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Museum of Liverpool hosts Jem Wharton portrait courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

James ‘Jem’ Wharton was one of the most successful boxers in Britain during the first half of the 19th century.  

Much of Wharton’s early life remains uncertain; he described himself as a Moroccan who arrived in England in 1820, but his place of birth was recorded as London in the 1851 census.  

Winning his first bout in 1833, he retired undefeated in 1840 after scores of matches against multiple challengers. Following his outstanding boxing career, Jem made Liverpool his home and in 1849 Jem and his wife, Mary, opened The Vine Tap tavern at 9 Great Charlotte Street. 

Wharton died in Liverpool on 25 April 1856 and was buried in St John’s Cemetery, now St John’s Gardens, but his legend lives on and he was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012. 

This portrait by the Liverpool artist William Daniels presents Wharton at the height of his career. He is shown as if pausing during a training session, sporting the ‘colours’ of his most recent defeated opponent around his waist. This portrait is unique as one of the earliest depictions of a boxer wearing gloves, as their use was generally reserved for training at that time. 

Kate Johnson, Head of the Museum of Liverpool, said: 

“Although we are currently closed in line with national restrictions, having Jem’s portrait on display at the museum is a deeply poignant event for us. Not only is he a sporting pioneer who chose to make Liverpool his home, but his portrait is also testament to the outstanding contribution that Black people living in Liverpool have made to our city’s sporting heritage. Our aim is to highlight aspects of our city’s history that have been under-represented. We are delighted to be able to celebrate Jem Wharton’s achievements with our visitors.  

“We’re sad visitors won’t be able to see Jem’s portrait in the flesh for a little while, but we’re going to be sharing virtual updates on his installation through our social media channels. Hopefully it won’t be long before people can experience this fascinating insight into Liverpool’s history, in person, once restrictions ease.” 

Jem Wharton’s return to the city of Liverpool is part of a scheme involving portraits of iconic individuals travelling to the towns and cities most closely associated with their subjects, as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s COMING HOME project. 

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said:

“We are delighted to lend the portrait of Jem Wharton to the Museum of Liverpool as part of our exciting COMING HOME initiative. We hope that sending portraits home in this way will foster a sense of pride and create a personal connection for local communities to a bigger national history.” 

This project supports National Museums Liverpool’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, championing human rights, social inclusion and equality for all. The organisation takes responsibility for educating people and shining a light on the importance of racial justice, by inspiring visitors to think differently about history-makers and how they continue to shape the future. 

For more information please visit www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk  

Photo Credit: Gareth Jones

READ MORE: Former famous Liverpool pub The Denbigh Castle brought back to life

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