In this final post on John Evelyn’s diary entries that mention the painter John Michael Wright, we jump from 1662 to the 1670s. This is Evelyn’s last mention of Wright in his diary and begins the tragic tale of the portraits of the fire judges:
“31 July 1673: I went home, turning in, as I went through Cheap side to see the Pictures of all the Judges & Eminent men of the Long robe newly painted by Mr Write, & set up in the Guild-hall costing the Citty 1000 pounds: most of them are very like the Persons they are made to represent, though I never tooke Write to be any considerable artist.”
“I went home…”
Since Evelyn lived at Sayes Court, his house on the Thames at Deptford, until 1694 we can assume he is returning there. Sayes Court was demolished in the 18th century, the site of the house and its famous garden having now all but disappeared under the urban sprawl of south east London but it would have been about 4 miles from Guildhall so he may have been heading to transport on the river.
“turning in, as I went through Cheap side…”
We know that the night before Evelyn was having dinner with the “Countesse of Suffolcks, in her Lodging”. So he is walking through the City towards Cheapside where the Guildhall is located.
“to see the Pictures of all the Judges & Eminent men of the Long robe…”
Evelyn doesn’t mention who these judges are but we know he is referring to what are commonly called “the fire judges”. As every British school child used to know, the “Great Fire of London” started in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666 in a bakery in Pudding Lane. The devastation of the central part of the City was almost total – it is estimated that the homes of 70,000 of the 80,000 residents of the City were lost.
The priority after the fire was to avoid an uprising – conspiracy theories about Catholics starting the fire abounded – and to rebuild the city. One potential problem in achieving this was the likelihood of protracted legal disputes between landlords and tenants. To avoid this Parliament acted swiftly and passed emergency legislation:
The Fire of London Disputes Act 1666 (18 & 19 C. II. c.7.)
An Act for erecting a Judicature for Determination of Differences touching Houses burned or demolished by reason of the late Fire which happened in London
The Act was an innovative and pragmatic piece of legislation. First it created a special “fire court” made up of:
“Justices of the Courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas, and Barons of the Exchequer (or any three of them) to adjudicate on all questions arising between the owners and tenants of property in the City destroyed by fire.”
The Act then gave the court very wide ranging powers. In short, a panel of three judges from a pool of 22 would hear the case and decide who was best placed (the landlord or tenant) to pay for the rebuilding, compensated appropriately by the other party. The court could dissolve leases and create new ones. The focus therefore was on resolving issues quickly and getting reconstruction underway. And the cases were dealt with remarkably quickly with the judgments often given on the same day and seldom contested. The hearings took place in Clifford’s Inn (which belonged to the Inner Temple) and the Museum of London has in its collection a small round table that the judges sat around. The fire court heard its last case on the 20th September 1672.
“newly painted by Mr Write…”
The Corporation of the City decided in 1670 to commemorate the work done (for free) by the 22 judges. On 19th April 1670 the Court of the Corporation decided:
“1670. Resolved, This Court in contemplation of the favour and kindness of the Rt Honble. Sir Orlando Bridgman Knt. and Bart. Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, the Justices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas and Barons of the Exchequer, to the State of the Citty, in and about the Act of Parliament and the execution of it for erecting a Judicature for determining of differences between Landlord and tenant, doth think fit and order that their pictures be taken by a skilful hand and kept in some publique place of this Citty for a grateful memorial of their good office.” Rep 75 col. 160b
The first choice for this task was likely to have been Sir Peter Lely although there is no surviving documentation to support this. There are anecdotal accounts that Lely turned down the commission because he refused to go to the various chambers of the different judges. I suspect Lely was approached but his refusal had more to it than that. Lely was still a very much in demand artist and giving up more lucrative commissions to paint 22 judges for the fee offered may not have been the most attractive of propositions. The story about refusing to visit chambers, although credible, may not therefore be the whole truth. We do know from the records that the Aldermen decided to tender for the commission and appointed, on 27th September 1670, a committee to consider the entries from various “skilful masters”. Those masters included Wright, Hayls and Huysmans and another unknown painter. The committee included Sir John Robinson and Sir Robert Vyner both of whom would also be painted by Wright.
“costing the Citty 1000 pounds…”
When Wright won the commission the City agreed to pay him £36 per portrait. (Walpole says £60 but this must be wrong.) In 1670 we know, from other commissions, that Wright was asking some £40 for a full length portrait, so he was working for a reduced rate on the judges. (For a three quarter portrait he charged £25 and £12/10/- for a bust.) The payments from the City began on 28 February 1671. Twenty two portraits at £36 of course amounts to £792 but there were other expenses, such as frames (to which we will return).
“most of them are very like the Persons they are made to represent…”
This takes us to the heart of the issue, the portraits. Wright was faced with a daunting challenge. He needed to paint a full length portrait of the judge in their robes, never an easy subject, and he had to do it 22 times. He was probably also working to a deadline, we don’t know what this was but he does seem to have managed to complete the task by 1672. As Lely may have already suggested, Wright would have to work around the judges who were based in different places, still working on fire cases as well as other legal and political work. Just to complicate this further some of the elderly judges died during the project so some portraits may have been done posthumously.
Let us look at one painting as an example. This is the portrait of Sir William Ellis (or Ellys)(1609-1680).
The first thing to note is that these are large paintings. Full length and life size they are roughly 235cm in height and 165cm wide. It is obviously a picture of a judge, the robes make that obvious. They are little changed from those worn by the senior judiciary today.
The subject means that the portraits are remarkably similar. In an article from 1883 by George Scharf, the then director of the National Portrait Gallery, we get his overview of the series:
“The backgrounds are all, with the exception of Sir Matthew Hale and Chief Baron Atkyns, perfectly plain dark brown, with a shallow arch above each figure. The floor, in all cases, is a dark plain brown and so deep in colour that the black shoes, where the feet are shown, can scarcely be distinguished, no carpet or inlaid pavement is introduced. Not one figure is seated, and no face appears in profile. There may truly be said to be no great variety of attitude among them, so far as arms are concerned. But the hands, are well placed, and the action of the fingers, for the most part, significant.”
So these are big paintings painted quickly in a broad brush and rough way and meant to be seen from a distance. They are not therefore characteristic of Wright’s usual, more detailed and insightful portraits.
Once completed the 22 portraits appear to have been framed and hung in the Guildhall. An 18th century print gives us an idea of how they were placed in the Hall.
The print also gives an idea of the frames. These are “Sunderland” frames and appear to have been made by three women; Mary Ashfield, Mary Fleshier and Mary Dorrell. The top of the frame includes a coat of arms with the names of the sitters on a plaque at the bottom. We can see this clearly in the portrait of Sir Thomas Tyrrell:
George Scharf also tells us that in 1867 when he first saw the paintings he was told they were signed on the back. In 1893 Scharf had the opportunity to look closely at three portraits which had been taken off the walls in the Guildhall. He found this on the back of one:
“Sir Timothy Littleton Knight, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, Jo Mich Wright, Pinxit Anno Domi 1671”
This is fairly typical of Wright’s portraits and in recent years more inscriptions have been found under relined canvases. Here, for example, is the signature on the reverse of the portrait of Mrs Salesbury and her grandchildren in Tate Britain:
But I said this was a tragic tale. In fact the tragedy starts almost as soon as the paintings were finished. Scharf tells us that the paintings were hung in the newly reconstructed Guildhall but that they were attached to unseasoned green wood. The wood soon buckled and this damaged the pictures. As early as 1673 there is a record of repair work being required. They seem therefore to have been removed from the walls of the Guildhall from a short time before being replaced. This may explain why Evelyn is now seeing them for the first time in July 1673.
Following the repairs in 1673 the portraits hang, seemingly undisturbed for a century. But that is a century of exposure to the heat, cold and smoke of the Guildhall. According to Scharf when he examined the portrait of Sir Thomas Tyrrell (illustrated above) he found this:
“Sir Thomas Tyrrell Knight, one of the Judges of the Common Pleas, Jo Wright Pinxit 1671, J.R. Restauravit 1779”
That last line records a second restoration. We know from a book “Londinium Redivivum: An Antient History and Modern Description of London” by James Peller Malcom, published in 1803 that:
“When Guildhall was repaired in 1779, all the portraits (except the modern ones) were in so bad a condition that it becomes a matter of doubt whether they were to be restored to their places or committed to the flames. The committee of City Lands, who were to decide their fate, divided equally on the question, and it was the honour of the Chairman, Mr Alderman Townsend, whose vote determined their being cleaned and repaired.”
So the fire judges evaded the flames but Malcolm goes on to explain that the restoration of 1779 soon needed repeating:
“Indeed, they were almost reduced to the same pitiable condition again (24 years later). This circumstance, their extreme height, and the similarity of the red robes and the monstrous wigs, prevent a possibility of description without fatiguing the reader.”
In 1791 a book appears entitled “Brief Memoirs of the Judges whose Portraits are Preserved in Guildhall, to which are prefixed engravings of the marble sculptures representing the earl of Chatham and William Beckford Esq.” It is a rambling account (Edmund Burke was one of the various authors) of the art in Guildhall in the eighteenth century made up of some extended articles from the Gentleman’s Magazine. It provides biographical information on the judges but does not make much mention of the actual paintings. One piece of useful information is does provide, which makes identification easier, is the illustration of the coat of arms of each judge:
By the time Scharf sees the paintings in 1893 they have been restored again so he can mention “the brilliancy of of their present condition”. So damage and repair has become a regular occurrence and now the pictures start to do something else which will continue; they change location.
The paintings were always meant for the Guildhall but when the old Hall were replaced by new law courts in 1823 the portraits were transferred there, a new and appropriately legal home. They did not stay there long. The law courts were subsequently demolished and the paintings were redistributed amongst various offices of the City until the new art gallery which replaced the law court buildings was opened in 1886.
We can now jump to the twentieth century where we have the benefit of the photographic record. In this photograph from March 1939 we can see five of the judges displayed high in gallery 1.
So, on the eve of the second world war we know the paintings are hanging in and around the Guildhall gallery. During the first word war some efforts were made to protect the art and books at Guildhall but the second world war presented a more difficult challenge. As early as September 1938 plans were made to move the art works from the City to a safe place and in 1939 works began being transferred to a quarry in Wiltshire and various other rural locations.
In November 1939 the committee charged with overseeing this work heard from the Director of the Gallery that:
“Apart from a few decorative pictures at Mansion House, some comparatively modern portraits in the Committee Rooms the large canvases in the Council Chamber Lobby, and miscellaneous material in the store which I do not think is worth moving, there is nothing left except the series of Fire Judges, a painting by Opie and Copley’s canvas of the defeat of the Spanish floating batteries at Gibraltar…”
The Director then goes on:
“The Fire Judges cannot well be removed from the Gallery; their frames are almost as interesting as the paintings, and I am hoping that Mr Surveyor will be able to provide a measure of safety for them in a room under Gallery No. 1.”
It is difficult to read that now without sensing the City’s lack of regard for the paintings and without a sense of impending doom.
A year later, on Sunday 29 December 1940, the dreaded event occurred. An air raid, one of the heaviest during the Blitz, destroyed the roof of the Guildhall, the Council Chamber and the Alderman’s Court Room.
25,000 books were burnt and 98 marble busts destroyed. Most of the paintings had been moved but the 22 Judges were still housed in the Crypt. Yet again the Fire Judges avoided the flames but this time they were badly damaged by the water used to put out the fires that burned above them. It is tragic therefore that a series of art works created to commemorate the Great Fire are essentially ruined by another great conflagration nearly 300 years later.
For the rest of the war the Fire Judges were moved to Wicken Park in Northamptonshire and possibly then moved again to Swallowfield Park in Berkshire. It isn’t clear what, if any, conservation work was undertaken at this time. The Guildhall records are also confusing since some works that are supposed to have been ruined turn up in other inventories. What is clear is that in the early 1950s the City decided to resolve what to do with the fire judges.
The Guildhall Art Gallery website to this day suggests these were the only two paintings to “survive” suggesting the rest were destroyed. In fact, the Guildhall seems to have destroyed 4 portraits (Sir Timothy Lyttleton, Sir Edward Turnour, Sir Thomas Twisden and Sir Christopher Turnor) but “de-accessioned” the others.
We know that 2 were presented to what would become the Government Art Collection, these are Sir John Archer and Sir William Ellys. They are now on display in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand.
Two of the Inns of Court, Inner Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, acquired portraits of judges associated with their Inns. At the Inner Temple, in the Hall Gallery are Sir John Vaughan, Sir Orlando Bridgman, Sir Thomas Tyrrell (see above) and Sir Heneage Finch. At Lincoln’s Inn are Sir Edward Atkyns, Sir Samuel Brown, Sir Wadham Wyndam, Sir Richard Rainsford and, on loan, Sir Matthew Hale. They hang in the Great Hall which is reminiscent of their original position in the Guildhall.
The case of Sir William Wylde is the most recent one to come to light. According to Guildhall records it was received from the artist in 1668 (although this is almost certainly wrong), it was then de-accessioned in 1952 to the Fire Loss Adjusters, but then re-acquired in July 2012. In 2014, a cut down, reframed, ‘half judge’ went on show in the Guildhall Art Gallery. This is the only fire judge that can easily be seen and up close. The distress it has suffered is obvious (it appears as if the surface of the painting has been scraped off) although it is difficult to tell if this is due to the water damage or work of the 18th century restorer. It is the only one of the 22 judges that can be seen at Guildhall.
The records are unclear so there may be other judges out there in private collections or mis-catalogued (please let me know if you have any further information of their whereabouts).
Here is the complete list of the 22:
- Sir John Archer
- Sir Edward Atkyns
- Sir Robert Atkyns
- Sir Orlando Bridgman
- Sir Samuel Brown
- Sir William Ellys
- Sir Heneage Finch
- Sir Matthew Hale
- Sir John Kelynge
- Sir Timothy Littleton
- Sir William Morton
- Sir Francis North
- Sir Richard Rainsford
- Sir Edward Thurland
- Sir Christopher Turnor
- Sir Edward Turnour
- Sir Thomas Twisden
- Sir Thomas Tyrrell
- Sir John Vaughan
- Sir William Wilde
- Sir Hugh Wyndham
- Sir Wadham Wyndham
George Scharf’s article “Portraits of the Judges in the Guildhall” appears in the The Archaelogical Journal, 1893, vol 50
Useful background information comes from “The History of the Guildhall Art Gallery” and “Portraits in the Guildhall Art Gallery” both by Vivien Knight, published by the Guildhall Art Gallery, 1999.
For wider historical background “The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London” by Christine Stevenson, Yale University Press, 2013.
The Frame Blog provides unsurpassed information on the history of frames.