Life of undefeated boxing pioneer buried in city celebrated at Museum of Liverpool

Much of 19th century boxer James 'Jem' Wharton's background is a mystery

A painting of 19th century boxing pioneer and pub landlord James ‘Jem’ Wharton is going on display at the Museum of Liverpool.

Loaned by the National Portrait Gallery, the work is by Liverpool artist William Daniels and presents Wharton at the height of his career.

One of the most successful boxers in Britain during the first half of the 1800s, he won his first bout in 1833, he retired undefeated in 1840 after scores of matches against multiple challengers. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012.

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

However, it is known that following his outstanding boxing career he made Liverpool his home. In 1849 he and his wife Mary opened The Vine Tap tavern at 9 Great Charlotte Street.

He died in Liverpool on April 25, 1856 and was buried in St John’s Cemetery, now St John’s Gardens.

Daniels’ portrait shows Wharton as if pausing during a training session, sporting the “colours” of his most recent defeated opponent around his waist. It is one of the earliest depictions of a boxer wearing gloves – at the time they were usually only used for training.

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.”

The painting is being loaned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of its COMING HOME project, which involves portraits of iconic individuals travelling to the towns and cities most closely associated with their subjects.