Two white men in a plantation house negotiate the sale of a small boy as his mother overhears; later she flees with him across an icy river. These are the first two of six vignettes on a wallpaper inspired by the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The full sequence concentrates on Eliza and Harry’s escape from the slave owner, alongside Tom’s sale and eventual murder.
The American author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the book in 1851 to support the abolition of slavery in the southern states of America. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a worldwide bestseller – by the end of its first year in print it had sold more than 300,000 copies in the US and another million in Great Britain; it was to become the century’s second-bestselling book, second only to the Bible. The stereotype of Uncle Tom – a badge of virtue and longsuffering endurance – went on to be further exaggerated in endless novelty items, performances, games, stories and, indeed, a wallpaper.
This roll was acquired by the Whitworth from a descendant of Edna Greenwood, a lifelong collector of American folk art. It is, in fact, both Americana and a Mancunian thing: the wallpaper was made by the firm Heywood, Higginbottom, Smith and Company and printed in Manchester, not far from where the Whitworth stands today. This is a city industrialised through transatlantic slavery, and abolition was fiercely debated here for decades.
“Pulps” like this wallpaper were printed cheaply and quickly on uncoated paper, intended for display and discussion in inns or clubs. They were a form of social media. (This design is still pasted on the wall of a historic house in Australia, testament to the reach of the story, the British empire and its markets.) It is loosely drawn and crudely printed, saving it somewhat from the racism of more deliberate illustrations of the story by caricaturists such as George Cruikshank. Yet this crudity renders Eliza and Harry black in one scene and white in another. However much we might struggle with it, it is an invaluable reminder that abolitionism has a long history of mistakes but also of global reach.