by young women to symbolise music and poetry,[22] is considered ‘good-taste’. The squirrel at Glassford’s feet symbolises industriousness, and this is balanced by flowers representing love.[23]A bowl of exotic fruit demonstrates that the family have the means to access imported goods from colonies. Wills claims that access to exotic goods contributed to ‘glamorising of consumption in the emerging middle classes’[24]at the expense and exploitation of non-European producers.[25]Behind Glassford, off the left edge is a barely visible young black African slave dressed as a servant. The position neither includes or excludes the person from the scene, and suggests a larger space beyond the range of the already large painting (1.98 x 2.21 meters), its size meant to impress. Lewis argues that the bird on the window ledge is a parrot and compliments the slave-boy symbolising Glassford’s interests in the West Indies.[26]

The last part of a Panofsky mode of interpretation is understanding the painting as a subjective mediation located within particular times and places.[27]Lewis claims there are currently no records or letters connecting Glassford to McLauchlan with instructions, and little is known about the painting prior to its purchase by Glasgow Museums in 1950. The portrait shows Glassford constructing himself as a man of taste and economic capital.[28]Bourdieu argues cultural capital are the ‘symbols, ideas, tastes and preferences strategically used as resources’ in social modelling.[29]Greenblatt notes that there are selves, and there are ‘deliberate shaping and expressions of identity.’[30]Helped by inherited wealth, the opulence of the painting shows Glassford’s power to control his identity, shaping perceptions of himself and his family. His complex place in the Glassford family, in the city, and in the nation as a whole suggests Glassford may have instructed McLauchlan to characterise him as intellectual, social, aesthetic and cultural.[31]Glassford fashions himself as a Glaswegian, responsible for the prosperity of the city by choosing a local artist who was associated with the Foulis Academy of Fine Art to paint the portrait. Glassford was wealthy and connected enough to commission William Blake, Gainsborourgh or any number of others, but Glassford flexed his power to ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’ by choosing McLauchlan. 

Glassford and his business partner, Archibald Ingram financed The Foulis Academy in Glasgow College in 1753. By employing McLauchlan, Glassford fashions himself as socially benevolent and is simultaneously fashioned by his inseparable connections to cultural institutions.[32]Greenblatt observes that culture and human nature cannot be independent.[33]Culture offers sets of control mechanisms for behaviour. Glassford’s self-fashioning, by this measure, is a system of meaning that becomes a concrete embodiment of a culture he dictates. Fromm suggests that the substitution of pseudo acts for original acts leads eventually to replacement of an original self by a pseudo self,[34]or the substitution of one cultural value for another. Studies employing Foucauldian discourse analysis look at how figures in authority use language to express their dominance, requesting obedience and respect from subordinates.[35]An example of this in action, and the consequential modification to pseudo-culture and altered values by Glassford’s self-fashioning is the placement of the slave boy in the painting. 

Although it is important to note that the inclusion of slaves in art and cultural objects was widespread and even fashionable,[36]from contemporary perspectives the slave boy contributes to the normalisation of ‘othering’ by showing slaves as trophy servants. Glassford uses the prestige of slave ownership to construct his identity as a merchant trading with the Americas and the Caribbean specifically, translated with a narrative voice he adopts, which situates his business as an institution of strength and authority. Edward Said argues that this authority ‘establishes canons of taste and value’,[37]forming perceptions, traditions and judgments.[38]The slave identity and institution of slavery is constructed as necessary, the slave being othered, less than human, almost invisible on the edge of the bigger picture. 

The ‘look’ is what posits immediate relationships to others.[39]For Foucault, the connection between knowledge and power renders the look as bureaucratic, or an oppression of being seen, making the ‘other’ real and measurable.[40]However, the power to make the slave almost invisible creates in the slave ‘a crisis in the representation of personhood’,[41]erasing and forgetting presence. Agency is removed, replaced with dependency on Europeans. Although Colley suggests Britishness was ‘defined in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered, peoples who were manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion and colour’.[42]This notwithstanding, the master slave relationship seems contradictory because the slave is necessary to mercantile success for Glassford as a Scot, and a man of the empire.[43]

Slavery became the primary institution to enable European expansion, imperialism and capitalism.[44]The Scottish Industrial Revolution was driven by markets derived from Caribbean and North American slavery.[45]Slave labour resembled a ‘new improved factor of production’[46]and can be viewed as an asset in Glassford’s portfolio. The slave in the painting is, and represents Glassford’s capital. Because slaves were purchased outright, they represent the potential of future services.[47]As colonisation and empire building took hold, the connection of the slave to capitalism is essential: Europeans could not benefit from simply occupying ‘free’ land. However, if the colonisers invent or adopt a productive asset (like slaves), the colony can be built without waiting for voluntary immigration of settlers or capital to be generated.[48]In a newspaper article from 1848, The Glasgow Heraldproclaimed: ‘we owe [the slave trade] some part of our “national greatness” to the wealth which accrued from it.’[49]The article makes clear the connection between capital and slavery abolition when it states, ‘The regeneration of the Negro on one side and the abandonment of our Colonies and ruin of the proprietors on the other – such things are for derision.’[50]

For Bhabha, a postcolonial perspective departs from dependency theory.[51]This approach attempts to negate the construction of boundary structures of opposition. Bhabha claims postcolonialism resists attempts at holistic forms of social explanation.[52]Postcolonialism forces recognition of complex structural and political boundaries to exist in opposed political spheres.[53]The cultural value of the Glassford portrait therefore, is a hybrid of differential meanings and values of Western colonial textuality.[54]The painting negotiates a range of symbolic domains, namely, linking the colonial and postcolonial subject to Glasgow’s introspection on notions of otherness and slavery, and questions about the narrative of capitalism. When the painting was purchased in 1950, the importance of the institution of slavery was less publicly questioned, and it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that black issues and histories achieved a higher profile in response to the immigration in the 1950s.[55]With the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, the Glassford portrait was cleaned, repositioned and re-labelled to include information about the inclusion of a slave, but for some, Glasgow was still not readily admitting its history in the way that other cities have.[56]This small but significant change in the museum’s display went some way to relieve Glasgow of its ‘amnesia’ towards slavery.[57]

The McLauchlan work is now in the People’s Palace, which is a museum of social history that opened in 1898 amid the continued push towards rational recreation.[58]The Glassford portrait is part of a small collection organised and catagorised as ‘Capitalist Visions: Money makes the world go round [sic]’,[59]which can be viewed as an archive. Sekula argues that ‘archives are not neutral; they embody the power inherent in accumulation’ and the ‘power inherent in the command and lexicon of the rules of language,’[60]the shaping of discourse and discursive formation, or the way meaning is connected in a particular discourse.[61]Clifford suggests exhibits can ‘stand for’ abstract wholes, and relationships between grouped objects supplant social relations.[62]Therefore the portrait, and its curated links to capitalism has structures that depend on particular ways of seeing that connects success, merit, individualism, wealth and exploitation.[63]The People’s Palace have appropriated the painting, creating opportunities to reflect on statements of capitalist discourse. These become evidence of particular historical narratives that Glasgow Museums bring to attention.[64]For Foucault, discourse is powerful. It ‘disciplines’ viewers to think and act in certain ways which are produced by the discourse, or groups of signs.[65]These signs coalesce to be defined as the group of statements that belong to single systems of formation: capitalist discourse; the discourse of the institution of slavery. 

Presiozi argues that museum displays are ‘rooted in modernist ideology of representational adequacy’[66]where artefacts are imagined to represent real history. The museum holds a superstructural power to support ideologies that construct ideas of national, ethnic and historical identity as facts or fictions.[67]It holds the power of corrective study, with art viewed as if ‘framed by the classroom, the prison, or the illustrated manual.’[68]In the museum the use of the portrait identifies social relationships of production, celebrating the merits of individuals, a key concept in mercantile and capitalist success. The value of the painting is therefore derived from the consensus, an agreement of value by society members, simultaneously encouraging agreement from those who look at it.[69]If major parts of societal values are expressed, those values will be integrated. The production of goods, capital, wealth, and ever-increasing productivity is regarded as an important goal.[70]The painting illuminates the forces of production through the collection of visual devices; the use of raw materials, (slave) labour and the technologies of production. The superstructure, of which the museum is a part, is largely informed by the infrastructure,[71]therefore the museum’s belief and value system are determined by economic factors. As such, constituted realities of the museum use are ‘prefabricated tropes and vocabularies’[72]drawn from meritocracy and capitalism. The museum purposefully draws attention to Glasgow’s mercantile past, making visible and public the values associated with Glassford and his achievements.[73]

The use of the painting in the eighteenth century and its use and value now share a broad brush regarding discourse around capitalism and success. Concerning the inclusion of the slave, one important change has taken place. The focus of his identity has become variable, shaped by the appropriation of fact and meaning, which are both flexible.[74]Cultural value changes, therefore ideas about authenticity and social responsibility change over time. Authenticity in culture can however be appropriated from the past, preserved, or revived,[75]of the type supported by some current political classes.[76]

Accordingly, the portrait has changed in relation to the slave. Recent introspection and recognition of Scotland’s role in exploitation[77]and empire building may have roots in increased interest in postcolonial studies, and Scotland’s attempts at political and cultural independence.[78]In contrast, Devine argues the story of Scotland’s ambivalent attitude to imperial history is well established, but claims recognition is essential to contemporary renegotiations of Scottish history with admissions of colonial culpability.[79]This admission may drive the movement in value of the Glassford piece from fine art artefact to that of cultural significance. The ‘vanishing cultural status’[80]of Glassford as ‘man of empire’ establishes a context of ‘enduring worth and rarity’,[81]and could be apprehended as important by collectors. The historical context of the inclusion of the slave however allows the painting to emerge as an important socio-cultural device which has didactic power as the painting, locked in the system of ideological consciousness,[82]moves from masterpiece to ‘dated’ in the panorama of social awareness, in line with Clifford’s description of Greimas’ ‘semiotic square’.[83]

The transformation of the image demands a distance from the past where change is converted to binaries: good; bad.[84]The work changes from being the story of the slaver, to the enslaved. The assumption is, change is good, but current reading is still ideologically driven and fails to account for innumerable histories, and for connections at a superstructural level.[85]The current use and value of the Glassford work does consider the long-range view of its place in monopoly capitalism,[86]and in its public setting is deciphered as distinguishable from older interpretations. Interpretation of the work is a palimpsest, its history partially revealed, only recognised when the various strata that compose that history are acknowledged. As Fanon illustrates, the ‘expressionless or tormented’[87]slave can come to life to become, not pitied, but called to action. He asks, amongst the interpretation of meaning, if (colonial) ‘experts’ recognise layers and fragments of characteristics attributed to them by dominant groups.[88]Viewing the portrait, the viewer’s attention could be guided by the museum institution to not empirically trust existing reality, but be given opportunities to ‘reconstitute’ her own realities in to the semantic components of the image. [89]

In conclusion, this essay has shown that the Glassford painting has value by entering the art world by virtue of its social fashioning of Glassford by a Glasgow artist known for his association with Glasgow’s Foulis Academy. After 1950 its display as an artwork chronicling the city’s association with trade and capitalism has shown that with contemporary viewing, the use value of the Glassford painting changed to become a polemical text, illuminating and charging City Fathers with culpability in the British Empire’s use of the slave trade. Arguably, the painting guides social attitudes to meritocracy, and also reflects attitudes to empire building and the use of people as capital. The essay has shown that the use of the painting can exist beyond the binary – suggesting that an interdisciplinary approach to its understanding can reveal subjective knowledge based on truth, belief and their intersection with method.


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[1]Nichol, 1966: p 23

[2]Wills, 1993: p137

[3]Nichol, 1966: p 23

[4]Devine, 2005: p 228

[5]Devine, 2015: p 227

[6]Devine, 1975: p 70

[7]Devine, 1975: p 71

[8]Devine, 2005: p 228

[9]Graham et al, 2007: p 3

[10]Mullen, 2009: p 15

[11]Wills, 1993: p 133

[12]Solow, 1987: p 730

[13]Johnson, 2012: p 60

[14]Becker, 2013: p 3

[15]Glasgow Museums, 1998: p 67

[16]Devine, 2016

[17]Lewis, 2018

[18]Panofsky, 1955: p 51

[19]Panofsky, 1955: p 52

[20]Lewis, 2018

[21]Lewis, 2019

[22]Burgers, 2013: p 213

[23]Lewis, 2019

[24]Wills, 1993: p 134

[25]Wills, 1993: p 134

[26]Lewis, 2019

[27]Becker, 2013: p 3

[28]Lewis, 2019

[29]Scott and Gordon, 2005: p 131

[30]Greenblatt, 2005: p 1

[31]Greenblatt, 2005: p2

[32]Greenblatt, 2005: p 256

[33]Greenblatt, 2005: p: 3

[34]Fromm, 1942: p205

[35]Given, 2008: p 249

[36]Quinton, 2018

[37]Said, 1978: p 27

[38]Said, 1978: p 27

[39]Jameson, 1998: p104

[40]Jameson, 1998: p 106

[41]Bhabha, 1994: p55

[42]Colley, 1992

[43]Swaminathan, 2009: p157

[44]Solow, 1987: p 715

[45]Devine, 2015                                                                                                                                                                                                  

[46]Solow, 1987: p 715 

[47]Solow, 1987: p 716

[48]Solow, 1987: p 716

[49]The Glasgow Herald, 1848

[50]The Glasgow Herald, 1848

[51]Bhabha, 1994: p 173

[52]Bhabha, 1994: p 173

[53]Bhabha, 1994: p 173

[54]Bhabha, 1994: p 174

[55]Devine, 2015: p 25

[56]Kay, 2007

[57]Devine, 2015: p 27

[58]Glasgow Museums, 1998: p 11

[59]Glasgow Museums Information Label, People’s Palace

[60]Sekula in Rose, 2007: p 173

[61]Rose, 2007: p 143

[62]Clifford, 1988: p220

[63]Foucault, 1972: p 38

[64]Clifford, 1988: p 221

[65]Foucault, 1972: p 107

[66]Presiozi, 1995: p13

[67]Presiozi, 1995: p14

[68]Said, 1978: p 49

[69]Haralambos and Holborn, 2008: p 8

[70]Haralambos and Holborn, 2008: p 8

[71]Haralambos and Holborn, 2008: p 9

[72]Presiozi, 1995: p 15

[73]Oakley, 1967: p 8

[74]Clifford, 1988: p 220

[75]Clifford, 1988: p 222

[76]Glott, 2011

[77]McKenna, 2018

[78]MacDonald, 2006: p 117

[79]MacDonald, 2006

[80]Clifford, 1998: p 224

[81]Clifford, 1998: p 224

[82]Jameson, in Clifford, 1988: p 225

[83]Clifford, 1988: p 223

[84]Jameson, 2008: p 20

[85]Jameson, 2008: p20

[86]Jameson, 2008: p21

[87]Fanon, in Beneduce, 2017: p 158

[88]Fanon, in Beneduce, 2017: p 158

[89]Jameson, 2008: p 21

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