The Bank of England, which has its own museum, will no longer display eight oil paintings and two busts connected to the slave trade. Earlier this year, the bank set up a working group to critically review the 40,000 artworks in its collection.
An outside researcher brought in by the bank found that ten artworks had “historic links with the trans-Atlantic slave trade”. They depicted former directors and governors at the bank from 1698 and 1814: Robert Clayton (1629-1707), William Dawsonne (1645-1727), Gilbert Heathcote (1652-1733), James Bateman (1660-1718), Robert Bristow (1688-1737), William Manning (1763-1835) and John Pearse (1760-1836).
The researcher cross-checked the findings with a database compiled in 2020 by University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project. According to the database, at least 25 of the bank’s governors and directors from the 18th and 19th centuries were slave owners.
Yet some experts have criticised the possible insincerity of removing these works. “You cannot separate the Bank of England from slavery,” said Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He added that focusing on a few former figures was “tokenistic nonsense.”
Following the removal of several public sculptures in 2020, the UK government passed new laws to protect historic monuments across England. At the time Robert Jenrick, the Communities secretary, argued “that such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised.”
Due to this law, other contentious statues owned by the Bank of England will remain on display. Despite officials voting to remove them earlier this year, two sculptures will be kept at the Guildhall building in London showing John Cass (1661-1718) and William Beckford (1709-1770).
The bank’s decision follows recent public pressure placed on institutions, including museums and galleries, to confront their colonial pasts. Last month, the Bank of England acknowledged that it had not historically fostered “an ethnically diverse and inclusive workplace”.