Saturday, February 26, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Thomas Leeming, Artist and Networker, Part 1.

Number 6 in a series of collaborative posts. This one by Richard Tillett with comment by Martin Smith.

In our five previous posts we have told the story – which is still unfolding – of our research into an early 19th century painting, The Gentlemen of the Hereford Chess Society. This is the picture...

…and this is the man who painted it, Thomas Leeming.

We have come a long way since our researches began in December 2009, and it is time to take stock. In today’s post we reflect on what we’ve established about the artist from online resources and from various libraries and archives in Hereford and London. There’s too much for one blog, so Part 2 will be on 19 March.

Not a lot was known about Thomas Leeming until Martin and I got on the case, even the dates of his birth and death were a mystery. We think (but haven’t yet established) that he was born in Lancashire around 1788. In spite of much labour in the online IGI (International Genealogical Index) and elsewhere, we haven’t yet identified the family he came from, though we think we’ve narrowed the field to three candidates. We’re determined to nail him down, even if the Institute of Thomas Leeming Studies has to make another field trip, which this time will be to Salford where the Lancashire parish records are held.

There’s another piece of crucial information about his early life that is still missing. How did he learn to paint? Most, though not all, professional artists at that time had some sort of formal tuition. We’re working on that one too…

By the time he was 20 young Thomas had left Lancashire and headed south, though if he was hoping to find fame and fortune both were sadly to elude him. The earliest record we have of him as an artist is 1809, when he signed and dated this sketchily-executed miniature.

One of Leeming’s early efforts: a miniature of Lieutenant Bateson
painted when the artist was around 21.
He seems initially to have domiciled himself in Oxford, though we have not found any evidence that he was a student there. We know he painted a portrait of the eminent Oxford surgeon and publisher John Grosvenor, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) summer exhibition of 1812. A mezzotint print by Charles Turner, probably based on this picture, was published in the same year. The print, which you can see here, identifies Leeming not only as the painter of the original portrait but also as co-publisher, suggesting that he may have helped finance the print’s production. Thomas clearly had ambitions.

By 1811 Leeming also had a base in London, at 10 Park Lane. This soon became his main residence and in 1814 he moved a few hundred yards to 79 Park Street, where he remained for the rest of his life. Then as now, Mayfair was a desirable part of town, if not quite as smart as it is today, so he must have had some money to pay the rent while he struggled to establish himself as a painter. Richard Horwood’s splendid 1790s map of London, which even gives house numbers, shows that 79 Park Street was on the west side of the street near the junction with Upper Brook Street. The house no longer stands, probably demolished in the last quarter of the 19th century during the redevelopment of Mayfair by the Grosvenor Estate.

Detail from Richard Horwood's map of Georgian London,
showing Park Street running north-south on the right, parallel with Park Lane on the left.
Carriages were manufactured and sold at the oddly-named Rhedarium.
Most years between 1811 and 1822 Leeming exhibited paintings at the RA – 23 in total. Of these, only one is known by us to have survived and that is the ‘Greenlees’ version of the Gents. Most would have been portrait miniatures, since that was his main business. The RA exhibitions were important marketing opportunities for ambitious painters and the miniaturists had their own area around the fireplace in the main exhibition area where they displayed their wares.

Detail from The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787,
by Pietro Antonio Martini after a drawing by Johann Heinrich Ramberg,
showing the miniatures on display.
We recently discovered that Leeming was also a copyist of some repute and it is likely that some of the pictures he exhibited at the RA were copies, such as his portrait of the Duke of Sussex, one of George III’s sons, which he may have hoped would catch the eye of upmarket patrons.

We also now know that Leeming was an accomplished networker – he was “warmly esteemed and respected by an extensive circle of friends in different parts of the Kingdom” according to a contemporary source. At some point, probably around 1813/14, he started to connect with the great and the good of Hereford. A promising seam of work quickly opened up, perhaps because there was less competition there than in London, and other provincial cities of the time such as Norwich with its famous school of artists. We know that Leeming painted portraits of the local bigwigs Lord Harley and Colonel Matthews. His Herefordshire sitters also included a Miss Holder, who was probably related to Matthews, the Reverend Thomas Russell, who was a canon at Hereford Cathedral, and a lady of Viscount Hereford’s family.

An accomplished miniature painted by Leeming in 1819
of the Hon Juliana Marianna Stratford Devereux,
daughter of the 13th Viscount Hereford.
And then there are the Gents themselves, six young men from the higher echelons of Hereford society at the start of their professional lives. Three of them rose to local prominence – Edwin Goode Wright, who was editor and publisher of the Hereford Journal for 40 years, and Francis Lewis Bodenham, who was to serve twice as mayor of Hereford. John Allen Junior was a bibliophile and antiquarian whose short but extraordinary life included a painful and very public encounter with the laws of libel, which we will return to in a future blog.

But what of the odd-man-out, the Gent in the red coat who appears only in the ‘Greenlees’ version, and is not a Hereford man at all? Sotheby’s identified him as ‘Mr Buckson’ from the inscription on the painting when they sold it in 1991, but we’re confident that he is actually James Buckton, a London lawyer and close friend of the artist.

If you’re wondering what a London lawyer was up to hanging out at a Hereford chess club, so did we. What’s more, we found the answer… the missing Links you might say. We’ve documented a tale of love, marriage, joy and tragedy, and at the centre of the drama are two young Hereford sisters, Mary and Eliza Link. But you’ll have to wait for that too.

Totally gratuitous footnote:

The Royal Academy exhibitions were major social occasions which became notorious for what one writer (David Solkin) has described as their ‘sexualised atmosphere’. According to Vicenç Furió in an article in Locvs Amcenvs:

“A number of sexual scandals took place within the context of the exhibitions…such as the one concerning the steep staircase that led to the top floor where the Great Room was located. Falls on these stairs were commonplace, and it seems that views of backsides and other parts of the female anatomy that these falls provided became one of the main lures to visit the exhibition.”
Hereford history: thanks to David Whitehead for briefing us on the Gents in the picture and suggesting identities for some of Leeming’s RA sitters.
Portrait of Lieutenant Bateson: Bonhams, London, Portrait Miniatures & Silhouettes, 2 Sep 2008, lot 65.
The Martini print and the footnote on RA exhibitions: Seeing Art History: Pietro Antonio Martini’s Engravings on the Exhibitions of Paris and London in 1787 by Vicenç Furió, Locvs Amoenvs 7, 2004. Image sourced from here.
Portrait of the Hon Juliana Marianna Stratford Devereux: Artnet.

1 comment:

Jonathan B said...

"views of backsides and other parts of the female anatomy that these falls provided became one of the main lures to visit the exhibition."