Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C, South East England: Artists and Subjects 46 Is this actually a double portrait of Mawdistly Best’s father and uncle, Thomas and James Best?

Topic: Subject or sitter

The subjects currently named were not born before the artist's death. Either the sitters are wrongly named or the painting has been incorrectly attributed.

Harry Best-Shaw, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The title has been updated from ‘Mawdistly Best and His Brother Outside Rochester Cathedral’ to ‘Two Brothers of the Best Family, perhaps William Mawdistly Best (1809–1869) and James John Best (1811–1844)’. The date has been narrowed down from c.1800 to 1808–1820. ‘Attributed to John Opie’ has been changed to ‘British School’.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


The Collection has added: ‘It has been suggested that the sitters may be Mawdisty's father and uncle, Thomas and James Best. More information on the sitters would be useful.’

Christopher Foley,

There is no sitter called Best listed in John Jope Rogers' "Catalogue of 760 pictures by John Opie RA" (1878) which is unusually reliable for its date; nor does Ada Earland list any such in "John Opie and his circle" (1911). A letter quoted by her from Miss Brightwell's "Memorials of Amelia Opie"(1854) refers to an ALS from the artist saying "A Mr Best called on Saturday, and said he meant to be or have somebody painted, but I have heard no more". No portrait of a sitters of this name is listed in the RA Catalogues.

Opie tends to be something of an attributional catch-all for doubtful portraits of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Do the costumes suggest a date for the picture?
I would be more inclined to doubt the attribution to Opie than the identity of the sitters.

The painting is only 'attributed' at Maidstone.

Jacinto Regalado,

It would be helpful to have Lou Taylor date the picture based on the older boy's dress.

Osmund Bullock,

Getting the subject's name wrong is not the ideal start to a new discussion. The name is 'MawdistLy' with an 'L' (occasionally found as 'Mawdistley'); for some reason either Art UK or Maidstone got it wrong in the listing, and it's wrong on this other one too The latter error was actually pointed out 2½ years ago in the other Best discussion (27/07/2018 04:03), and the correct word has been used in the thread there 25 times so far. It's time we got it right. [Ed: thank you, this has been corrected]

By Mawdistly Best I assume we are talking of William Mawdistly Best (1809-1869) and his younger brother James John Best (1811-1844). It is suggested instead that we are looking at their father Capt Thomas Best (1783-1813) and his elder brother James Best (1781-1849) of Park House, Boxley. See Burke's Landed Gentry here

Osmund Bullock,

Guessing that the elder boy in the portrait is around 12-14 years old, the younger about 10-12, the question is, are we looking at a date for it of c.1821-3 or c.1793-5? I would think early 1820s, if only because the 1790s seems too early for trousers - but perhaps children wore them at an earlier date. I think we must as ever look to Lou for advice on this one.

There is actually another Mawdistly Best in the next generation, Mawdistly Gaussen Best (b.1826) also of Park House, second son and heir of James above. This Mawdistly's elder brother James was born in 1822, but pre-deceased his father in 1845. However I think that possible pairing must be too late, as the painting's date would have to be in the mid-1830s, and the boys around 4 years apart in age.

Jacinto Regalado,

They look younger to me, Osmund, but I agree this is more likely to be c. 1820 than 1790s, which would obviously exclude Opie.

Osmund Bullock,

By way of a most interesting comparison, here are two cricketing brothers of (a bit surprisingly) 6 & 11 years old in a triple portrait of 1793 by Thos Beach, and indeed they are wearing breeches, not trousers, and furthermore their hair is much longer. The open frilly collar as worn by our younger sitter is much the same, however.

Jacinto Regalado,

Great minds think alike and all that, Osmund. Our boys look younger than the Pole boys, by the way.

Osmund Bullock,


I don't think the elder one of ours is much younger, Jacinto, or I doubt he would be wearing essentially adult clothing.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think the Best boys (if so they are) could be 6 and 8.

Jacinto Regalado,

Beechey comes to mind, but this may be a bit too harsh for him.

Osmund Bullock,

I rather think the Pole boys have had their age upped a bit by the artist to demonstrate their maturity and suitability for membership of the ruling class. It's quite a common feature, and the posher the child is the more adult they tend to be portrayed. The habit only dropped away gradually during the C19th, as childhood became more celebrated.

Jacinto Regalado,

I agree about the Pole boys, Osmund, but the same argument could apply to the Best boys.

Osmund Bullock,

It could, but I really don't think an eight year-old would be shown with a high wing collar and full 'choker'-wrapped cravat and big bow. I hope someone can find the portrait exhibited at the RA or somewhere, I'd love to know who's right!

Martin Hopkinson,

is the interesting building and its architect securely identifiable? presumably Park House, Boxley? demolished in the 1950s
Medway Archives Centre have papers relating to it and the family's brewing business. The Best family owned it from 1720

Martin Hopkinson,

Chilston Park, Lenham under the Downs was also a Best property until 11819

Martin Hopkinson,

Kent Library and Archives Centre have papers for the Chilston Estate

Martin Hopkinson,

If we do not yet have dates for the sitters, perhaps we should have an opinion from a costume specialist?

Jacinto Regalado,

Martin, I believe the building is Rochester Cathedral, as per the title.

Martin Hopkinson,

but does it really look like that cathedral? Was there ever a cricket ground near the cathedral?

Tim Williams,

I don't think the architecture fits for Rochester either, looks more like Eton College chapel.

Tim Williams,

Rochester only has one small section of crenellations. This building has four between every buttress.

Martin Hopkinson,

Eton of course has long been involved with cricket. Did any of the Best family attend the school, and do any of them feature in the College's collection of leaving portraits?
Dulwich Picture Gallery held an exhibition ot [some of ?] the leaving portraits in 1991

Martin Hopkinson,

so could the boys be their grandsons, Thomas and James?

Osmund Bullock,

Their eldest two sons Thomas (b.1753) & James (b.1755) are much too early to be our sitters; even their younger brothers, Richard, John & George (b. between 1757 & 1759) wouldn't work. The two boys have to be of the next generation at the earliest, and probably of the one after that.

Martin, see my posts above today at 02:37 & 02:42.

Osmund Bullock,

To expand on the info in Tim's post, Thomas, James and either Richard or George (not specified) are the three sons of James & Frances recorded as Etonians in 'The Eton College Register 1753-1790' - they were there in the 1760s & early 70s ( In the harder to use 'Eton School Lists from 1791 to 1850' (, no later members of the family appear at all.

[One caveat: the latter volume only takes a snapshot of the pupils in 1791, 1793, then every third year thereafter, i.e. 1796, 1799, 1802, etc. So if the boys were unusually only there for a year or two in, say, 1794-95 or 1821-22, then it seems they would not be listed.]

Martin Hopkinson,

I completely agree with you , Osmund - but we do need to identify the building which is not Rochester Cathedral , nor either of the family's Boxley or Chilston houses, but did the family own a house in or near Rochester? Eton is clearly a red herring, but the Leaving Pictures may provide portraits of young men of the period in which the style can be compared withn the Best brothers
I don't know whether the straight cricket bat provides any help over dating

Martin Hopkinson,

The building does not seem to be Boxley church either

Martin Hopkinson,

St Margaret, Rochester was rebuilt c. 1823-4 , but are there are any drawings or prints of it in its earler state? The same question needs to be asked of the Cathedral , as it was altered by Cottingham in 1825, However Newman does not mention any work on the north side of the building

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

Both boys hold cricket bats – so they are not in best dress. Both have
short hair, unlike 1790s when it would have been longer and they would
have worn knee breeches. See comparison – 1: Raeburn- the Allen
Brothers, early 1790s and 2: Pole-the Pole children 1793.

In our portrait, the youngest boy is in frilled shirt – typical wear only for
young boys, with cut away jacket, long drab pantaloon/trousers with
slightly high waist. This high waist was a style left over from 1790s.. with
white socks and flat shoes

Older boy is dressed fully in adult male clothes: collared shirt with white
cravat, white waistcoat, brown cut away tailcoat jacket with velvet collar,
long narrow drab pantaloon/trousers, with front fall closure, white socks
and flat shoes. See matching comparison to clothes in 3: Raeburn, Lt. Col
McMurdo, 1800-1810, in green jacket and drab pantaloons, Tate Britain.

By 1825, styles of men’s jackets, coats and trousers were much more
waisted and fuller. A style that continued into the 1830s.see 4:
1829 fashion plate.

Closest match I found was 5: Raeburn, the Drummond Children 1808-9
(the boy on the hore is aged 6) and 6: Raeburn painted ‘Boy and Rabbit’ c 1815- the boy still with a ruffled collar. My best guess is that portrait dates from

Marcie Doran,

Could the location be New College, Oxford? I haven't been able to find a good image of the crenellations there, but a work by Jacques-Emile Blanche shows a building that is similar to the one in this work attributed to Opie. I have used it in my first composite.

A work attributed to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) shows boys who are remarkably similar to the ones in this work attributed to Opie but their shirts don’t have ruffled collars. I have used the image in my second composite.

Marcie Doran,

The face of the boy in a circa 1803 work by Opie in a recent Toovey’s auction is quite similar in shape to the face of the eldest boy in the Art UK work.

'Portrait of Captain Robert Beauchamp-Proctor'

A portrait of Thomas Best (1753–1815) of Park House, Boxley, is in the book 'Historical Records of the West Kent Militia' on the page between pages 466 and 467. He would be too old to be one of the sitters in the Art UK work but note his dark eyes.

I have contacted the Medway Archives Centre as suggested by Martin Hopkinson in the other Best discussion (26/07/2018 17:47) in an attempt to obtain copies of five inventories and auction catalogues for Park House.

Marcie Doran,

The boys could be the sons of Richard Best (1757–1801) of Chatham: Richard Best (1786–1850) and James Best (1793–unknown). Dates are from the 'Bruce Family Tree' on Ancestry. Richard Best (1786–1850), had a son named Richard Mawdistly Best (1814–1892).

An entry on page 103 of a listing of Oxford students shows Richard Best, son of Richard Best, Chatham, Kent, "ORIEL COLL, matric. 2 Feb., 1805, aged 18".

Marcie Doran,

I am very grateful to the archivists Elspeth Millar and Cindy O'Halloran as well as an unnamed dedicated volunteer at the Medway Archives Centre for their assistance to me. The volunteer combed through the records related to Park House that I highlighted in my comment of 01/08/2022 13:44, looking for "paintings" and "pictures". I received 64 images last week.

Earlier today, I received permission to post images to this discussion. I have posted a selection of images that might be useful to both this discussion and the earlier discussion.

One work in inventory UB/480/F29/1 – the inventory of the property of Thomas Best Esq. “taken the 26th June 1815 and following day” – is intriguing and I have attached it as IMG_2014. “A fine Portrait Painting of Captn Thos. Best in Gilt frame”. There is a large "X" in a marginal note on the left of the entry and an illegible notation in a marginal note on the right of the entry. I have also attached IMG_2006.

The most intriguing images are from the grey book U480/F38, which, according to the Medway Archives Centre, is the inventory of the property of Colonel James Best dated July 23, 1849. I have highlighted the family portraits that might be identifiable in IMG_2033, IMG_2034, IMG_2041, IMG_2042 and IMG_2044.

You will surely note with interest the first entry in the library in IMG_2042, a “full length portrait painting of Maudistly Gausson [Mawdistly Gaussen] Best Esqre in a gilt frame glazed". There is a notation in a marginal note on the right of the entry but I cannot interpret it – it looks like "ELB" or "ECB".

The family portraits that were the property of Mrs. Harriet Best (née Gaussen) in inventory U480/29 dated February 8, 1875, lack detail. I have attached IMG_2023 as an an example of that inventory.

The National Archives has the probate record (PROB 11/2097/182) dated August 21, 1849, related to the “will of James Best, Lieutenant Colonel in the West Kent Regiment of Militia of Boxley , Kent”.

Colonel James Best (1781–1849) was the son of Thomas Best Esq. (1753–1815) and the husband of Harriet Best (née Gaussen) (1795–1875). His eldest son James Best (1822–1845) had passed away and he mentioned his son "Mawdistly Gaussen Best [1826–1906] a Lieutenant in the 34th Regiment of foot (now my eldest son)". His will was dated August 13, 1846 will and the codicil was dated February 17, 1849.

The executors of the will of Colonel James Best were: Mawdistly Gaussen Best, the Reverend Sir Charles Hardinge (1780–1864) and Harriet Best (née Gaussen).

Osmund Bullock,

Marcie, perhaps I’m going blind or just being stupid, but after several hours’ work on the inventory images you’ve posted I can see no portrait listed which could conceivably be the one we are currently discussing (unless it be img-2042 "Portrait family painting in a gilt frame"). And though there are some portraits listed of James Best that could, just possibly, be the portrait in our previous Best discussion, there’s not enough detail given to be sure that *any* of them is that one either. So unless you can point out a relevant entry I’ve overlooked, I’m afraid I don’t understand why you have posted them at all.

I am equally baffled by your suggestion that we will "surely note with interest" a full-length portrait of Mawdistley Gaussen Best (b.1826). Why? And what is "intriguing" about the "fine Portrait Painting of Captn Thos. Best" (who was already a captain in the 66th Regt in 1803)? What have either of them to do with a double portrait of two (?pre-teens) young cricketers dating from c.1808-15, even if one extends that time frame by five years at each end?

I appreciate all the work you’ve put into this, but posting such exhaustive (and exhausting) details of research finds that actually aren’t useful finds at all is, I’m afraid, becoming a rather off-putting habit. I only fought my way though all those images out of respect for your work which does sometimes come up trumps; but I would have much preferred to read a succinct summary that thanked the team at Medway Archive Centre for their help in accessing the inventories, and explained that sadly there is no portrait mentioned in any of them that could be our one. Of course, if there *is* some vital clue I’ve missed, that changes things – but in that case you need to draw attention to it, and explain why it’s important.

Marcie, thank you for posting the results of your extensive research on the boxes at Medway Archives, and to the archivists for their help.

Osmund, thank you for your comments. Could I remind all contributors to be concise and selective when reporting sources and findings please? I suggest (as I have done in the past) that long explanations and research pathways are attached as Word documents, so that other contributors can delve as much or as little as they wish into background and associated material, with only clearly relevant new finds posted on the thread.

It can be hard to decide what really is useful and what *might* be, and there's always the possibility of missing something that another contributor might see in the detail, so the system I've suggested should help both ways.

Jacob Simon,

I had a look this morning in the NPG archive for this portrait and these sitters but drew a blank.

This discussion has been open for three years and it is time to summarise it. As far as the sitters are concerned, Lou has dated the costume to 1808-15 (her post 8/3/21) which is new information. The elder boy is in adult dress, the younger still in a child’s frilled shirt. Much depends on the perceived ages of the boys and a slightly wider range for the costume date, say 1805-20, gives a possibility. Osmund (his post 6/3/21, from 02:37) untangled the Best family. Two brothers which are the closest fit to the costume dates are William Mawdistly Best (1809-1869) and his younger brother James John Best (1811-1844). They would therefore be aged about 10 and eight in the portrait.
Martin (post 7/3/21) confirmed the building in the background is not Rochester Cathedral (although it was rebuilt in the early 1820s, after the date of this portrait) or of the Best family’s Boxton or Chilston houses. It has not been identified.
Christopher (post 5/3/21) has convincingly rejected John Opie as the artist.
I suggest the artist and title is amended to: British School, Portrait of Two Brothers of the Best Family, perhaps William Mawdistly Best (1809-1869) and his younger brother James John Best (1811-1844). I’m sorry this is a bit wordy, but it clarifies the sitters who fit the date, but can’t be confirmed.