A Diversion to the East Neuk: A watercolour by James MacMaster

Map of the East Neuk of Fife

Map of the East Neuk of Fife

As a change from examining the portraits of the late Stuart era I’m taking a slight diversion in this post to visit the “East Neuk” of Fife in the nineteenth century.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Neuk” is simply the Scots word for nook, meaning a corner. The East Neuk of Fife comprises the fishing villages along the north coast of the Firth of Forth including Crail, Elie, St Monans, Anstruther, Largo and Pittenweem. Fishing in the East Neuk continues but much reduced with tourism now being the main industry.

The East Neuk has consistently attracted artists to its picturesque harbours and sea fronts; St Monans is to Fife as Polperro is to Cornwall.   Although artists still paint in the area the high point of the East Neuk’s popularity for artists seems to be in the late Victorian era so I’m looking particularly here at a painting from that time (which helpfully I bought a few years ago).

Elie, James Macmaster 1891

Elie, James Macmaster 1891

This is a watercolour view by the Scottish artist James MacMaster. Described, rather lazily, by Bonhams as a “village by an estuary” it is fact not difficult to work out that this is a view of the village of Elie because MacMaster typically inscribes the details in his work. So we have a view of the village of Elie, painted on the 26 June 1891.



And in case we were in any doubt we have “A bit of Elie” written on the back.

"A bit of Elie" detail, reverse.

“A bit of Elie” detail, reverse.

Macmaster also signs the work with his (also typically) full signature.

Elie, detail of signature

Elie, detail of signature

Not that much is known about James MacMaster other than he was born in 1856 and died in 1913.  As his signature makes clear he was a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) in 1885 and the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) in 1890. Despite the large number of views of the fishing villages of the east coast of Scotland MacMaster was from the west coast and a Glaswegian.

Judging by his work he was both prolific and well travelled, at least across Scotland.  Apart from the numerous views of the East Neuk there are also views of the Highlands and a considerable number of the Ayrshire coastal towns from Ayr in the south to Largs in the north.  There are some views of English landscapes and one of Rotterdam.

MacMaster occasionally works  in oils but his main medium is watercolour (usually with some body colour) and his favourite subject, which he keeps coming back to, possibly because they’re the most commercial, is the East Neuk especially St Monans, Largo and Elie.

Returning then to the “bit of Elie” I thought I’d find out where the scene was painted from and compare the view with the current village.  Concentrating on the architecture, as the more enduring elements of the scene, one problem immediately arises; the lack of a church steeple…

Elie, detail.

Elie, detail.

Elie photo

The internet comes to my aid here because I learn that the church shown in the top right of the painting was demolished in the 1960s.  The distinctive spire can however be seen in old photographs.

Elie Free Church (demolished c 1962)

Elie Free Church (demolished c 1962)

Other buildings from the 1890s survive however and provide a way to orientate the artist’s view.  In particular a row of cottages are easy to spot and compare with the current view.

Elie photo details Elie details

So I’m now pretty sure where MacMaster was sitting to paint. He was on top of some sand dunes to the side of the harbour and although the view has changed quite a lot it is, I think, still recognisable.


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Pepys’ Diary & John Michael Wright


Previous posts in this blog have looked in some detail at John Evelyn’s diary entries that mention the painter John Michael Wright.  I have been asked why I looked at Evelyn’s diary and not the more famous one by Pepys.  The short answer is that Pepys only makes one fleeting reference to Wright in his diary.  It comes in 1662 on what is an event-filled Wednesday. It is worth quoting in full:

Wednesday 18 June 1662

Up early; and after reading a little in Cicero, I made me ready and to my office, where all the morning very busy. At noon Mr. Creed came to me about business, and he and I walked as far as Lincoln’s Inn Fields together. After a turn or two in the walks we parted, and I to my Lord Crew’s and dined with him; where I hear the courage of Sir H. Vane at his death is talked on every where as a miracle. Thence to Somerset House to Sir J. Winter’s chamber by appointment, and met Mr. Pett, where he and I read over his last contract with the King for the Forest of Dean, whereof I took notes because of this new one that he is now in making. That done he and I walked to Lilly’s, the painter’s, where we saw among other rare things, the Duchess of York, her whole body, sitting instate in a chair, in white sattin, and another of the King, that is not finished; most rare things. I did give the fellow something that showed them us, and promised to come some other time, and he would show me Lady Castlemaine’s, which I could not then see, it being locked up! Thence to Wright’s, the painter’s: but, Lord! the difference that is between their two works. Thence to the Temple, and there spoke with my cozen Roger, who gives me little hopes in the business between my Uncle Tom and us. So Mr. Pett (who staid at his son’s chamber) and I by coach to the old Exchange, and there parted, and I home and at the office till night. My windows at my office are made clean to-day and a casement in my closet. So home, and after some merry discourse in the kitchen with my wife and maids as I now-a-days often do, I being well pleased with both my maids, to bed.

This diary entry is a useful example of the range of Pepys’ interests at this time and involves quite a tour of the centre of 17th century London.  He starts with some work in his office in Seething Lane, which lies to the west of Tower Hill, roams from the City to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Somerset House on to the Strand then to Covent Garden then to Temple, back to the Exchange in the City and finally returns to his office and home in Seething Lane.

Explanations and annotations of the references in this diary entry to Pepys’ work for the Navy Board  and his contacts with various people mentioned here can be found at the invaluable website www.pepysdiary.com.  

In this post  I want to concentrate on the references to art and artists.

“That done he and I walked to Lilly’s, the painter’s…”

Peter Pett (left) from detail of Lely portrait and Samuel Pepys (right)

Peter Pett (left) from detail of Lely portrait and Samuel Pepys (right)

So, we have Mr Pett the shipwright (who had already been painted by Lely) accompanying Pepys to see Lely’s studio which is situated in the piazza in Covent Garden.  It will become clear later in the entry that Pepys and Pett don’t actually meet Lely on this visit, in fact they essentially bribe a caretaker to let them in to see the paintings.  

“…we saw among other rare things, the Duchess of York, her whole body, sitting instate in a chair, in white sattin…”

The first painting Pepys mentions is a portrait of the Duchess of York. This is Anne Hyde (1637 – 1671) who had married James, Duke of York in 1660.  Pepys’ description of this painting, assuming it is accurate, poses some problems since there is no known portrait that fits both the 1662 date and shows Anne sitting in a chair wearing white satin.  Oliver Millar, the great Lely expert,  suggests that the portrait may be the one now in Edinburgh dated as circa 1661.

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The obvious problem with this is that, although the date is about right,  the Duchess is neither sitting in state in a chair or dressed in white satin.  It may be that Lely altered the design later, or that Pepys was mistaken in his description (although this is unlikely with a contemporary record) or there is another unknown, possibly lost,  portrait.

I suspect this is the portrait Pepys saw and that the design was changed subsequently by Lely.  The drapery to the left of the Duchess looks unusual and may have been added later to cover a more formal chair.  It is also odd that Pepys doesn’t mention seeing a portrait of James, Duke of York.  There is a portrait of James which is a companion to the Hyde portrait, also  in Edinburgh.  In that portrait the same rather odd drapery design is used in reverse.   It could be that Lely changed the design, removing chairs and altering the drapery colours to make the two portraits more harmonious as a pair.

James, Duke of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

James, Duke of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

“…and another of the King, that is not finished; most rare things.”

Pepys doesn’t give much detail to help identify this portrait.  There are of course several portraits of Charles II by Lely and many copies made by him and his studio. There is no way to tell which of them Pepys saw.

“I did give the fellow something that showed them us, and promised to come some other time, and he would show me Lady Castlemaine’s, which I could not then see, it being locked up!”

This takes us to Lady Castlemaine aka Barbara Villiers (nee Palmer) the King’s mistress and the subject of the Pepys’ lecherous obsession.  After paying off the caretaker that allowed them access Pepys must have been heartbroken at being unable to see the portrait of woman he lusts after in many of his diary entries.  We  again don’t know which of Lely’s several portraits of Barbara Villiers was locked away.  On 20th October he goes again with Pett to see Lely. This time Lely himself is present as is that painting:

“Insomuch that after I had done with the Duke, and thence gone with Commissioner Pett to Mr. Lilly’s, the great painter, who came forth to us; but believing that I come to bespeak a picture, he prevented us by telling us, that he should not be at leisure these three weeks; which methinks is a rare thing. And then to see in what pomp his table was laid for himself to go to dinner; and here, among other pictures, saw the so much desired by me picture of my Lady Castlemaine, which is a most blessed picture; and that that I must have a copy of.”

Again, Pepys doesn’t give us any clue as to what portrait of Barbara he is talking about.  It could be her portrait as Minerva commissioned by Anne Hyde around this time as part of the “Windsor Beauties” series which is still in the Royal collection.   I suspect however it is likely to be the more sensuous portrait also of 1662 as “the penitent Magdalene”. 

Barbara Villiers as "the penitent Magdalen" Peter Lely, Euston Hall

Barbara Villiers as “the penitent Magdalene” Peter Lely, Euston Hall

Pepys also gets his print, albeit four years later. On 1st December 1666 he says:

“…in the evening, calling at Faythorne’s, buying three of my Lady Castlemayne’s heads, printed this day, which indeed is, as to the head, I think, a very fine picture, and like her.”

On 21st December 1666 (after an appalling piece of sexual exploitation in the morning) he frames his print “which I have made handsome, and is a fine piece.”

William Faithorne, after  Sir Peter Lely, line engraving, 1666

William Faithorne, after Sir Peter Lely, line engraving, 1666

“Thence to Wright’s, the painter’s: but, Lord! the difference that is between their two works.”

Which takes us finally to John Michael Wright and Pepys’ only apparent reference in the diary to the artist.  Pett and Pepys have moved on to visit Wright’s studio which is nearby in the Covent Garden area.  Frustratingly Pepys doesn’t give any details of the visit. He doesn’t even say if he met Wright or describe any of the paintings he saw.   It is worth noting that he doesn’t make any actual criticism of Wright’s work but merely points out the difference between it and Lely’s; although it is clear which artist he prefers.

It is not surprising that Pepys, whose taste in art is perhaps driven more by a salacious interest, prefers the more sensuous approach of Lely.  It is also worth noting that Wright and Lely painted the same subjects on several occasions, often at around the same time. We can therefore make our own comparisons of “the difference that is between their two works.”

Barbare Villiers by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

Barbara Villiers by Lely (left) and Wright (right)


Charles II by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

Charles II by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

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Late Stuart Painted Ovals & Cartouches – A Guide to Attribution?

Having recently purchased a late Stuart portrait with a painted oval (more on that in a future post) I’ve been looking a bit more closely at painted ovals and cartouches from that period.  I’ve started to ask myself a simple question:

“Can the design or technique used in the painted oval/cartouche provide any clues as to who painted the portrait?”.

So, in a not at all scientific study, I’ve started comparing painted ovals by several well known 17th century portrait artists.

There are some problems with this. The first is that not all portraits from that time have solid attributions so I’ve narrowed down my “study” to cases where the identity of the artist is not in any serious doubt. Secondly, and more significantly, whilst the portrait may be known to be painted by a specific artist the oval might not have been.   Painted ovals, like drapery is an obvious task for a pupil or studio assistant.  And thirdly, is it possible that different artists and studios used the same designs for ovals from a pattern book?

Now I would have thought someone would have done this before and there would some academic paper or thesis on painted ovals but if there is I haven’t found it yet.  I think I’m beginning to see some patterns developing but its not yet very clear so I’ll be continuing my informal study for a while.

In the meantime, here is a little test/quiz using three artists – Peter Lely, John Michael Wright and Mary Beale – with three painted ovals each – with the portraits removed, obviously.  But which three ovals belong to each artist?

Ovals Quiz

You can find the answers here.

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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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John Michael Wright and John Evelyn: Part 3

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.

Morgan's map of London showing Guildhall and surroundings in 1682

Morgan’s map of London showing Guildhall and surroundings in 1682

“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).

Sir William Ellis

Sir William Ellis

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.

Lord Phillips, The Lord Chief Justice, 2008

Lord Phillips, The Lord Chief Justice, 2008

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.

18th Century print of Guildhall interior

Print of Guildhall interior, published c.1723-24

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:

Sir Thomas Tyrrell, oil on canvas, c. 1671. Inner Temple Hall Gallery.

Sir Thomas Tyrrell, oil on canvas, c. 1671. Inner Temple Hall Gallery.

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:

Wright's signature on reverse of portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren, 1676, Tate

Wright’s signature on reverse of portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren, 1676, Tate

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:

Fire Judges Coat of Arms from "Brief memoirs of the Judges..." 1791

Arms of Judges from “Brief Memoirs of the Judges…” 1791

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.

16 March 1939, Guildhall Gallery

16 March 1939, Guildhall Gallery

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.

Bomb damage at Guildhall, December 1940

Bomb damage at Guildhall, December 1940

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 kept two of the paintings (Sir Matthew Hale and Sir Hugh Wyndham) presumably because they were in the best condition:

Hale & Wyndham, Guildhall

Hale (left) & Wyndham (right), Guildhall

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 Great Hall, Lincoln's Inn

The Great Hall, Lincoln’s Inn

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.

Portrait of Sir William Wylde, Guildhall Art Gallery

Portrait of Sir William Wylde, Guildhall Art Gallery

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:

  1. Sir John Archer
  2. Sir Edward Atkyns
  3.  Sir Robert Atkyns
  4. Sir Orlando Bridgman
  5. Sir Samuel Brown
  6. Sir William Ellys
  7. Sir Heneage Finch
  8. Sir Matthew Hale
  9. Sir John Kelynge
  10. Sir Timothy Littleton
  11. Sir William Morton
  12. Sir Francis North
  13. Sir Richard Rainsford
  14. Sir Edward Thurland
  15. Sir Christopher Turnor
  16. Sir Edward Turnour
  17. Sir Thomas Twisden
  18. Sir Thomas Tyrrell
  19. Sir John Vaughan
  20. Sir William Wilde
  21. Sir Hugh Wyndham
  22. 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.

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John Michael Wright and John Evelyn: Part 2

“3rd October 1662: Thence went to visite one Mr. Wright, a Scots-man, who had lived long at Rome was esteemed a good Painter. The Pictures of the Judges at Guild-hall are of his hand, and so are some pieces in Whitehall, as the roofe in his Majesties old bedchamber, being Astræa, the St. Catherine, and a Chimney piece in the Queenes privy chamber; but his best, in my opinion, is Lacy, the famous Rossius or comedian, whom he has painted in three dresses, as a gallant, a Presbyterian painter, and a Scotch highlander in his plaid. It is in his Majesties dining room at Windsor: yet (was) this man no good painter; but had at his house an excellent collection, especially that small piece of Correggio, Scotus of de la Marca, a Designe of Paulo; and, above all, those ruines of Polydore, with some good agates and medals, especially a Scipio, and a Cæsar’s head of gold; I return’d this Evening”

This is the second and most detailed entry about Wright in John Evelyn’s diary.  It is three and a half years since the first diary reference (see Part 1) and the world has changed.  Charles II has returned to the throne, making life easier for the catholic Wright who has been hard at work on a number of commissions including some Royal ones.  And now he is about to receive a visit from John Evelyn.

“went to visite one Mr. Wright…”

This time it is Evelyn who visits Wright, which raises the first question. Where did Wright live? Whilst Wright appears to have worked in Whitehall Palace from time to time, having secured a number of Royal Commissions including his striking portrait of the King soon after his coronation, it is unlikely that Evelyn visited him there.  It isn’t clear (to me at least) exactly where Wright was living in 1662.  When Wright returned to England in 1656 we know he gave his accommodation address as with “Mrs Johnston in Weldstreet in the parish of Gyles” and we know that when he died, in 1694, he was living in James Street, Covent Garden so it my be reasonable to suggest he continued to live, like other artists of the time, in the Covent Garden area.  

We do know his address in 1676.  Writing to Lady Gerard about a painting of her grandchild and some missing correspondence he signs off with the following:

“yor hors most obedient                                                                                              and most devoted humble servant                                                           Michaell Wright                                                                                                         Great Queenes Street                                                                                              foure doores from the Lord Chancellor’s”

These details, almost directions for the postman, tell us that Wright was living just north of Covent Garden and close to the Lord Chancellor who at the time was Heneage Finch, 1st Earl of Nottingham (Wright also painted his portrait).  We know that the Lord Chancellor lived at Conway House on Great Queen Street. This House is long demolished but stood near to where the current Freemasons Hall is now.  Hollar’s map of London in 1660 covers this area so we can  surmise that Wright could have been visited by Evelyn when he lived in a house in the south east part of Great Queen Street, somewhere in the area circled below.

Wenceslaus Holler Bird's Eye view of London, detail, 1660

Wenceslaus Hollar Bird’s Eye view of London, detail, 1660

 “a Scots-man…”

Evelyn’s description of Wright as a Scots-man has raised a lot of speculation about his origins.  The Evelyn description is subsequently repeated by other writers although contradictory accounts also exist.  Wright adds to the confusion by referring to himself in different places as “Anglus” or “Scotus”.

We do know that Wright, aged 19,  was apprenticed to the Scottish painter George Jamesone, in Edinburgh, on 6 April 1636.   Wright’s life before 1636 is much less clear.  In the 1950s the author E.K. Waterhouse discovered a baptismal record for Wright.  It describes the baptism of “Mighell Wryghtt” in St Bride’s Fleet Street, London on 25 May 1617.  His father is described as James Wright, tailor.   This does seem to fit with the Edinburgh Register of Apprentices which describe Wright as, “Michaell, son to James W(right), tailor, citizen of London”.

What we don’t know is when and why Wright went to Scotland.  There are a number of theories: his parents were London Scots and returned home;  Wright or his family were escaping plague in London and there is even a suggestion that a priest converted Wright to Catholicism and essentially kidnapped him.

I suspect the answer is the simpler version and that he had Scottish connections, even if he was born in London.  As an exiled Scot living in London I understand why he would refer to himself in different ways depending on the context.  I also suspect that despite his time abroad he may well have been identified by Evelyn and others as a Scot because he had a distinct accent, he sounded like a Scot.

There are two other things worth mentioning in regard to Wright and Scotland.  The first is the suggestion that he returned to Scotland in 1662 (presumably after this diary entry in October) and stayed until 1665.  This theory is based on the fact that his sitters between these dates are Scottish.  I think it is possible he did make this trip although there is no real evidence to support that view.  The theory may also be reinforced by a painting sold recently at auction from this time, attributed to Wright, of a “gentleman” but actually showing a judge of the Court of Session in Edinburgh.  I doubt such a painting would have been done in London.

The second Scottish connection is Wright’s wife.  His wife is perhaps more of a mystery than Wright’s origins.  We don’t even know her name.  She is mentioned once as “related to the most noble and distinguished families in Scotland”.   It has been claimed these aristocratic connections are the reason Wright came to Scotland; how he obtained portrait commissions; why he converted to Catholicism; why he returned to England; why he returned again to Scotland and a host of other things.  Further details of Mrs Wright may emerge in the future but at present she remains a frustratingly elusive figure.

Detail of portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Detail of portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

“who lived long at Rome…”

Wright’s residence in Rome seems to be well known, enough for Evelyn to know about and comment on it.   Wright appears to have spent a decade or so in Rome.  He arrives some time between 1642 and 1644.  There is a portrait, the earliest known by Wright, of Robert Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury which is inscribed as painted in Rome probably around this time.  He then seems to disappear from the records presumably developing his skills although it is surprising that there are not more known paintings from this period.

His studies must have paid off because when he does appear again on the record it is as a newly inducted member of the Academy of St Luke in Rome in 1648.   To put this in context (and to explain why this is surprising) he is the only British painter in the 17th century to achieve this honour and the other foreign painters on the Academy’s roll at the time include Poussin and Velasquez.  Following his membership he appears from time to time in the Academy’s records from 1648 to 1653.

One thing is clear from the Roman years and the membership of the Academy – if Wright hadn’t adopted catholicism before he arrived in Rome by the time he left he had converted.

“was esteemed a good painter…”

This is an interesting reference. Evelyn doesn’t say Wright is a good painter or a bad one but that he – was – esteemed a good painter.  This might simply be a reference to his time abroad or specifically his membership of the Academy of St Luke.  In a later diary entry Evelyn will make a judgment on Wright as a painter but for the time being he is being equivocal.  We don’t know the what paintings of Wright that Evelyn has seen to make his assessment, other than the few he is about to mention…

“The Pictures of the Judges at Guild-hall are of his hand…”

I’m going to return to Wright and the judges in the next post (Part 3).  It is perhaps worth saying now that this line has caused confusion.  The judges in the Guildhall is usually taken to mean the “fire judges” a series of portraits commissioned after the Great Fire of London. But the fire is, of course in 1666, four years after this entry…

“as the roofe in his Majesties old bedchamber, being Astræa…”

This is an unusual painting for Wright and it may be one of the few that have survived other than portraits that give an idea of the possible range of his work.  As Evelyn says, it is painting for a ceiling; an oval on canvas; dating from around 1660 designed for the King’s bedroom at Whitehall.  The scene depicted is Astraea returning to earth.

Astraea returning to earth, oil on canvas. Nottingham City Museums and  Galleries. Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Astraea returning to earth, oil on canvas. Nottingham City Museums and Galleries. Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The subject matter comes from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (a book that Wright seems to have a particular fondness for, owning 4 copies).  In short, Astraea the embodiment of Justice, is the last immortal to leave the earth before it descends into chaos. The return of Astraea is therefore a symbol of a new age.  The scroll in the painting gives us a literal description “Terras Astrea Revisit” .  It is pretty obvious this is a reference to the new golden age brought about by the return of the monarchy.  There are a number of more obscure references especially to the constellations of Virgo, Libra, and for Charles,  Leo.

Detail of Return of Astraea showing portrait of Charles II

Detail of Return of Astraea showing portrait of Charles II

There is also a rather surreal floating tree which is a less mystical reference to the Boscobel oak in which Charles had hidden in after the battle of Worcester.

The most striking thing about the painting is just how influenced it is by the Italian Baroque.  There are of course some Italian influences in the portraits but nowhere as obvious as here.  It has  been pointed out that this shows some similarities to Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome which we know that Wright was familiar with and admired.

The other remarkable thing about this painting is that it has survived at all.  It was, as Evelyn says, in the King’s bedchamber in Whitehall where somehow it avoided the serious fire of 1698, it then goes to Windsor, then to Somerset House then to Radford House in Nottingham.  It is now in Nottingham City Museum and Art Gallery

“the St. Catherine, and a Chimney piece in the Queenes privy chamber…”

The works for the Queen’s privy chamber do not appear to have survived.  St Catherine would have been an attractive subject for Wright since it is associated with his catholic beliefs and of course because of the connection to the Queen’s name, Catherine of Braganza.  Jacob Huysmans, a Dutch catholic, also paints the Queen as Saint Catherine.

“but his best, in my opinion, is Lacy…”

This is a reference to Wright’s multiple portrait of John Lacy the actor.   Lacy is seen in three roles.

John Lacy, actor, by John Michael Wright, The Royal Collection Trust

John Lacy, actor, by John Michael Wright, The Royal Collection Trust

From left to right the roles depicted are: Sauny the Scot (Lacy’s adapted version of The Taming of The Shrew)  Monsieur Device from The Country Chaplain by the Duke of Newcastle and Scruple from The Cheats by John Wilson.

Lacy seems to have specialised in and had considerable success with comic roles. He was a favourite of Pepys, who mentions him in his diary, and with Charles II despite the fact he was also rumoured to have had an affair with Nell Gwyn.

It is, I think, a remarkable painting for the time.  It is an attempt to demonstrate an actor adopting different characters, almost physically changing, but still recognisably the same person.  There are few contemporary works like it and, apart from another single portrait by Wright of the actor Thomas Sydserff, few works by Wright that are quite so informal and insightful.

I agree therefore with Evelyn about the merits of the Lacy portrait. It seems however that Evelyn may have added this opinion later than suggested here.  As mentioned above in regard to the judges, the dates don’t add up.  The diary entry is for 1662 but the role of Sauny the Scot (which may have attracted Wright to the subject) was not performed at the Theatre Royal until 1667.   This looks like another case of Evelyn being smart after the event by adding to his diary years later.

“but had at his house an excellent collection, especially that small piece of Correggio, Scotus of de la Marca, a Designe of Paulo…”

This brings us to another aspect of Wright, his role as a collector and dealer in art and antiquities.  Wright’s interest in dealing and collecting emerges as early as his time in Rome in the 1640s.  Hearne says, “He made himself known to the most celebrated Antiquaries in Rome, who had a respect for him and were very ready and willing to communicate their knowledge to him.”

Richard Symonds, an English amateur painter met Wright in Rome where they talked about painting techniques.  Symonds also listed some of Wright’s collection. The list includes works by Titian, Corriggio, Raphael and Caraccio.

When Wright left Rome he went to work for the Archduke Leopold, governor of the Spanish Netherlands.  What is surprising is that he doesn’t appear to have been engaged as  a painter but as an antiquary; although there is no real documentary evidence about his time in Flanders.  When he leaves Flanders to visit England he may have come to purchase some of Charles I’s pictures being sold by Cromwell.

After the restoration and back in England, he secures the King’s permission to hold a lottery to raise funds.  The lottery takes place some time after 1662 because Evelyn refers to a painting of Duns Scotus in Wright’s collection but we know this was part of the lottery and won by the King himself.  It seems the King secured some 14 paintings from Wright’s collection in the lottery including works attributed to Tinteretto and Caravaggio.

Some twenty years later Wright holds a sale to pay for a diplomatic trip he is going to make as part of the delegation led by the Earl of Castlemaine to the Pope.  The advert for the sale suggests that Wright had continued to collect and trade in art:

‘his Collections of Paintings, and Pictures both Ancient and Modern. With several Drawings, or Designs of the most Famous Italian Masters; Prints, Plaisters, & Wax-Figures; Books of Painting, Architecture, Perspective, Opticks, &c. Antick-Seals, and Choice Colours, as Ultra-marine, Lake, &c.’

“…with some good agates and medals, especially a Scipio, and a Cæsar’s head of gold”

Wright’s collecting and dealing didn’t stop at paintings.  He seems to have also collected, gems and minerals, shells, coins, medals and other antiquities.  He also had a substantial collection of books.   Vertue tells us that: “Wright’s gems and coins were later bought by Sir Hans Sloane.”

At the end of this entry in Evelyn’s diary out is worth briefly mentioning the next entry the mentions Wright since it concerns the same subject.

“6 May 1664: Went to see Mr Write the Painters Collection of rare shells etc: returned.”

Evelyn given his interest in natural history would perhaps be more interested in shells than in paintings which this time he doesn’t mention at all.

When Wright died in 1694 a sale was held of his possessions and studio contents.  The newspaper advert in the London Gazette of 28 May 1694 perhaps best sums up his years of collecting:

“Mr. Wright’s Curious Collection of Books of Medals[,] Architecture and Antiquities, &c. in Lat. Ital. Fr. and English, and his fine Collection of Gemmae Basildianae[,] Gemmae Gladiatorae, and Antique Seals Collected by him in his several years Travels: Also a valuable Collection of Prints and Drawings, by the best Italian[,] Fr[ench]. And Flemish Masters, will be sold by Auction at the said Mr. Wrights House next the Blew Ball in James-street, Covent-Garden, June the 4th, at 3 in the afternoon. Catalogues may be had at Mr. Notts in the Pall-Mall, Toms Coffee-House near Ludgate, Batsons at the Royal Exchange, and at the place of Sale.”


This post was informed by a number of articles and websites but primarily by the incredibly helpful and still only comprehensive publication on Wright: “John Michael Wright: The King’s Painter” a catalogue of the exhibition in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1982 by Sara Stevenson and Duncan Thomson.

I’m also grateful to Nick Poyntz, a real historian of 17th Century England, for pointing out that Wright’s house would appear in Hollar’s map of London.  His excellent  blog is called “Mercurius Politicus“.


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John Michael Wright and John Evelyn: Part 1


(Evelyn’s manuscript diary, image (c) British Library)

John Evelyn mentions the painter John Michael Wright just 4 times in his voluminous diaries but these short references remain an important source of information on the painter. The next few posts are meant to annotate the entries and illustrate some of the strange details of the painter’s life…

“5th April 1659: Came the Earle of Northampton and the famous Painter, Mr. Write, to visit me.”

Wright had returned to England three years earlier, in 1656, after more than a decade on the continent, mainly in Rome and the Netherlands.  It isn’t clear why the Earl of Northampton (James Compton, the 3rd Earl) is visiting Evelyn. There are no other clues in the diary since the Earl gets just one more passing and minor reference.  It is even more intriguing to know why the Earl is in the company of Wright.  There is, as far as I know, no identified portrait of James Compton by Wright; although there is one by William Dobson.

It is also worth noting that Evelyn calls Wright the “famous” painter.  That is surprising given that we now associate Wright with his work in the court of Charles II and the restoration is still a year away.  Evelyn may of course have known Wright from his own travels to Italy and France and particularly from his time in Rome.  There is however no mention of Wright in the diary from that time.

This “fame” may be a reference to the work Wright had completed on his return to England.  A year earlier from the diary entry, in 1658, Wright had painted a portrait of Elizabeth Claypole, Oliver Cromwell’s daughter (now in NPG).  This is also surprising since Wright is a Roman Catholic and no fan of the Protectorate.   Wright however is a canny operator and in the year of this entry, he also paints Colonel John Russell (now in Ham House) a Royalist who is conspiring to restore Charles to the throne.

Finally, on this one line entry, a brief mention of the spelling of the painter’s name.  Evelyn uses Write rather than Wright but spelling is of course inconsistent generally at this time and Wright himself using different spellings of his name as well as  throwing in versions in Latin and Italian.  The most bizarre is the one used in (what may be) his baptismal record, dated May 25, 1617 where the name is “Mighell Wryghtt” but we will come back to his origins and nationality in another post…

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Modigliani & Meidner: Part 2 A Portrait

We know from Ludwig Meidner’s memoirs that Modigliani painted and drew Meidner on several occasions. Meidner in particular refers to two oil portraits by his friend, one of which was entitled “portrait of LM” and was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1907. 

Meidner records that the “LM” painting went unnoticed at the time. It seems likely that the painting was not sold and, as was Modigliani’s practice at the time, it may well have been painted over. There is no obvious candidate for the other oil portrait amongst known Modiglianis, so no current record of either of the portrait oils exists. Perhaps one day one will emerge from an attic of a Montmartre bakery.

The lack of drawings is more of a mystery. Both Meidner and Modigliani are known to have constantly sketched portraits of friends, fellow artists, writers and musicians and even strangers who just happened to be sitting in the same cafe. Modigliani is renowned at this time for simply giving away these drawings to the sitters or anyone else who requested them.  Newly discovered Modigliani drawings do continue to emerge. Similarly, Meidner’s drawings, many carried out in Berlin cafes, amount to a who’s who of expressionist and Dada art and literature. Between them they amassed a large number of portrait sketches. But none of those drawings has been identified to be portraits of each other.

The lack of a Meidner portrait of Modigliani is however not so surprising. We have Modi’s portraits of, for example, Picasso, Kisling and Soutine, but not one single portrait of Modigliani by any of his artist friends. He simply did not sit for other artists. In keeping with that there is no known portrait of Modigliani by Meidner.

On the other hand, a portrait of Meidner by Modigliani would not be unusual. In fact Meidner records being drawn by Modigliani in 1906. So have these drawings, like the portrait in oils, simply disappeared? A quick search through the Modigliani catalogues does not list a portrait of Meidner but I believe they are there, two of them at least.


Modigliani – “Tables Turned or Portrait of a Medium” and “Woman at a Seance”

The first is a portrait of a man with splayed hands, entitled, by Modigliani himself, as “Tables Turned” and which is also known as “Portrait of a Medium”.  It is accompanied by a drawing entitled “Woman at a Seance”. These drawings, from the “Unknown Modigliani” collection of Paul Alexandre are dated around 1906 (at the time Meidner was in Paris).  For those only familiar with the photographs or self-portraits of the older Meidner (the small, bald man) the similarity with the “portrait of a medium” is not immediately obvious.  But comparisons with earlier photographs and, even more revealing, with Meidner’s own early self portraits produces a striking and unmissable resemblance.

The distinctive ears seen in virtually every Meidner self-portrait are here in the Modigliani drawing. The hair, the moustache and the raised eyebrows of Meidner’s own self-portrait oil sketch of 1909 are mirrored in the Modigliani.


Meidner’s self-portrait of 1909 (left) and Modigliani’s “tables turned” of c1906 (right)

In Modigliani’s sketchbook of 1906-07 there are two sketches of a male and female. Although faded, some enhancement of the colours reveals what look to be sketches for the seance drawings. The subjects are certainly similar to the finished seance pictures and again we see what appears to be the distinctive features of the young Meidner.

from Modigliani's sketchbook (enhanced)

from Modigliani’s sketchbook (enhanced)

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Modigliani & Meidner Part 1: A Parisian Photograph

This is a post about a photograph.  A photograph that isn’t often published and, I believe, up to now hasn’t identified all of the main people sitting around a table outside a Montmartre cabaret in the early years of the twentieth century.  But before we get to that, we need some context. 

The artists Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) both arrived in Paris in 1906. Meidner, writing nearly forty years later, remembers their first meeting:

We met in the autumn of 1906 in the semi-darkness of a bohemian restaurant on the Butte de Montmartre – the unforgettable “Lapin Agile”…for four sous one could sit here drinking strong coffee, and hotly discuss art subjects until the morning broke.

The Lapin Agile, Montmartre, Paris

The Lapin Agile, Montmartre, Paris

Meidner seems to have been ambivalent about Paris. In a letter to Franz Landsberger in January 1907 he complains:

“I live here in Montmartre (a place world-renowned for its sloppiness and lack of cleanliness), but this decaying “cultural” milieu I find in my heart to be distasteful…Paris (like France in general) borders on sickliness. What makes Paris important are the monuments to the past. Today the French are no longer productive…Berlin – how different! Berlin is a struggling, earnest, burgeoning city…Berlin has become the world’s intellectual and moral capital.”

He would later call the nightlife of Paris the world “of artists, mystics, criminals, dope-addicts and poets”. It isn’t clear if that was meant to be a compliment or criticism.

Meidner was disappointed by the routine of the Corman and Julien Academies which he had gone to Paris to attend. But not everything in Paris was a disappointment. The paintings of the Louvre left him awe-struck. The Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Fauves all excited him. Later in life he would consign most French art to hell but even as late as 1919 he would, in his memoir “Mein Leben”, refer to Manet as “the greatest of the great” and to Paris as his “true homeland”.

Meidner’s friendship with Modigliani may seem surprising since stylistically the two artists have very little in common.  But Meidner and Modigliani were more similar than appears at first glance. They were the same age, they were both Jewish, both committed to a life in art and both seeking to become artists in Paris.

Meidner was a privileged friend of Modigliani, he was one of the few that Modigliani allowed in his studio while he painted.  (In the second post I’ll talk about Modigliani’s portrait of Meidner.)

Their friendship was however short-lived. In the summer of 1907 Meidner was ordered to return to Berlin to take his physical exam for military service (which he fails). As a favour he took with him a number of small portraits by Modi hoping to sell them in Berlin. None were sold. There are some surviving postcards from Modigliani from this time:

Modi's postcard to MeidnerMeidner Modi postcard 1907

And so we return to that photograph.  Here it is:

The Lapin Agile

The Lapin Agile, Montmartre, Paris c1906-07

This photograph occasionally appears in books about art in Montmartre although it is never credited.  It isn’t clear who took the photograph or when.  It shows a group of men sitting around a table outside the Montmartre cabaret “The Lapin Agile”.  The small venue was a popular spot with artists and writers at the time including Picasso, Utrillo and Apollinaire.

There are two men standing behind the table. On the left is a 22 year old Modigliani and on the right is white bearded “Pere Frede”.  Frede was the well-known manager of the Lapin Agile; you can see him playing guitar in Picasso’s picture of the interior of the club.

None of the other people around the table have been identified, but for me, there is another significant artist in that group.  The man in the hat with the moustache sitting on the bench to the right of the photograph may not look familiar.

Lapin Agile group, detail

Lapin Agile group, detail

He doesn’t look much like an artist but that, I’m sure, is the young Ludwig Meidner.  I suspect most people miss this identification because those looking at photographs of Paris in 1907 tend not to be interested in German Expressionist painters.  Even if they are, they are unlikely to recognise the young Meidner who looks very little like the more familiar round-faced, bald man of his later years.   A comparison with early photographs and self-portraits (see part 2) leaves little doubt that this is Meidner.

Meidner, self-portrait, c1910

Meidner, self-portrait, c1910

This is a photograph then, the only one in existence, that captures a fleeting friendship of two artists about to go on very divergent courses.   It is why I have a particular fascination with this photograph and that bench outside the Lapin Agile.


The Lapin Agile is still there, on the corner of the Rue St Vincent pretty much as it was in 1906, and so is the bench…

The Lapin Agile, February, 2014

The Lapin Agile, February, 2014

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William Orpen and The Peachlets

William Orpen, self portrait in hospital pyjamas

William Orpen, self portrait in hospital pyjamas

In 1917 William Orpen went to the Western Front as an official war artist.  The small self portrait sketch above comes from a letter he wrote to Philip Sasoon (private secretary to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and cousin of the poet Siegfried).   The text of the letter is illuminating because it reveals something that until recently biographers of Orpen had failed to spot or chose not to reveal.  The text of the letter reads:

                                      42nd Stationary Hospital   (Officers Branch)

My dear Philip

It is very sad, is it not. ?

Here am I totally isolated

a blot on the pure world.

Orps the unclean

What will happen to the Peach?

and all the other Peachlets?

it is truly very sad.

I’m afraid I’m here for 8 or 9 days.

Don’t be afraid of this letter

nothing leaves the room before it is

submitted to 230 degrees of heat!

How can I go back to Cassel?

I suppose they are all in Hospital [together]

The Poor Peaches –

My isolated ward pyjamas

do not fit me – ah! ah!

Could I be more wretched

[yours ever] Orps

So why is Orpen in hospital and who are the peach and the peachlets?

Orpen himself told various stories of why he was in hospital in 1917.  He says, in his book “An Onlooker in France” that he was thought to have lice, and then scabies and then blood poisoning.  Bruce Arnold, Orpen’s biographer,  repeats these explanations but more recently Robert Upstone (in his catalogue for the exhibition William Orpen: Politics , Sex and death”, 2005 and in the annotated version of “An Onlooker…”, 2008) has provided evidence, again in an illustrated letter, of an alternative explanation.  In short, Orpen did not suffer from blood poisoning as he claimed but from the symptoms of syphilis.

Which brings us to the The Peach.  When he went to France Orpen was a frequent visitor to the Hotel Du Sauvage in Cassel (Orpen’s painting of its courtyard is in the Imperial War Museum).  The hotel offered not only accommodation but food, entertainment and probably acted as a brothel.  The hotel was owned by  Madame Loorius with her two daughters Suzanne and Blanche. Suzanne was known as “The Peach”. The girls of the Hotel Sauvage were therefore the “peachlets”.



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