It is possible that this likeness was painted by a journeyman western artist whose identity who understood the importance of the colonial regiments...
This previously unpublished work, which has only recently emerged from a private collection, is one of the earliest known portraits in oils of a black soldier of the British Army, and is thus a significant addition to known historical military iconography.
The 8th West India Regiment was one of eight infantry units commissioned in 1795 for service on the British Caribbean colonies. The original 8th West India regiment was disbanded in 1802 and the following year another was raised which served until 1816. The style of uniform confirms that this Private, whose identity is at present unknown, was part of the latter corps raised in 1803 whose uniform had green facings – the earlier ones were grey. The shako – a type of brimmed, conical military hat – was adopted c.1800 and the white belts he wears across his chest were introduced in 1803 and replaced the black belts previously used. The lapels of the uniform are squared and were an early feature, which suggests that this work was most likely painted after 1803, and probably no later than c.1806. The 8th West India regiment around this time was stationed between Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, although it is very difficult to say for certain where this likeness would have been painted.
Native recruits were hugely important to the West India Regiments, as tropical conditions and disease resulted in a high mortality rate amongst the white soldiers. The troops who were recruited for the West India Regiment were made up of free-black men but also slaves who were later, in 1807, freed under the revised Mutiny Act of that year.
Records suggest that there were a number of European artists who visited the Caribbean colonies in the late eighteenth century, the most notable perhaps being Agostino Brunias, although he died in 1796 ruling him out a possible candidate for this work. It is possible that this likeness was painted by a journeyman western artist whose identity was never recorded but who understood the importance of the colonial regiments.
Until recently, large areas of this portrait were concealed by overpaint, clumsily applied in the background areas and on the Private’s uniform. The reason for this is unclear and the result was a paint surface which was very uneven and difficult to understand. Now removed, through a process which took several months, the composition is once again unified and the importance of the topographical elements, which played such a crucial role when it was painted, can be fully understood.