Small error in attribution

 

Sir, – Edel Coffey’s review of new books on the former slave Tony Small, Lord Edward FitzGerald’s loyal servant, is illustrated with a painting by Thomas Roberts (1748-1777) which indeed long hung at Carton, FitzGerald’s childhood home in Kildare (“Two new books about the runaway slave who became Lord Edward FitzGerald’s servant”, Culture, February 20th). This has become the default illustration for Small, reproduced almost every single time his remarkable story is told. It does not, however, depict him.

Thomas Roberts had in fact died four years before Small saved Lord Edward’s life at the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781. To account for this inconvenient fact and preserve the identification of the man as Small, an earlier generation of Irish art historians was forced to reattribute the painting to Roberts’s young brother, Sautelle, with whose work it bears not the slightest similarity.

In fact, as has long been established, the painting was included in the 1772 exhibition of the Society of Artists in Ireland on Dublin’s South William Street and was described as showing a prized pony belonging to Lord Edward’s young brother, Gerald. It was listed in the catalogue under the unpalatable title Bold Sir William (a Barb), and Indian Servant and French Dog in the Possession of Sir Gerald FitzGerald, in which it is striking that the Arabian horse (barb) is named but the man is not.

Scholarly scrutiny of race in 18th-century Ireland is to be welcomed. However, the repeated identification of a former slave of African descent with a servant from south Asia does little to advance a more nuanced understanding of these complicated issues. How an Indian servant could be described as belonging to Lord Edward’s six-year old brother rather complicates the feel-good story of friendship between the son of a duke and a former slave. – Yours, etc,

WILLIAM LAFFAN,

(Co-author, Thomas

Roberts, Landscape

and Patronage in

Eighteenth-Century

Ireland),

Monkstown,

Co Dublin.