Portraits: British 16th and 17th C, West Midlands: Artists and Subjects 1 Who painted this portrait of John Hales?

Topic: Artist

I am currently working as Archivist at Coventry Building Society and I have a copy of the pedigree of John Hales in relation to this portrait which states it is by Hans Holbein.

The collection comments: ‘An intriguing connection to the celebrated Tudor portrait painter, but alas not to the portrait on display at St Mary's Guildhall. It seems two portraits of John Hales were in existence at one time, the one at the Guildhall having been recorded in the Old Grammar School (which was founded by Hales) in 1792, but by 1834 it had been moved to the Guildhall by mayor and amateur antiquarian George Eld. The portrait appears in periodic inventories of the Guildhall collection thereafter.

A second portrait, with a Holbein attribution, was to be found at King Henry VIII school in Coventry from 1885, on its new site in Warwick Road after it vacated the Old Grammar School on Hales Street. Tragically the school was badly damaged by incendiaries and high explosives during the blitz of April 1941, and the portrait is recorded in eye-witness accounts as one of the victims, despite being brought out of the building (together with the headmaster's desk) for protection. The accounts were included in a 2011 “Coventry Evening Telegraph” article on the school’s wartime damage.

There was quite some debate surrounding these portraits during the 1850s and 1860s, mainly in the pages of “The Gentleman's Magazine”. Those favouring the “Holbein” dismissed the St Mary's Guildhall version as a poor copy, while an offended Coventrian pointed out that the date inscribed on the “Holbein” post-dated his death by 11 years and questioned whether it was even the same person. The portrait now at St Mary's was seen by Dugdale as early as 1650, when still in the possession of the Hales family.

The St Mary’s Guildhall portrait was engraved before 1825 by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), labelled as by an unknown artist (NPG D22574). There are some differences in Turner’s etching, such as the shape of the beard and the addition of a lace frill around the face. Artistic licence? https://bit.ly/2MmY30X

In a letter to “The Gentleman’s Magazine” from July 1854, William Reader, son of the esteemed antiquarian of the same name, refers to his father’s unpublished 1818 manuscript which describes the portrait as seen in the Old Grammar School thus: “The figure is a three-quarters length, with full face, standing apparently in a thoughtful attitude, and closely attired in a collegiate dress – a black gown and cap, the sleeves tight from the elbows, and the cuffs terminating in ruffles; a small portion of the ruff is visible on the left side of the neck; the beard long and full, of a brown colour or hazel ; the right arm bent at the elbow, the hand, holding a small book bound in red, placed on the chest; the left arm is extended, the hand resting on a table. The background on the right of the figure is dark; but through an opening on the left of the figure is seen a distant view of the east end of the Free School situated in a field …”

This is quite a detailed description and if a lace frill to the hood was visible, it would probably have been mentioned.

The same letter tells us: “This portrait was certainly in the Free School in the year 1792, as the mayor, George Howlette, esq. Mr. John Nickson, and Mr. Thomas Sharp, then the Coventry antiquaries, employed a resident artist, Mr. Henry Jeayes, to make sketches of the principal objects of interest in the city and county, and consequently he made several drawings of this picture (one of which is in my possession), and the two belonging to Messrs. Nickson and Sharp are now, I believe, in the fine collection of the late William Staunton, esq. of Longbridge House, near Warwick; Mr. Howlette’s copy probably is in the family of Mr. Wilson of Exhall, near Coventry, who married the niece of Mr. Alderman Howlette …”

We are grateful to David McGrory for managing to track down an image of the lost “Holbein” (see attached), published in T. W. Whitley's “Parliamentary Representation of the City of Coventry”, 1894. This certainly validates arguments that there were few similarities between the two portraits, and it is highly unlikely that the St Mary’s portrait was a copy of this.’

The inscription, ‘D.D. ANNA DNA HALES RELICTA DNI IOHIS / HALES BARONETTI FUNDATORIS ABNEPOTIS’, records that the painting was given to Anna, widow of John Hales, Bt by the founder’s relations.

The collection’s notes on all the known portraits of John Hales are also attached.

Melissa Downing 01, Entry reviewed by Art UK

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