Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C, Portraits: British 19th C 19 Is the artist identifiable and can this portrait be dated better than c.1780?

Reverend Thomas Thirlwall of Bowers Gifford
Topic: Subject or sitter

The sitter was curate of St Dunstan's, Stepney, from 1790 to 1814 before becoming vicar of Bowers Gifford, and from about 1800 a well-known London preacher/religious writer, public moralist and Middlesex JP (1811).

Thirlwall was born at Darlington as fourth child and youngest of three sons of an Excise officer called John Thirlwall and was baptised there on 14 March 1764. That is most likely to have been his year of birth, probably in January/ early February, but I suppose one should strictly note it as '1763/1764'.

We can be sure that when he died at Bowers Gifford, Essex, in March 1827 he was 63, although enquiry there has yielded no trace of burial or other monument.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

19 comments

P.S: rector (not vicar) of Bowers Gifford.

This enquiry follows up a lot of prior digging around, the genealogical element largely by Osmund Bullock (to whom I am most grateful), to help me clarify the sitter's date of birth for reasons unrelated to Art UK.

Thirlwall was subject of an informative obituary in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' (reprinted in the 'Annual Biography and Obituary') but one that lacks it and also misleads in other ways. The attached 'life' is still open to minor adjustments but sorts out the main misdirections.

Osmund's discoveries notably include that the sitter's more famous son Bishop 'Newell' Connop Thirlwall (d.1875) was not baptised Newell at all: the name seems to have become wrongly attached to him only 'post-mortem' and broadly accepted due to confusions that ensnared the original compilers of DNB as well as the 'Gents Mag'.

My own shot at the portrait date would be around 1810 but someone better at dress may be able to improve on that: the current collection record's c.1780 is certainly adrift. It was presented in 1952 by a 'firm' not an individual: if solicitors that might indicate as from a family source, but if there is any paperwork it is unlikely to identify artist since the collection record (though only audit level) looks thorough.

I'm not hopeful we can suggest an artist but if one doesn't ask....

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Jacinto Regalado,

I think the hair or wig is probably earlier than 1810, but Lou Taylor should address the matter of dress and hair as to date.

Jacinto Regalado,

The artist is obviously not a front-rank portraitist and the picture looks like provincial work.

Christopher Foley,

Pieter, As you surmise, the style of the portrait looks too generic to hold out much hope of an attribution on stylistic grounds. You are correct that the suggested dating of c.1780 is clearly wrong - it must be a couple of decades later from the apparent age of the sitter, assuming the sitter is correctly identified. Have you checked the extensive correspondence which is held at the Bodleian of his brilliant but cantankerous son Bishop Connop Thirwall (1797-1875) ?

Messrs Livingstone, Wood & Clark, the donors of the portrait, were indeed solicitors as an internet search confirms. I do not find the c.1780 date a silly suggestion while acknowledging that male costume can be conservative and so misleading to date. We should at least ask whether the portrait really is the Rev. Thomas Thirlwall of Bowers Gifford (1764–1827). The portrait is by a minor hand whose identity I fear will be elusive.

Osmund Bullock,

I have indeed been ploughing through Connop Thirlwall's correspondence, Christopher, and also that of Henry Percy, Bishop of Dromore with whom there is an earlier connection - Thirlwall seems to have been some sort of curate to Percy, though exactly when is uncertain; and certainly Percy assisted Thirlwall with research for a biography he was preparing c.1807 (though it was never published). In fact it's possible (though as yet unproven) that Percy was related to Thirlwall. This and much else I am in the process of collating for Pieter, some of which will require changes and additions to the biography he has attached.

I believe, on balance, the date is likely to be c.1800-10; the clothing looks to me typical of low-church (and indeed non-conformist) ministers of the early C19th, but a more expert view would as ever be most welcome. The slightly misleading grey wig may in fact have been his own hair - but it is worth noting that higher-church Anglican clerics clung to their wigs (albeit usually of a different, more formal type) for a good while after they had passed out of fashion in the wider populace. In truth I wouldn't rule out dates both before and after the 1800-10 span, but the sitter's apparent age suggests later is less likely.

One other, perhaps very significant pointer to date which I am only just beginning to explore is the ring that Thirlwall is displaying. I believe this is a mourning ring, and its prominence suggests the recent death of someone important to him. His wife Susanna outlived him; his father John had died in 1776 which is too early, his mother Elizabeth in 1819, probably too late, his brother Liddel in 1823, even more so. Other siblings did not go until much later...except possibly his youngest sister Ann, who in 1793 had married William Hopps in London - I'm still trying to find her death. But one other possibility, I now realize, is his infant third son Richard, who died in 1796 - that of course takes us a fair bit earlier...but maybe rightly so?

I have also figured out the probable pathway by which the portrait came to be presented to the NLW by a firm of Worcestershire solicitors (https://bit.ly/3soGrmq), but that will have to wait as I can't find my notes at the moment!

Jacinto Regalado,

I expect 1796 is closer to the mark than 1810, Osmund, but let us see what Lou Taylor has to say.

As we now know Osmund, in 1796 Thirlwall would have been 32, which is at least more likely than the 16 he was in 'c.1780' and he could of course have worn a mourning ring for his deceased infants on both longer in terms if habit or especially for his portrait, since they could just be worn on suitable occasions (and having one painted is certainly that). The books under his right elbow are conventional attributes in a clerical or scholarly portrait but the fact there are two rather than just one obvious Bible, suggests it may have ben done when he was into his various 'editions' which is after 1800.

I would be surprised if it wasn't Thirlwall. It's a modest portrait in itself as regards maker, its too early to be his eldest son the Revd Thomas W., the figure is too young to be his fictionally reverend father 'Thomas' (i.e the Revd Stephen Thurlwell, 1751-1808) and he's not someone there was any reason for someone later to pretend him to be.

Like the elderly and infirm Admiral Clark Gayton (cf. his portrait by Copley), this has become skirmish in which 'I cannot stand by you, but will sit and watch you fight as long as you please' and of course adjust the 'potted bio' as necessary when that becomes clear.

Osmund Bullock,

Thomas Thirlwall's elusive final sister, Ann Hopps, is found: she was buried at Brighton on 16 Sep 1835, her husband William following her four months later - and it is definitely her, not a namesake. So the deaths of none of Thomas's five siblings can be relevant, as only one died in his lifetime, his elder brother Liddle* (1761-1823). [*the spelling he used, although actually christened Liddel.]

I can't find any definitive statements about how long mourning rings were worn for, or if they were likely to be brought out again later on special occasions. But my feeling is still (pace Pieter) that the prominence given to it in his pose means it was recent. And the three books - two leaning on the shelf and one on the table - don't particularly suggest to me a set that he was responsible for: would he be leaning his elbow on the foreground one like that if it were significant, and would the spine and title not be showing? I do think they are just the generic attributes of scholarship. Nevertheless, could we see a higher-res close-up of the background book spine(s) just in case..and also, please, one of the ring/hand? It's odd-looking even for a mourning ring, and I've read in several places that the normal convention where the commemorated person was unmarried was white enamel, not black...but perhaps it was different for an infant (Richard was only 4 months old when he died in Feb 1796).

On reflection I am moving towards the end of the C18th on costume grounds as well - I had failed to notice the lacey jabot / shirt front, which I think must push things back a bit.

I've found my missing notes, and will write up the probable link between the Thirlwall family and Messrs Wood, Livingstone & Clark later today.

My comment on occasional use of mourning rings is based on a line in a letter from Dr Joseph Denman - an able and respected Derbyshire physician - to his nephew Thomas Denman Ledward, two months before the latter was recruited by William Bligh as (unofficial) surgeon's mate of the 'Bounty' in December 1787. Ledward's elder brother John - whom he had rarely seen because John was raised largely in Joseph's care while he had been in that of his other uncle, Dr Thomas Denman in London - died unexpectedly (probably at Buxton) in October/ November 1784.

In October 1787, just before Ledward took up his first and very brief posting (only a few weeks) as surgeon's mate in the frigate 'Nymph' at Portsmouth, Joseph wrote him an admirable letter of advice in which a concluding line reads: 'There is a Mourning Ring for your Brother, which I will take care to transmit to you [at] the first opportunity; and which I would wish you to wear always on proper occasions.' I interpret that as 'consistently, when the circumstances are appropriate': this was three years after John died and there is no reason to think Dr Denman's request did not reflect frequent if not universal practice.

Whether Ledward ever got it is unknown, though appreciative: 'I should be very happy to have a mourning ring of my Brother’s; for the love I bore him and the loss I have experienced by his death, will ever be fresh in my remembrance. ' He survived the 'Bounty' saga only to drown when the Dutch ship in which he left Batavia (Jakarta) for home in 1789 vanished with all hands in the Indian Ocean. I published the letters in a piece on Ledward in the 'Mariners Mirror' (vol 104, no. 4) in 2018.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

About the clothes in this portrait which you can see more clearly if the shadows are lightened. This shows that this man is in extremely plain and not fashionable clothes- a woollen suit, with largish collar and revers, long cuffs, matching waistcoat, very plain cravat, plain powdered wig with (unseen) queue. It could be he has a mourning ring on the pinky of his left hand- these were given away/bequeathed within well-off families.
I would date this to c 1790...outside dates would be 1785 to 1795. (I include Joseph Wright of Derby's portrait of Sir Brook Boothby by 1781 which has the same style of collar and revers However he was a very fashionable member of young London intellectual society- and is very fashionable here in his English country style tailored suit.) I also include a portrait by Tilly Kettle (died 1786) of "A gentleman with a lurcher,' dated by Daniel Hunt Fine Art to 1785. By 1795, the clothes in the portrait we are looking at would be old fashioned, as the cut of the front of coats had altered by then, if one was fashionable.
I hope my images will help here.

Thanks for that judgement Lou. Allowing Thirlwall perhaps not being fashionable (he otherwise seems to have been a moralising Anglican puritan) and that his infant third son died in 1796 (when he was 32) to justify the ring thereafter, would you agree that c. 1797 as a reasonable earliest estimate? The features don't contradict an age of about 33 or not much older if we accept before 1800.

Louis Musgrove,

Just a general observation about dating. At this time a Curate was always very poor, a Vicar was a slightly better off employed substitute, but a Rector had the Living. So I would suggest this portrait be 1814 when Thirwall would have had a big boost in his money,and something to commemorate.
When I first looked at this portrait I thought it was a man about 50 years old. Two days later I still think so-which again would give 1814.
BTW. Could the Mourning ring be made of Hair,? which would account for it's slightly odd appearance.

While that's a fair general observation on curates etc., I doubt it applies in Thirlwall's case. He seems to have been one of a family with good business sense and himself a self-promoter in his own line as able 'Lecturer' of St Dunstan's - which at that time was a specific church role paid by parish contributions - as well as a preacher elsewhere (and publisher of his own sermons and other pamphlets). His marriage in 1792 was also to a widow of 'good fortune' which probably helped. That does not mean he was rich but - given that Lou Taylor has already said the cut of his coat would be getting out of fashion by 1795 - I don't think the general poverty of curates is an argument for saying he would only have been able to afford this (fairly modest) portrait from 1814. If his ring is a mourning one - and perhaps most unusual in that it looks facetted and probably octagonal externally- I think one has to accept that the visual evidence favours between 1797, i.e after his infant third son died in 1796, and 1800. If he was impervious to fashion and always wore the ring, it might be later, but it's not what the image appears to be telling us.

Jacinto Regalado,

Being unconcerned about fashion is not the same as being conspicuously out of it, which would attract notice and not of the most favorable kind. Thirlwall was not a recluse but a kind of public figure who had to face an audience, albeit a local one. That alone would seem to preclude being too eccentric in appearance.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I honestly do not think that this portrait is as late as 1814 and I would even say that 1797 seems a bit late. And I agree exactly with Jacinto's comments.

In that case it hangs on the ring being for mourning, and who for: if its his son's death in 1796 then c.1796/7 it is, but it has to remain an opinion not a fact. I also agree he is likely to have been conventional , including to being painted in the best and most up-to-date dress that he had. But have the clergy ever been rapidly dedicated followers of fashion? I doubt anyone in a 'uniform' (except possibly private army regiments of Thelwall's day) ever has: changes in naval uniform, for example, were usually 'catch-up' exercises on civilian style.

The collection has at least now heard the arguments and can make up its own mind when this concludes.

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