Landscape with Phaeton's Petition to Apollo

WAG 1999.58


This artwork has been identified as having links to a person connected with transatlantic slavery. This research is part of the Walker Art Gallery’s ongoing work to be more transparent about the collection’s relationship to Britain's colonial past. In his poem 'Metamorphoses', the Roman poet Ovid retold the story of Phaeton, who petitioned his father Apollo, the Sun God, to let him drive his chariot across the sky for one day. As Apollo feared, Phaeton was unable to control the chariot, and in order to save the world Jupiter was forced to destroy him with a thunderbolt. This is one of four large canvases commissioned from Richard Wilson (1713 - 1782) in 1763 by Henry Blundell (1724 - 1810) of Ince, north of Liverpool. The subjects chosen were ones for which Wilson was already well known. His smaller version of Phaeton had just been exhibited at the Society of Artists and purchased by the Duke of Bridgewater. With the aid of studio assistants, Wilson completed the commission for Blundell four years later. It passed by descent to Henry's son, Charles Robert Blundell (1761 - 1837). Charles presented it to John Gladstone (1764 - 1851) and it passed by decent to his son, William Ewart Gladstone (1809 - 1898). The latter, a British Liberal politician, was Prime Minister for four terms between 1868 and 1894. On the two Gladstones, UCL’s Legacies of Slavery database records that: 'Although not a claimant, [W E] Gladstone was closely involved with the claims of his father, John Gladstone, one of the largest of owners of the enslaved [sic] in the Caribbean and a highly influential figure in the West India lobby. As a politican, W E Gladstone supported compensation for slave-owners [sic], the system of apprenticeship, and the defence of the West India interest over such matters as sugar duties.' John Gladstone was also instrumental in the creation, post-emancipation, of a system of indentured labour. Using terminology that is considered offensive and unacceptable today, in 1837 he wrote that: ‘Unless a system of regular continuous labour is then adopted, the cultivation of the sugar cane cannot then be carried on to a productive result.’ He wished to obtain ‘a supply of Hill Coolies from Bengal’ to work unpaid for a period of five years.