Topic: Other

Three artists named John Scott are recorded on Your Paintings, included the Newcastle marine painter, who is currently attributed as the artist of this portrait.


While the painting may be by a 'John Scott' – not an uncommon name – it at least seems unlikely it is by the marine painter, unless there is firm evidence he also painted portraits. This is the only one included for him.

I can't help on which Scott (either of the other two already on Your Paintings, or not) by whom this might be. Even if just a local hand, he must have done more, so perhaps others can either point them out or add further information.

The collection comments: 'Merchant Adventurers’ Hall agrees that the current attribution is incorrect. The signature on the Thomas Bell portrait is quite different to the maritime artist (see attached close up). The date of 1874 is very clear as well so was painted sometime after he was Governor and 10 years before he died.

I am not sure whether the two other artists featured on Your Paintings could fit the bill but I am unable to see the signatures clearly enough to see whether there is a possible match.

There is quite a lot of information on Thomas Bell: he was a Wine and Spirit merchant based in York and was Governor of the Merchant Adventurers in 1854–1856 (at a time when the Company was at its lowest ebb with perhaps less than a dozen members). The painting has been in the collection since 1904, when it was gifted to the company by Miss J. Bell (sister of Thomas Bell).

I would be interested in pursuing this further as the signature seems fairly distinct and I am certain someone out there would know who the artist was.'

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

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Completed, Outcome

Edward Stone,

This painting has been attributed to John Scott (1850–1919) and is now titled ‘Thomas Bell, Governor of the York Merchant Adventurers (1854–1856)’.

These amends will appear on the Art UK website in due course.

If anyone has any new information about this painting or artist, please propose a new discussion by following the Art Detective link on the artwork page on Art UK.


Timothy Taylor,

The painting is of the early 19th C period when many portrait painters were at work. I have been trying to trace paintings by William Robinson (1799-1839) whose sister was my 3ce Gt Grandmother. WR was from Leeds and married Elizabeth Bell. I do not know her family yet but I wonder if she was related?

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Thanks Timothy, however the painting is certainly by a "J Scott" and was painted in 1874. Although Leeds and York are fairly local, the name Bell is quite common so I think the link may be coincidental (however more research would need to be done on that).

At risk of editorial pedantry, a 'Mrs' J. Bell -unless a remarkable coincidence of being born a Bell and marrying another- has to be either (strictly) a sister-in-law of the sitter or in fact (also strictly) 'Miss' J. Bell....

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

You are quite correct Pieter, the donor of the portrait is 'Miss' Jane Bell, Thomas Bell's sister.

Edward Stone,

This has been corrected. Thank you.

Osmund Bullock,

There's also an error in the 'Your Paintings' record, which says it was painted in 1849.

Cliff Thornton,

Please can Merchant Adventurers Hall check the acquisition details.
The information provided above suggests that Miss Bell was alive when she donated it to the Hall. I suspect that the donor was Jane Bell, who died in York in 1903, and bequeathed the painting to the Hall in her Will. Her executors only presented the painting to the Hall in 1904. Do you have any paperwork which indicates which of the above options took place. This information is needed to identify Thomas Bell, as he is surprisingly elusive on the Net.

Osmund Bullock,

Oliver, that's an interesting possibility. Here is another signature of his with the date (1877) below rather in the manner of our painting: http://artsalesindex.artinfo.com/asi/lots/5228529
There's also one of his (incorrectly attributed to John Scott the marine artist) shown here: https://www.artsignaturedictionary.com/artist/john.scott

But though the basic form of the monogrammed initials is similar, the feel is rather different: for example, John Scott, RI, seems to have liked to kick back the tops of the t's at the end of his name, and the S in his monogram is much flatter. There is also the obvious problem that he was clearly not a portrait artist either - I can find no other example, either among the 20 works he exhibited at the RA 1872-1904 or elsewhere. But we need to check the works exhibited at the RI & the RBA (of which he was also a member)**.

Both of these objections might possibly be explained by how early in his career 1874 lies. He was born (1849) and brought up in Carlisle, and was apparently still a pupil at the School of Art there in 1871-2, according to this informative (but often unsourced) 2010 article in the Cumberland news: http://www.cumberlandnews.co.uk/i-want-my-work-on-show-at-carlisle-s-tullie-house-1.746116

One can imagine that at the outset of his career he would still have been experimenting with both his métier and his signature. Perhaps he did a portrait for a family friend as an experiment (it's pretty unaccomplished) - and indeed in 1861 & 1871 the family's next door neighbours in Carlisle were called 'Bell' (and they had a young son called 'Thomas'), though I've been unable to link them with any Bells in York. But since, like Cliff, I've so far failed to pin down the identity of 'our' Thomas Bell of York, I don't really know what connection I'm looking for.

**Algernon Graves, in his 'Dictionary of artists who have exhibited works in the principal London exhibitions of oil paintings...' (1895 edition), says he was also a member of the ROI; but he seems to have once more conflated at least two artists, as he has him listed as exhibiting from 1837. From the same book comes an outside possibility that either he or someone of the same name may have exhibited at the (Royal) Society of Portrait Painters, though it's more likely to have been at the ROI.

Martin Hopkinson,

It might be worth looking in the Algernon Graves Mss in the British Library which contain very helpful records of the exhibitors and exhibits in quite a number of 19th century London exhibiting institutions, which never were published like his familiar other records [Dudley Gallery and Society of Portrait Painters among them]
Of course there were quite a number of exhibiting societies in the provinces, of which the exhibits at Liverpool's early societies have been published in the Graves manner. A pilot project funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art has recently got under way covering the exhibits at the early Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions. For those who are based in the south it should be noted that the Mellon has an almost complete run of photocopies of the catalogues of the Royal Manchester Institution.
As far as I know no one has done work of this kind on the exhibitions at Newcastle or in Yorkshire of this period

Osmund Bullock,

I wonder if the Collection could give us any more biographical information on the sitter, Thomas Bell - as Cliff says, he is elusive in online records. The only fairly certain mention I can find is a report of his appointment as a warden of the Merchant Adventurers in March 1846 (Yorks Gazette 28/3/1846). You imply he died in about 1884: could you confirm this, and also give us his year of birth if you have it? In the censuses & directories for York there are only two who seem possible for our man, and neither is recorded as a Wine/Spirit merchant. Nor can I find any Bell listed with such a business in York trade directories of the 1840s/50s. Do you have an address for him - perhaps he was in reality based and/or lived elsewhere?

One of the (just) possibles is the Thomas Bell who in around 1860 took over his father, John Bell's druggist/chemist business in St Sampson's Square - he had worked in the business prior to that, and trade directories suggest it was also a grocery store. This Thomas Bell was the brother of Jane Bell (died 1903), proposed by Cliff as the possible donor of the portrait. He was born in York c1819 and died there at the end of 1882 - he and his sister lived together (both died unmarried), and she was his executor.

The only other (even less likely) possible is a Thomas Bell who in 1841 had a grocery and general store in King's Square. By 1851 he had moved his shop to Micklegate, and he was still listed there in 1855; but by 1861 he seems to have abandoned his business, and become a cowkeeper. He was born c1809-11, apparently in Lincolnshire, and was married with children.

Cliff Thornton,

Osmund, that is the chap! The York Herald of 2 April 1853, records Mr T Bell, druggust, being appoointed deputy governor of the Merchant Adventurers. Then he was appointed as the governor the following year. He was declared bankrupt in 1861 after lending a friend a large sum of money, only to have his friend go bankrupt. His sister, Jane, lived with him for many years. When Thomas died, she went to live with her other brother, Edward, who also lived in York.
But why have a retrospective portrait painted in 1875? I wonder if the painting bears a title, and whether there is a possibility that it may be a portrait of another member of the Bell family. The answer may lie in a high resolution image of the manuscript which he is holding?

Osmund Bullock,

Well done, Cliff, I missed that one, which obviously clinches it. I remember seeing mentions of the bankruptcy when I first started looking for a wine/spirit merchant of the name, but thought they related to someone else.

Thomas Bell was baptized at St Sampson, York, on Christmas Eve 1818, and was presumably born earlier the same year - his sister Jane was born and christened within a day at the same church in Sept 1825.

Certainly he looks rather younger than the 56 he would have been in 1874 (though I suppose not impossibly so). And although Jane must have known if it was of her brother or not, the executors might have become confused. It could also, of course, be a later copy of an earlier work. From its appearance and the sitter's style alone I'd have guessed it was a portrait of c1850-60 - if it were late 50s that could work both with TB's age (38-42), and the end of his Governorship (1856).

A high-res of the document might perhaps help, but even the image we have blown up suggests there is no real detail in the document. Are there any other useful details on the canvas or its rear - where did the 'Your Paintings' date of 1849 come from (though that is probably too early)?

Barbara Bryant,

If the Merchant Adventurers' Hall could provide a high-res image and, if possible, some shots of the back of the picture, it would be a great help to the discussion.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

The information on the 'wine and spirit' merchant was passed to us by family members however after an afternoon in the archive the Register for Admissions for that period confirms that Thomas Bell, Druggist was admitted by 'servitude' (after apprenticeship) to the Merchant Adventurers Company on 28th March 1842.

He was an active member of the Company and from looking through the minutes for the next 40 years he was in attendance at most meetings. He was Warden in 1844, 1846, 1848-50; Deputy Governor in 1853 and Governor between 1854 and 1856.

Minutes from March 1883 record his death (that was the next meeting after his death) and that the Company was notified by his sister, Jane Bell. It was noted that he was one of the older members of the Company (this could be in relation to his 40 years membership and not necessarily his age).

Furthermore, meeting minutes from 1904 confirm that the portrait was bequeathed to the Company by the Executors of Miss Jane Bell's will that same year.

The back of the portrait has written in pen 'Thomas Bell, 1849', where this date comes from is a mystery and with the exception of some restoration notes also written on the back there is no further evidence.

To confuse (if it needed to be more confusing) a photograph of a painting has been located which also claims to be Thomas Bell (see attached). I don't believe that this portrait was ever part of the collection but was perhaps sent to the Company in answer to a request for photos of old members, we will look into this a little more but takes us away from the original task!

I don't think this brings us any closer to the artist but the sitter could be 56 - 57 and although the style may be a little old fashioned we know that many people did carry on wearing the clothes they wore as younger people.

As requested please find a high resolution image attached.

Lauren Marshall (Hall Manager & Audience Development Officer)

Osmund Bullock,

That's incredibly helpful, Lauren, thank you.

Cliff Thornton,

Lauren, please can you comment on the robes worn by Thomas Bell in the photograph of his portrait. Is he wearing the robes of the Deputy Governor, as he does not have a jewel around his neck, or a badge on his sleeve ? Or were these features a later addition to distinguish between the Governor and his Deputy?
And what is the significance of the document with the enormous seal, which sits on the table under his left hand?

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

I am almost certain that the portrait in the photograph was painted during his tenure as Governor and those are the Governor's Robes. The robes worn would be red, trimmed in fur and would be very similar to Alderman robes.

It is not unusual during this period for him not to be wearing anything that distinguishes him specifically as Governor. The jewel, ring and badge which are now worn all came later.

However the document with the large seal is almost certainly the Company's 1581 Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I. The seal is that large and is quite recognisable!

Unfortunately where this portrait is and how we come to have a photo of it is lost in time. The minute books and receipt only state an 'Oil Painting of Past Governor, Mr Thomas Bell'. So it could refer to the one that is in the Hall's collection or to this one, it's rather unclear I'm afraid.

Lauren Marshall (Hall Manager & Audience Development Officer)

Bruce Trewin,

I would tend to agree with Oliver's suggestion of the Carlisle born J. Scott, painting in 1874 (possibly using an old Daguerreotype as reference?). As a painter I can certainly testify that my signature has varied tremendously on paintings and, as has been stated, Scott was still finding his way at this period. It certainly has more the feel of a painting from a photographic reference than a painting from life.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

It's interesting you say this Bruce as in correspondence with Thomas Bell's descendants a couple of years ago on another query, they did provide two photographs on glass (images attached) which they think is of Thomas and his wife Mary Ann.

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Cliff Thornton,

Lauren, your latest image of Thomas Bell is unlikely to be the same person as in the portrait under discussion. Thomas did not marry, and coincidentally neither did his brothers Frederick and Edward, or his sister Jane.

Bruce Trewin,

Thanks Lauren. Not our Thomas, but it does show that the family were photographically inclined.

Osmund Bullock,

Except, Bruce, that if the family in touch with the Merchant Adventurers knows (as seems quite likely) they are descended from a Thomas Bell who was married to someone called Mary Ann, then they are wrong in thinking that 'their' Thomas Bell was the MA Governor one - they may not be 'our' family at all!

Records show were many more or less contemporary Thomas Bells in northern England who had a wife called 'Mary' or 'Mary Anne(e)', and several of them are associated by birth or residence with York.

Bruce Trewin,

I believe Cliff has already tied down a clear identity of the Thomas Bell in question. The real quest is the J. Scott. We seem to have wandered. I am still betting on our J. Scott from Carlisle as the signatures show a close enough similarity to indicate someone who is experimenting early in his career, and the dates tie in with the 1874 date of execution. Not yet proven but attributable?

Osmund Bullock,

Bruce, I think you have misunderstood me. Yes, we know exactly who 'our' Thomas Bell is, as discussed in several posts above, including mine. But since he did not marry anyone, let alone a Mary Ann, the family with the photograph would seem to be a different one.

This is relevant to the discussion of the artist because you have quite reasonably suggested the portrait may have been copied from a photograph, and mention the posted photo thought to be a Thomas Bell by way of circumstantial evidence that the family patronized photography. But in fact we have no idea if 'our' Bell family was photographically inclined or not, as the photograph most probably does not relate to them.

I certainly think Scott of Carlisle is the main - in fact only - contender, but I would be a lot happier if we could find evidence of even one other portrait by him somewhere.

Since it is at least now clear that this portrait is not by the marine painter John Scott (of Newcastle) 1802-1885 it would be useful to lose those dates from the artist attribution and detach this item from any connection with him, if practical.

Jade Audrey King,

This discussion has now been linked to the North West England: Artists and Subjects group.

That's very sensible but , to repeat, can we now please entirely lose the ongoing artist association to the marine-painting John Scott of Newcastle (1802-85) who did NOT paint this portrait, in favour of the suggestion made above that it at least be provisionally 'attributed to John Scott, 1850-1918/19' (i.e. of Carlisle)?

Jade Audrey King,

The collection have been contacted about updating the artist details on Art UK/Art Detective, while the discussion continues. I will feed back any response.

Jade Audrey King,

The collection say 'Yes I have been following this discussion and I am happy for the attribution to be removed. We have done so on our collection database at this end.'

The work is now listed as being attributed to John Scott (1850–1919) (rather than John Scott, 1802–1885). Art UK should update shortly.

Since this started as a query about a marine painter confusion, now resolved with the provisional attribution to John Scott of Carlisle (rather than John Scott of Newcastle), so could I suggest this discussion is formally closed. It contains sufficient information about the sitter also to suggest that a more publicly informative title would be to expand on 'Governor' by adding 'of the York Merchant Adventurers, 1854-56', or something similar.

Edward Stone,

The collection has been contacted about this recommendation.

Edward Stone,

The collection is happy to accept this change.