John Michael Wright & The Fire Judges: An Update

John Michael Wright's signature

John Michael Wright’s signature

My last post on John Evelyn’s diary entries that mention the painter John Michael Wright concentrated on Wright’s portraits of the “fire judges” originally painted for the Guildhall.  Since that post a few additional pieces of information have come to light (i.e. these are the things I missed in the first place).

 15 Fire Judges

The Guildhall Art gallery c1930

The Guildhall Art gallery c1930

This photograph of the Guildhall art gallery around 1930 probably shows the most number of the fire judge portraits in any one image.  Fourteen, and the corner of the frame of a fifteenth, can be seen around the top of the side walls of the gallery.   Unfortunately the quality of the photograph and the glare makes it difficult to identify the individual judges although the portrait on the left nearest the camera which may be the portrait of Sir Hugh Wyndham:

Sir Hugh Wyndham, (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Hugh Wyndham, (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 “Follow the money…”

What is true for Washington’s political scandals is also true for researching anything to do with the City of London.  The Corporation of London, if sometimes  a little lax in the cataloguing of paintings, is not so relaxed when it comes to recording financial transactions.  I missed, in the first fire judges post, this important information, from 14 December 1671, in the Corporation’s records:

 “Wee have agreed with Mr. Lilly for the Pictures of the King and Duke of Yorke to pay him one hundred pounds And for the Pictures of the Lord Keeper and Judges which were done by Mr. Wright Wee have agreed to allow him XXXVI li per picture, which for the 14 Pictures amounts to £504, although his comon price hath alwayes been £40 for pictures of whole length and for these hee demanded more in regard of his extraordinary expences in painting the same upon Bed Tickin (which are usually done upon Canvas) and priming them on both sides double for strength and Substance, Also Mr Wright the Herald Painters Bill for Painting the Judges Coates of Armes and inscriptions of their names at Xs a peeve amounts to £6.10s And Wee also certifye that Wee agreed with Mrs Ashfeild and Mrs Flushier for doing the frames of the Judges Pictures (with the Iron worke) at £12 a peece and £15 a peece for the Kings and Duke of Yorkes, eight of the judges were done by Mrs Ashfeild which amounts to £96 and five by Mrs Flushier which with the other two amounts to £90 (besides one formerly paid for to Mr. Norris) And Mr. Man hath also expended £5.14.10 in and about the setting up of the said Pictures & other expences relating thereunto All which persons Wee humbly recommend to bee paid by Order of this honoble Court.”

This may need some explanation.  As we’ve already seen Peter Lely (Mr Lilly) seems to have turned down the commission to paint the fire judges but did carry out the portraits of Charles II and the Duke Of York.

This document does tell us that Wright was initially commissioned to paint 14 portraits which are completed by 1671.  I now know that Wright was paid for three further portraits in November 1672 and, at the same time, was commissioned to paint another.  A further portrait was commissioned in 1674 with three more in 1675 which completes the set of 22 portraits.  So when Evelyn visited the Guildhall in July 1673 the complete set would not have been on display but there would have been additions since 1671 which explains why he talks about the paintings being “newly painted”.

This document also tells us the Wright took precautions to make the portraits more robust than he normally would – so the portraits are primed on both sides and he uses Bed Tickin’ a more robust material than standard canvas which was used to cover bedding and stop feathers and straw protruding through the material.  The irony is that this effort and extra expense were ultimately wasted.  It is also not unusual for Wright to come back to a client seeking more funds for additional costs.  Surviving letters concerning the portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her grandchildren (Tate Britain) include increased bills for better colour pigments and specially gilded frames.

“Mr Wright the Herald Painter” is believed to be  reference to Wright’s brother who painted the coat of arms that tops each of the frames. There doesn’t seem to be any other evidence confirming Wright had a brother who was a painter.  We do know that his nephew, Michael Wright, was a painter.

“J.R. Restauravit 1779″

In the last post I also mentioned the restoration carried out on the fire judge portraits in 1779.  We can also follow the money to find out more the work that may have caused more damage than the German bombs of 1940.

In George Scharf’s article on the Fire Judges from 1893, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery records his examination of the portraits and the additional material added to the signature by a restorer.  He notes that he does not know the identity of the restorer “J.R.”.  The financial records however tell us that the restorer was Spiridione Roma (probably then SR rather than JR).

Spiridione Roma was born in Corfu and came to England in 1770. He was a painter and a restorer.  He carried out restoration work for a number of Livery Companies including the Drapers, Goldsmiths and Fishmongers.  In 1779 he was commissioned by the City to restore the fire judges along with some other paintings in the Guildhall.  We know about the work he conducted from the bill he submitted to the City in July 1780.

“Having cleaned, repaired and perfectly restored 19 whole length paintings of Judges and having with infinite labour tooke every one of them out of the stretching frame and firmly secured to each of them an entire new back of canvas and strongly prepared the same with new cement of colour in oil against  damp…….at £5 each, £95.0.0.”

From this we recognise the techniques still used today of cleaning, relining and re-stretching a canvas.   It seems though that this is not the only activities Roma engaged in.  The reference to “new cement of colour” might suggest varnishing or repainting.  The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1789 published a series of anecdotes about Roma which amounts to the most important information we have for both his biographical details and his work.  It describes his “secret” cleaning process:

“appeared to be dissolving the varnish and dirt which adhered to the painting, and which he removed with a small ivory scraper without any injury to the body of colour on the canvas”

The anecdotes go on to say:

“He could never be prevailed on to commit his recipe for his composition of the liquid he used in picture cleaning to paper…and as he always worked at home under lock and key, it is to be feared that his knowledge whatever it was, perished with him.”

At other points Roma also includes in his bill the costs of cleaning “and finishing them as new”.    It seems therefore that Roma was using some sort of solvent to clean paintings and probably engaged in extensive repainting.  Since we know from Richard Symonds (see part 2) that Wright worked wet in wet and that he added varnish to his paint to achieve a high gloss finished effect the impact of Roma’s cleaning was likely to be more dramatic. In fact, it is likely that significant amount of Wright’s paint simply didn’t survive the cleaning.   A close look at any of the surviving paintings gives the impression that the paintings have been attacked with some sort of abrasive material.

Details of the fire judge portraits of Wylde (top) Hale (left) and Ellis (right)

Details of the fire judge portraits of Wylde (top) Hale (left) and Ellis (right)

To be fair to Mr Roma, the paintings may have been further damaged by the later restorations of the early and late 19th century and by the water damage of 1940.

Finally, the twists and turns of the fire judges continue because the City refused to pay to entirety of Roma’s bill saying that he had falsely claimed to have relined the paintings.  The dispute seems to have dragged on for many months and become so heated that Roma even produced his own pamphlet entitled:

“The Case of Mr. S. Roma Respecting the Business Done by Him for the Corporation of London in Cleaning and Restoring Their Pictures &c. and the Money Due to Him for the Same”

I can only find a reference to one surviving copy of this pamphlet. It is in the library of the Guildhall.


The financial records come from the Repertory of the Court of the Aldermen, 75, fo. 160, 19 April 1670 and 75, fo 316, 28 September 1670.

The “Anecdotes of Spiridione Roma” is in the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.59, August 1789, pp.701-3

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One Response to John Michael Wright & The Fire Judges: An Update

  1. Pingback: The Fire Judges: Sir William Ellys | Neil Stevenson Art Blog

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