Completed Dress and Textiles, North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 19th C, Portraits: British 20th C 31 Was Copnall’s ‘Comedian’ a well-known character on the Liverpool stage?

Topic: Subject or sitter

The collection does not know who the subject of this painting is. Copnall lived and worked in Liverpool and the painting dates from the 1900s. I am hoping to check local museum archives as part of my quest to discover his identity.

Richard Orritt, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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The collection has been asked if there is anything on the back of the picture and whether anything is known about the donor, James Moon.

Apart from the ‘Portrait of an Unknown Young Man’ (National Trust, The Greyfriars) – the subject of another Art Detective discussion – the works on Art UK are mainly identified subjects. I will pursue the request already made in 2021 for photographs of the reverse of The Greyfriars’ picture.

There is a question over the identification of ‘Percy Norris’ (Science and Industry Museum) (please let us know if you can help confirm that).

Niall Hodson (Curator, The Williamson) says the item is currently on loan, but when it's back at the Gallery they will get a photograph. They did look at the back when it went out on loan, and if he recalls correctly it has Copnall's signature and the title 'The Comedian', but no date or further details. That will be double-checked and it will be looked at more closely. The file on the donor will be checked too.

Jacinto Regalado,

The sitter may be a music hall performer, but the dress looks more Victorian than Edwardian.

Jacinto Regalado,

The Norris picture, dated 1926, was a gift from Mr Brian D. Norris in 1970, presumably a relative (son?) of the sitter.

Hat Jodelka,

Could it be T W Barrett? Looks like his music hall garb.

That's a viable suggestion given that Barrett (1851-1935) died in Liverpool, but it would have to be fairly late in life , despite the dress being 19th c. Wiki notes he was performing as late as 1922 but there is no obvious photograph of him online, most images being as a younger man on lithographed song covers.

Marcie Doran,

An article in the 'Manchester Evening News' of the 19th January 1995 quotes Brian D. Norris as being "the seventh and last member of the family to serve the [motoring] company [Joseph Cockshoot and Co., Ltd.]

Brian had numerous uncles, including one named Percy. Brian's father John Octavious Harold Norris (1880-1972) was an automobile engineer.

John's book ‘Early Days’ might include photos of family members but I can't find a reference to it online.

Jacinto Regalado,

The sitter could be in his 50s or 60s, which Barrett was in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Kieran Owens,

This work dates from 1914.

The Birkenhead News, of Saturday 14th March 1914, in its review of the Spring Art Exhibition at the Art Gallery and Museum in Hamilton Street, reports the following:

"The outstanding work among the portraitists is 'The Comedian", by Frank. T. Copnall. It is a clever study of the humorous face of a comedian of the old school. There is latent laughter in his lineaments and the picture is one that arrests and holds attention."

Kieran Owens,

James Moon was Mayor of Birkenhead in 1914. The Birkenhead News, of Wednesday 3rd June 1914, reported that:

"The Museum and Arts Sub-Committee reports that......the Mayor (Mr. James Moon) has presented an oil painting by Mr. Frank T. Copnall entitled 'The Comedian'."

He resided at “Westwood”, Bidston, for many years. He was born in 1858 and died in 1930, and is buried in St Oswald's Churchyard, Bidston:

Jacinto Regalado,

If the sitter was not named in 1914, it may be that he was not a known comedian but a suitable model posing as such.

Hat Jodelka,

Or possibly so famous at that time that no name was required. The Wikipedia page kindly provided by Pieter van der Merwe mentions a Barrett/Sickert connection so perhaps painting his portrait was a feather in Copnall's artist's cap.

Martin Hopkinson,

The Liverpool Historical Society might be able to tell you much more about this comedian. There is more than one book on Merseyside and Liverpool theatrical history

According to Mary Bennett, Merseyside: Painters People Places (1978) p.74 Copnall ‘took up portrait painting as a career in 1897, as the result of a commission. He had exhibited his work at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool at its annual Liverpool Autumn Exhibition from 1894 & at the Royal Academy, London from 1902. He married Teresa Butchart, who was also a portrait painter Teresa Copnall (1882-1972), who died in Hoylake, Wirral. As The Comedian was presented to the Williamson Art Gallery, near Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula opposite Liverpool, it is just as likely that the comic played on the stage of one of the Birkenhead music hall theatres, or at New Brighton as well as Liverpool. The Argyle theatre in Birkenhead was one of the most famous variety act theatres in the UK and was open until it was bombed in September 1940.

If it is Barrett it might be worthwhile contacting Karen O'Rourke, Curator (Sport, Music & Performance) at the Museum of Liverpool (National Museums Liverpool), Pier Head, Liverpool, United Kingdom L3 1DG Venue phone number: 0151 478 4545 – but not at the weekend or on Monday, when the venue is closed.

The sketch of TW Barrett by Sickert and posted by Pieter 08/02/2024 20:03 is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Copnall portrait posted by Jacinto on 08/02/2024 18:40 is not a theatrical portrait, but one of Liverpool’s J.P’s dressed up as a Norman nobleman for the Liverpool Historical Pageant of 1907, a parade held to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Liverpool being granted its town charter by King John.

Given his dates, it would be surprising if no photos of Barrett were taken (including perhaps the carte-de-visite type). A local press image at the time of his death might be another possibility.

Richard Orritt,

Thanks to everyone for their posts - it was a talk at Liverpool Artists Club recently that piqued my interest in the painting! I'll keep digging - it's purely out of curiosity and I have the time!

Kieran Owens,

Attached is a composite of images of Barrett, from between 1880 and 1922.

1 attachment
Jimaa Alaa,

Maybe Edward O'Connor Terry 1844 –1912 actors and comedians

Jacinto Regalado,

Terry was a London actor and his face was more eccentric, with a very prominent forehead. Photos of him do not look like our man.

Marcie Doran,

The second photo on the Wikipedia page for Mr. Terry does strongly resemble this painting, though. It's too bad that it's so blurry.

Regarding the portrait 'Percy Norris*' at the Science and Industry Museum (08/02/2024 18:25), I have a couple of photos of Percy Norris (1866-1944) and one of his brother John ('Jack') Norris (1880-1972) (the donor's son) from Ancestry. I haven't been able to reach the owners so I will send composites to Osmund and Jacinto and perhaps they will let me know if they believe that the portrait depicts Percy. His will didn't mention any works of art.

Osmund Bullock,

I'm afraid that to my eye that blurred photo of Terry from Wikipedia (supposedly c. 1890) does not look like our sitter at all, let alone that it strongly resembles him. Attached (if we're lucky) is a composite of a later image of him (1905) - a caricature, admittedly, but not of an extreme type - with our portrait. There is no resemblance at all, and I don't believe even another nine years' ageing would have made him look any more like our man. As it happens he didn't last that long - in 1914 he'd been dead for two years, and he hadn't been on a stage since 1911. This sort of character is also most unlikely for him later in his career. He became more and more respectable in later years, both professionally and socially; and though he was still sometimes a comic actor (but primarily a proprietor/ manager/ producer), he was in a sense a *serious* comic actor - his music hall roots had been left far behind.

Notwithstanding Hat Jodelka's idea that the sitter might have been "so famous at that time that no name was required", I think the wording of the review found by Kieran (08/02/2024 23:37) - "The outstanding work among the portraitists is 'The Comedian' ... It is a clever study of the humorous face of a comedian of the old school" - strongly suggests to me that his identity was unknown to the writer, and that he was more likely to have been an anonymous model.

Marcie Doran,

Regarding the portrait ‘Percy Norris*’, Jacinto Regalado and Osmund Bullock have kindly confirmed to me by email that the man in the photographs on Ancestry, Percy Norris (1866-1944), is very likely the man depicted in the portrait. I have sent Marion my two composites.

I mistakenly wrote (03/05/2024 14:42) that Percy’s brother John ('Jack') Norris (1880-1972) was the “the donor's son”. The donor Brian Darbyshire Norris (1914-2003) was John’s son.

Thank you for emailing me the composite images of our sitter and Percy Norris. I will forward them to the relevant curators, since you noted in your message that the photographs of Percy Norris come from a family tree on Ancestry and you have not had a reply from the tree owner.

Dr Anna Ferrari (Curator, Science Museum), has replied, 'I’m sorry to hear that Art Detective will be paused when you retire and would like to thank you and the contributors who have helped with information about our collection. My colleagues agreed that the arguments for confirming the sitter’s identity were compelling so please do remove the asterisk after Percy Norris’s name'.

There are just two weeks left until Art Detective closes to further comments, of which 11 are Art UK working days, though I am working only six of them. It may be helpful to know that those days are 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 June. I will be on email for four weeks after that, until 26 July.