A Victorian Fencing Master: or, can you help me identify this painting?

19th c Pickersgill

Lot 48

English School, circa 1840

Portrait of a gentleman, three-quarter-length, in black costume, standing beside a table

Oil on canvas, 60 x 50cm (23 9/16 x 19 5/8in)

Not the most illuminating auction catalogue entry.  A man wearing black standing in front of a table – so far, so obvious. Probably English, maybe around 1840, that is it on additional hedging by the auction house.  Despite the lack of information I liked the painting and I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to work out who the subject was.  So I bought it and now, although I’ve got so far, I’m now stuck on identifying both the subject and the artist.  What follows is what I know, some desperate speculation and a plea for help.

The first thing that struck me about this painting was that, unlike so many early Victorian portraits that come up for sale, this was by quite a skilled hand.  The details of the face for example are beyond the ability of the average provincial painter:

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 22.25.46

But what really intrigued me are the details the auction listing doesn’t mention;  the sword lying on the table on top of that odd diagram. My first thought was that those objects must be significant and would surely would help identify the sitter.

They are worth a closer look:

sword man detail

Take the sword first.  It didn’t take long on the internet to find out that sword designs relate to specific years.  On reflection that is not so surprising but it is helpful – up to a point.  So the first thing I now know is that this is a British infantry sword (that “English School” is therefore probably right).  Dating the sword is slightly trickier because you can’t see all of it but there is enough to narrow this down to two years: 1822 or 1845.   (Everything else about the painting suggests the later date.)  These swords are actually quite common (you can pick one up on eBay for a few hundred pounds) and well documented, so comparing a photo with the painting shows how accurate the painter was:


A sword like this appearing in a portrait would suggest the sitter is a British Army officer.  This is the first real problem, or possibly a clue.  If he is an officer why isn’t he wearing a uniform?  Or, even assuming there is a uniform under the black cloak, why isn’t it obvious he is a soldier?  If he isn’t a soldier why does he have a British army sword so prominently displayed?    I think the answer to that problem relates to the diagram on the table.

The artist renders the diagram in surprising detail:


It is actually quite easy to identify what this diagram is.  It is obvious it relates to fencing and an internet search for “fencing diagram” immediately identifies this as an illustration from a book entitled “Infantry Sword Exercises” by Henry Charles Angelo.

The book is actually a manual of fencing exercises which were published as handbook for the British Army in 1817 and again in 1845 (the second time that 1845 date has cropped up).  The book is still available as a reprint and a scanned copy of the original is online:

2013-06-30 20.03.05

The author, Henry Charles Angelo was a part of the Angelo family of fencing masters.  The dynasty was founded by Domenico Angelo (1716-1802) an Italian who moved to London and set up a fencing school in London around 1759.  The school became popular and had a number of high profile pupils including the Prince of Wales (the future George III).  Domenico also published a book, a treatise called “Ecole des Armes” in 1763.

Domenico’s son, Henry Charles Angelo (1760-1839) took over the business and published another treatise with illustrations by Rowlandson. His son, Domenico’s grandson, also called Henry Charles Angelo (1780-1852) is the author of our book “Infantry Sword Exercises”.  The book was adopted by the British Army and became a standard manual in 1817. Henry Charles was appointed “Superintendent of Sword Exercise” for the Army in 1833 – a role he retained until his death.

So could the sitter be Henry Charles Angelo?

There are a number of reasons why that is a compelling suggestion.  It explains the sword, the diagram and the military role but without the uniform.  Following that line of inquiry I went looking for further details on Henry Charles Angelo and that is where things start to slow down.

There isn’t it seems much to learn about Henry. He gets a mention in a short book about the Angelo fencing dynasty “The House of Angelo” by J.D. Aylward, where he is described as:

“Unlike his father, Henry was not a Bohemian, for he is described as “a model man, in stature, in mien, in looks, in dress, and in manners.””

I’m not sure that helps link Henry with the sitter in this portrait although he does appear to have a certain noble bearing.

Other things are however slightly troubling.  Assuming a painting date of 1845 or after, Angelo would be at least 65 years old.  Is that the face of a 65 year old?   Possibly.

I started looking for other images of Henry Charles to compare with the portrait.  I’ve only be able to find one and again I’m not sure it helps. There is a drawing in the National Portrait Gallery by W.H Nightingale:

Henry Charles Angelo by W.H. Nightingale, National Portrait Gallery London

Henry Charles Angelo by W.H. Nightingale, National Portrait Gallery

There are two problems with the drawing. The first is that a profile doesn’t help much when comparing it to a frontal view. Second, it is dated 1839, 6 years or so before the painting and yet this looks like a much younger looking man than our subject.  The sideburns are pretty much ubiquitous at the time so not much of a clue there and the hairline would have recede somewhat in the next 6 years to match our man.  So the drawing doesn’t help much but, like so much in this research, it also doesn’t rule out Angelo as the sitter.

My only other line of inquiry with Angelo was checking any references to an obituary and to a will.   There is an obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine of November 1852 and a copy of his will in the National Archives.   On odd occasions either of those can mention portraits.  In this case they don’t.

So, I’m half convinced this is a portrait of Henry Charles Angelo of around 1845.

If it isn’t Angelo who else could it be? Looking through portraits of the same period I found one person who bears a passing resemblance to our sitter but this quickly falls apart as an idea because that person was the arctic explorer John Franklin.    Franklin is portrayed several times (notably by Thomas Philips) and there are a few photographs of him that allow us to make comparisons.

Unknown Man (left), Sir John Franklin (right)

Unknown Man (left), Sir John Franklin (right)

But apart from being bald men of similar age they don’t actually look that alike. Franklin is almost invariably portrayed wearing his naval uniform so why wouldn’t he be doing so in this portrait?  There is no reason he’d be painted with a British army sword and not a naval cutlass and he has no apparent interest in swordsmanship. Finally and possibly fatally, he sails off on his ill-fated attempt to find the North West Passage in May 1845 so there would be little time to paint him anyway.  So even wild speculation hasn’t yet thrown up any other contenders for the sitter. But maybe someone will know better?

The Artist

There is no  discernible signature on the painting although for a while I thought I could just about make out something (possibly “James…”) under UV light but which could equally be just some scrapes on the surface:


The only other (non stylistic) clue to a possible artist is the stamp on the back of the canvas:

2013-07-01 08.52.08-1

That reads: “T Brown, 163 High Holborn, London” and relates to the artists’ colourman Thomas Brown.  The stamp also helps (very slightly) with dating since Thomas Brown took over the business in 1805 and was based in High Holborn until 1853.   Brown was however a leading supplier of canvas and painting materials (they were the first to provide collapsible metal paint tubes) to many important artists including Turner, Constable and Thomas Lawrence.  All of those I can rule out on obvious stylistic grounds or because they were dead by 1845.  But there are a list of Brown’s clients (and others) that could be our artist.

At various times I have considered artists from this list: Henry William Pickersgill; John Watson-Gordon; George Hayter; John Wood; Samuel Laurence; Frederick Richard Say; John Partridge; John Linnell; Richard Rothwell and Francis Grant.

The problem is I can’t really make a very convincing argument for any of them and I can find issues with all of them (for example the format is wrong for Pickersgill, the style not right for Hayter etc).  From time to time I favour one over the other; e.g. John Partridge for a while. Some on that list may seem surprising.  Francis Grant for example, since Grant’s portraits always seem to me to be painted with a palette of brighter tones and he seems to make everything and everyone, well, shiny.  But then something comes along to make me reconsider, in Grant’s case it was walking past  his portrait of Sidney Herbert (of 1847) in the NPG and noticing the similarity with the way he’d painted a hand holding a cane:

Fencing Master detail (left) Portrait of Sidney Herbert by Francis Grant detail (right)

Fencing Master detail (left) Portrait of Sidney Herbert by Francis Grant detail (right)

This is of course mere conjecture – seeing similarities that just aren’t there.  I have nothing concrete to base an attribution on. That is why I need help.  Have I missed something obvious?  Is the portrait in the  recognisable style of an artist I haven’t considered?  If you can help or if you want to add to the speculation please do comment below or you can find me on twitter @NJStevenson.

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3 Responses to A Victorian Fencing Master: or, can you help me identify this painting?

  1. CR Leslie exhibited a portrait of Angelo at the RA in 1843.

  2. Now that is interesting. I did look at the RA listings but (stupidly) started too late. I never considered Leslie but his dates are right and I see he had a period at West Point military academy. Will immediately go in search of his “Autobiographical Recollections”. Thanks so much for the information.

    • My pleasure. I’ve got a couple of comparatives I’ll send to you on Twitter. I owed you one – someone mentioned Sir Edward Ward Chief Baron yesterday, and thanks to your tweet about the portrait I knew who he was.

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