John Glassford’s Family Portrait

John Glassford’s Family Portrait. Glasgow Museums Collection 2887

When the portrait of the tobacco merchant John Glassford and his family was given to Glasgow Museums in 1950 not much was known about it, and a myth grew about a black slave boy who had been painted over to erase Glasgow’s association with the slave trade.

In 2007 the painting was moved from the People’s Palace to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum where conservation treatment was carried out in front of visitors. The results were spectacular. The legend of the black boy behind John Glassford being painted out could be dismissed, as gentle cleaning revealed that he had simply been obscured by centuries of dirt. Cleaning and X-rays also revealed that Glassford’s second wife, Ann Nesbit of Dean, had been painted over to make way for his third wife, Lady Margaret Mackenzie.

Glassford p[ortrait showing black boy slave
Detail: John Glassford’s Family Portrait
Recent research has also revealed that the inclusion of a black boy slave and the parrot perched on the window serve as a celebration of slavery and plantation possessions. Details of the garden in the background, and reflection of a street scene in the mirror, suggest that this portrait was painted in the Glassfords’ Glasgow home, Shawfield Mansion, on Virginia Street.

Because the painting first showed Ann Nesbit, and her children, it can be dated to between 1764, when her sixth child Henry was born, and 1766 when she died. All six children are painted together with Jean, daughter of Glassford’s first wife, Ann Coats, who plays the lute. The painting of Lady Mackenzie can be dated to when she married John Glassford on 7 December 1768.

The artist of the portrait is Archibald McLauchlan. He was associated with the Foulis Academy of Fine Art which was established at Glasgow College in 1753 with the financial support of Glassford and his business partners Archibald Ingram (1704–1770 ) and John Coats Campbell (1721-1804). Ingram was a witness at batisms of the Glassfords’ children and John Coats Campbell was probably a relative of Ann Coats. The investment in Georgian Glasgow’s school of art was between friends and family.

The Glassford portrait remains McLauchlan’s only known work in a public collection.

However, research into the Foulis Academy indicates that he worked in Rome and was recommended by the Academy. In its literature, he is referred to a McLauchlane, and other recorded works by him include the Death of Marcus Aurelius, Death of Socrates and Peneroso from Milton. The Roman toga-like clothes on the Glassford child in the forefront of the portrait painting may have appealed to the artist’s classical tastes.

Dr Anthony Lewis
Curator of Scottish History

For more information on Glasgow Museums’ collections please visit

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

6 thoughts on “John Glassford’s Family Portrait

  1. As a teenager I visited People’s Palace frequently and looked at the picture of the black man servant who had been painted out.(Why has he been shifted to Kelvingrove?) After reading an article regarding this painting I was surprised to read he had just disappeared (The man that is) due to the painting being dirty (don’t believe it) I always thought wow that family valued their black man servant enough to put him in the picture and somehow someone didn’t like it and had him painted out) Well I liked it and I also liked it in People’s Palace along with the planetarium which has also made it’s way to Kelvingrove from People’s Palace.
    Please in this climate consider making this painting a centre piece again so all proud Glaswegians can appreciate it’s sentiments.
    Karyn Cairns(Mrs).


    1. Dear Mrs Cairns,
      Thank you for reading and commenting on our blog page on the legacies of slavery in Glasgow.
      We hope that you will continue to visit the museums, and engage with our collections with our digital services too.
      The Glassford family portrait has become a firm favourite at the People’s Palace over the years. It is there now, and has only been moved to Kelvingrove twice in the past 25 years: once for conservation and cleaning in 2007, and once more to display it for six months at the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ temporary exhibition in 2014. It was then returned to the People’s Palace where it has remained ever since.
      It was during the conservation work to clean the painting in 2007 that it was made clear that it was dirt and not paint that covered up the black boy servant standing behind the seated John Glassford. The only figure that we know was overpainted was Glassford’s second wife, Anne Nesbit, to make way for his new wife, Lady Margaret Mackenzie. There is no evidence of the boy being deliberately covered up and forgotten in paint.
      Since his ‘rediscovery’ Glasgow Museums has sought to display and interpret the painting in many ways. For the purpose of these blogs, and our commitment to represent Glasgow’s legacies of slavery, the boy now moves from the edge of the painting to the centre stage. We do not know much about him, but we are studying our collections, and the Glassford family, to learn more and share it with you, and others.
      We hope that this information is useful and we look forward to welcoming you to the museums once they are open to the public again.
      Yours sincerely,
      Glasgow Museums


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