The Swordsman Revealed: An Update

In my earlier post “A Victorian Fencing Master: or, can you help me identify this painting?” I sought help on an attribution for this painting:

2013-06-29 11.01.41

A couple of people were kind enough to read the blog and tell me that they thought the subject probably was the fencing master Henry Angelo and were more confident than I was that the sketch of him in the National Portrait Gallery was consistent with the portrait.

But James Mulraine (who is an expert in identifying portraits – see his excellent website here) went one better and pointed me to the fact that C.R. Leslie had exhibited a portrait of Henry Angelo at the Royal Academy in 1843.

There is a lesson (or two) to be learnt here.  One thing I had done was check the Royal Academy Exhibition listings – you can find them online – but my first mistake was to, stupidly, start looking from 1845 because I’d become fixated on that date.  (This sometimes happens in police inquiries where one supposedly “known” fact derails or distracts the investigation.) But James was of course right and there in the RA Exhibition catalogue for 1843 is this entry:

East Room:

No. 179 Portrait of Henry Angelo Esq.         C.R. Leslie, R.A.

Now I had never considered C.R. Leslie as a possible contender for the artist, first because I have barely heard of him and second because the one thing I did know was that he painted literary scenes from Shakespeare. I didn’t have him down therefore as a portrait painter: my second mistake.

Before I turn to the Leslie’s biography I should say that a reference to a RA Exhibition listing wouldn’t be enough to convince me this was the same painting.  But the RA annual exhibition, then as now, was an event.  People commented on it, reviewed it, criticised and gossiped about it and 1843 was no exception.  In “The Art-Union: A Monthly Journal of Fine Arts”,  there is a review of the 1843 RA show which comments on individual exhibits. No 179 gets a not entirely favourable mention:

The Art Journal, Supplementary Number, June 1, 1843, page 165

The Art Journal, Supplementary Number, June 1, 1843, page 165

I probably agree with the criticism that the work is “kept” (as in controlled or in good condition) apart from the head, however I ignored the “too great prevalence of cold tints” because the exciting thing is that the description exactly matches the painting.  The one thing that had always been a problem in linking this painting to other artists – the fact that for a three-quarter length portrait it is quite small at only 60cm tall – turns out to be a helpful identifier.

The identification with Leslie as the artist is also consistent with the T. Brown suppliers mark on the back of the canvas.  Leslie is listed as one of the artists who used Brown’s canvases; his self-portrait in the NPG is one example.  My third mistake.

I’ll come to my fourth mistake in a minute but first a brief mention of the life and career of C.R. Leslie.

C.R. Leslie RA c1850

C.R. Leslie, RA c1850

Charles Robert Leslie was born in London in 1794 to American parents.  From time to time people try to claim him as an American artist and although he spent his childhood in Philadelphia he seems to have considered his home as England.  He arrives in London aged 17 to attend the Royal Academy schools were he wins various prizes.  He is known for cabinet pictures or representations of literary scenes, much like David Wilkie’s.  (As James Mulraine also points out; in a print of Leslie’s painting “Charles Dickens as Captain Bobadil” in the V&A there is a very prominent and detailed sword).

I hadn’t however realised that he also produced a number of formal portraits which he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy.  He became ARA in 1821 and a full RA in 1826.  He is also quite a distinguished author having published a book on Reynolds (which I have – so that probably counts as mistake no. 5) and in 1843, the year of our painting, his “Memoirs of the Life of John Constable” which is still a valuable source on the artist.  He also publishes (posthumously) his own “Autobiographical Recollections” in 1860.

In 1833 he left England to return to America to become a teacher at the US military academy at West Point.  This may seem surprising that a military academy would have a drawing teacher but anyone who has read about the life of James McNeill Whistler will know he attended the academy where drawing was considered important, albeit because it related to map making and battlefield reports.  There is a further connection between Leslie and Whistler because later, back in London, the young Whistler attended Leslie’s lectures on art at the Royal Academy.  I know this because not long ago I read Daniel E. Sutherland’s book “Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake” where the lectures, published in The Athenaeum magazine, are mentioned. Had I read all the footnotes to that book I would have spotted that a quote from Leslie  about “the great and unceasing” difficulty facing artists came from a letter he wrote to one Henry Angelo, Esq. on 4th February 1848.  That letter is now in the archive of the Art Institute of Chicago (Box .FF 6.49). So I had on my bookshelf, just yards from the painting, a link between the artist and Henry Angelo.  That was my fourth mistake.

I could mention some other errors: I failed to notice that there are two editions of Henry Angelo Snr’s book of Reminiscences.  The edition I hadn’t looked at has an engraving of Henry Snr (from a portrait by W Childe) which has a striking family resemblance to his son.

Angelo book title page

So, thanks to a very helpful tip-off and the magic that is the internet, I have managed to fill in the key details of the painting that hangs in my hall.  There are still some things I want to do – follow up on correspondence for example – but I feel confident that I can now label this picture:

Henry Angelo Esq, by C.R. Leslie R.A., exhibited 1843

Henry Angelo Esq, by C.R. Leslie R.A., exhibited 1843

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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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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  

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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