Bust of King George III with two African men removed from museum as 'inappropriate'

The bust figurehead of George III from the 'Royal George'
The bust figurehead of George III from the 'Royal George'

The bust of King George III has been removed from the National Maritime Museum’s permanent exhibition, The Telegraph has learned.

The mahogany carving, which was the figurehead of the Royal Yacht “Royal George” in 1817 and has been on display at the museum for over a decade, has now been put into storage after it was deemed “inappropriate".

The figurehead depicts King George III as a Roman Emperor wearing a laurel wreath, with two kneeling African men on either side of him with their hands clasped.

Leading historians have described the decision to remove the bust as an “absolute absurdity” and “astonishing”.

Sir John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group of backbench Tory MPs, said he will write to the Culture Secretary, Olive Dowden, to make a formal complaint about the museum’s “foolishness”.

The National Maritime Museum now has an explanatory panel where the bust of King George III used to be, which says that when the figurehead was on display it prompted “frequent criticism”.

“For many visitors and staff, its imagery of a powerful white king with two subservient black men is a hurtful reinforcement of enduring racial stereotypes,” the panel says.

The Royal George yacht pictured in 1842 - Antiqua Print Gallery / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy
The Royal George yacht pictured in 1842 - Antiqua Print Gallery / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

“Monarchs are typically portrayed as the dominant figure, with others shown in a secondary and more deferential stance.

“However this figurehead is often seen as celebrating the role of white people in ending slavery. Such images overshadow the determined actions and huge sacrifices of black people to achieve this goal.”

The museum said that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer hastened its decision to remove the figurehead from display.

Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of history at Exeter University and biographer of King George III, said that removing the bust is an “absolute absurdity”.

“That argument could be used to denigrate just about everyone in British history if you were so minded,” he said.

“The National Maritime Museum which is a national institution in receipt of public funds needs to get a grip on its purpose of commemorating British history.”

The “Royal George” yacht was launched a decade after parliamentary legislation abolished the British slave trade in 1807. Scholars believe the figurehead depicts a celebration of Britain's victories in the Napoleonic Wars.

Status of two men is 'unclear'

The museum’s curators say the status and purpose of the two black men on either side of the king is “unclear”.

An entry for the figurehead on the museum’s catalogue says: “While they may represent vanquished foes begging for mercy from the victor, it is more likely that they are ‘supporters’ in the heraldic sense, with their supplicant pose designed further to elevate the monarch’s regal status.”

Prof Robert Tombs, emeritus professor of history at Cambridge University, said it is “astonishing” that the museum seems ashamed to have a bust of King George III on display, given that he was “on the throne when the slave trade was abolished”.

Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, said: “Why not add text to qualify the meaning of the painting, rather than pretend that black people never benefited from white decisions? Why prefer reverse distortion to accurate balance?”

A spokesman for the National Maritime Museum said the Atlantic Worlds gallery, which opened in 2007, has been under review since 2019.

“Research into the iconography of George III suggests more strongly and persuasively that it commemorates victory over Napoleon in 1815 rather than celebrating Britain’s abolition of its slave trade in 1807, making the object inappropriate for the slavery and abolition section of the gallery," they said.

“This was specifically highlighted, and correctly brought to our attention, during the summer of 2020.”

The spokesman said that the figurehead is currently being housed at its offsite storage and conservation studio in Kidbrooke, south-east London.