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A portrait painting of Samuel Arnold, wearing a black hat and a red and white cloak, against a black background

Royal College of Music Museum acquires portrait of prolific anti-slavery composer

Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Royal College of Music Museum’s most recent acquisition is one of a series of paintings by Thomas Hardy, commissioned in the late 1790s by the publisher John Bland to celebrate some of the most famous composers whose music he was printing.

The portrait was purchased from a private collection thanks to the support of the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Fund, and a personal contribution from RCM Director, Professor Colin Lawson. In recent months the painting and frame have undergone light-touch conservation by Donatella Banti and Yuki Barrow. The portrait can now be seen in the Royal College of Music Museum’s permanent display where it joins those of Joseph Haydn, Johann Peter Salomon and William Shield from the same series.

Samuel Arnold was the foremost composer for the London stage in the second half of the 18th century. He began composing around 1764 and went on to hold posts as organist at Westminster Abbey and director of music at Marylebone Gardens. Some of his greatest successes stem from his time as composer for the Little Theater in the Haymarket. He was a vocal opponent of slavery and composed three works set on Caribbean sugar plantations including the first anti-slavery opera, Inkle and Yarico, in 1787. Arnold was also a noted conductor and editor of Handel’s works.

Professor Colin Lawson, Director of the RCM, comments: ‘It is a special pleasure to announce the RCM’s acquisition of Thomas Hardy’s portrait of Samuel Arnold (1740-1802). Hardy painted some of the most important musicians in London during the 1790s, notably the celebrated image of Joseph Haydn which is a jewel within the RCM Collections; indeed, Hardy bore witness to a remarkable time in the life of music in the city. Arnold was the most prolific composer of the London stage of the late eighteenth century and was also a popular composer for London’s pleasure gardens. Editor of the first collected works of Handel, conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music and organist of Westminster Abbey, Arnold was an inspirational and prolific polymath.’

Professor Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, Curator of the Royal College of Music Museum, comments: ‘Our new acquisition ideally complements our collections and enriches the narrative of our permanent display: Arnold was one of the most vocal anti-slavery composers of the late 18th century and his portrait will support new educational programmes and our concerts, using works from our Library collection.’ The Royal College of Music Library holds a large selection such as the first edited Handel collection and manuscripts such as his Hymn of Adam & Eve based on Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Royal College of Music Museum reopened to the public in October 2021 following a £40 million redevelopment and features a permanent exhibition of musical objects, interactive displays and specially curated temporary exhibitions. Entry to the Museum and its exhibitions is free, though a ticket is required. Museum entry can be booked online and some tickets will be available on the door without prior registration.

The RCM Museum is open Tuesday–Friday, 10.15am-5.45pm and Saturday–Sunday, 11am-6pm. The Museum also hosts a series of intimate concerts featuring RCM musicians performing amongst the artefacts. These take place on Friday lunchtimes and tickets can be booked online.