One exciting sequel to my BLACK VICTORIANS exhibition 2006-7 was a message from retired banker Gerald Pointon in Paris telling me of his painting of a then-unnamed boxer.
A few weeks later NPG colleagues visiting Paris on other business, called on Gerald and brought back snapshots of the portrait as it then was, with a detached outer frame.
|William Daniels, Jem Wharton, Pugilist, NPG|
Anyone researching this field knows how fragmentary and elusive the records are, detailing more or less clandestine fights without any of the later championship structure or codified Queensberry rules. This 'Young Molineux' could have been more or less any 1830s boxer of African ancestry, including one who fought some times as the 'Prince of Morocco'.
For a long time a photo of the portrait hung above my desk, asking to be identified. Eventually, with assistance from the worldwide community of pugilism historians, I decided his real name was Jem or James Wharton, and that Daniels' painting showed him in training or exhibition bout mode. This was a common way for prizefighters to earn a living outside the ring, boxing against those who fancied a round and had a shilling or so to spend. On these occasions, they used padded gloves, which were just coming into favour in the sport. Wearing the vest and longjohns typical of boxers, wrestlers and others, round his waist Wharton also ties a scarf, forerunner of the the boxers' belt denoting victory in a former fight.
Gerald Pointon followed all this with interest, as he had bought the painting from a London dealer in the 1960s without any information on its subject. Eventually, further research showed Wharton keeping a tavern in 1851 - another typical prize-fighter occupation, as backyard buildings behind pubs were frequently used for sporting and entertainment events - with the Census giving his birthplace as London, and his death being registered in 1856. These are the few, still uncertain, factual details we know. The name Wharton suggests Scottish origin, perhaps from a Caribbean plantation, but may itself have been assumed.
Finally. the NPG was able to acquire the portrait, and hang it in the Regency gallery, cleaned and in its full frame.
Now comes the news that while the NPG is closed for renovations, Jem Wharton's portrait is being loaned to the Museum of Liverpool on the waterfront.
Here it is being installed, even though the museum is currently lockdown-closed. Check out their website details.
It's very satisfying to have found his picture and brought it into public ownership. I'd still like to know more about his life, so maybe further information will be uncovered.