Saturday, April 09, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Hereford Ho Ho!

Number 8 in a series of collaborative posts. This one by Martin Smith with comment by Richard Tillett.

This is another in our series of blogs about this 1815 picture, The Hereford Chess Club by Thomas Leeming:
Reproduced courtesy of the Hereford Heritage and Museum Service ©

In the last two episodes Richard told the life-story of the artist, based on research in online databases and local history archives. It is more than we imagined we would unearth when we looked at a reproduction of the picture for the first time in December 2009. In fact our quest seems to have a life of its own, with new avenues of enquiry opening up at every turn.

The first surprise was the discovery that there were two versions, and in the Autumn of 2010 we went to Hereford to see the one illustrated above, held by the local Museum and Art Gallery. With a spare half hour we pottered around the handsome Norman Cathedral hoping we might chance upon Leeming’s portrait of Canon Russell. It had been shown at the Royal Academy in 1816. We guessed the picture might have ended up in the Cathedral but, alas, it was nowhere to be seen.
Back in London we tried again - by the simple expedient of phoning the Cathedral: “Oh yes, you mean the one of Canon Russell holding the reliquary”. So it was there all the time, not decorating the walls but hidden in the archives.

Now it's late January 2011, and here we are once again in the Cathedral. The helpful and enthusiastic Kirsty Clarke unwraps the picture but, as we already knew, this is not Leeming’s original but a contemporaneous copy. It’s a larger-than-usual portrait miniature and not as well painted as the original would have been, but hey, it’s the next best thing. It has a fetching maple frame dating from later in the 19th century (somewhat eccentrically, the picture doesn’t fit the frame, hence the black strips around the edges of the picture).

Copy, by an unknown hand, of Leeming's 1816 portrait of Canon Russell.
© The Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral.

We tell Ms Clarke the story of the Gents, including John Allen Junior (first on the left in the Chess Club), the compiler of Bibliotheca Herefordiensis published in 1821 of which only 25 copies were printed. “So,” she says, “would you like to see our copy?” Would we? “Not half” we splutter, and out comes this incredibly rare leather-bound, vellum-paged volume in pristine condition. We browse through it hoping for mentions of the Gents. But we find something better – a mention of Thomas Leeming himself.

On page 96 Allen refers to an etching by Leeming of the Reverend William Hollings of Hereford of 1820 – the first we knew that Leeming had etching in his skills portfolio. As it happens there’s a pen-and-watercolour sketch of the same man by Leeming in the city art collection. This may have been the sketch from which the etching was made, but in spite of scouring the internet since our visit we have so far failed to track down a copy of the etching.

Ms Clarke later retrieved from the Archive a reference to another Leeming picture, a miniature of Canon John Napleton done in 1814, although the Cathedral no longer has the painting itself. The Napleton portrait now joins the Hollings etching in our ever-longer List of Lost Leemings.
All in all a richly productive visit to the Cathedral. We cross the road to the local resources section of Hereford Library to see once again the bound volumes of the Hereford Journal, edited in Leeming’s time by Edwin Goode Wright (seated third from right).

We head straight to the pages for May 1822, the time of Leeming’s demise. Is there an obituary? Yes, as revealed in our last blog, and very exciting it is too, as it’s the first comment about him by a contemporary that we’ve discovered. It contains much that we didn’t know, with references to some of his pictures including an altarpiece for the Cathedral. What’s that? Another Leeming in the Cathedral? Funny that Ms Clarke didn’t mention it, but we’ll check that out when we get back home.

We also look up the Journal's reports of the Hereford Chess Congress of 1885. We were put onto this by the present day Gents of Hereford (and Worcester) Chess, Alan Leary, Les Collard and Ray Collett, with whom we’ve been in contact almost from the off, and who constitute a kind of semi-detached outpost of the Institute of Thomas Leeming Studies. There’s a lot to be said about the 1885 Congress – a whole blog’s worth in fact. For now, here are the Gents of the Hereford Congress.

The participants in the 1885 Hereford Congress, including Bird (standing third from left) and Blackburne (seated second from left), but not Tarrasch who, at the last moment and amid some controversy, declined to attend.

Now in full cry, we go to the Herefordshire County Record Office for a little more rummaging. We turn up one or two tit-bits, but nothing quite as significant as the day’s earlier discoveries, or the one waiting for us...
Leeming’s altarpiece was, according to the obituary, a copy of a painting of Christ Carrying His Cross. The original was, and still is, in Magdalen College Chapel in Oxford, and there’s even a photo on Flickr where it appears in the background.

The Original Christ Carrying His Cross in Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford.

Back in London we contact the Cathedral again and yes, they have a picture just like it and a record from 1817 that confirms it to be a copy by our man: ‘Mr Leeming for picture over the altar 52.10.0 and for frame 15.0.0’ (that's £sd, by the way). An expensive picture, and the frame wasn’t cheap either. It is hanging high on a wall in the North East Transept. If we needed another reason to go back to Hereford yet again, here it is.
Leeming and his contemporaries believed that the original picture was by the Spanish 17th century artist Francisco Ribalta. Except that it almost certainly wasn’t – and we’ll have more to say about the attribution in our 30 April blog, when we tell the story of our third visit to Hereford. But we have one more blog before that, on the 16 April, when we look at the chess at The Hereford Chess Club.

A footnote on reliquaries. The Russell Reliquary was bequeathed to the Cathedral by Canon Thomas Russell the Younger (the subject of Leeming’s portrait) in 1831. It is a casket made c1200-10 to preserve a revered piece, maybe a finger bone, of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was assassinated by followers of King Henry II in 1170. The dastardly deed is depicted in enamel on the casket’s main panel.

Not the Hereford Reliquary, but another like it, in Limoges enamel, with assassination in full swing.

Photo: British Museum.

A locking door at the back opens to reveal a chamber for the relic itself, though that has long since disappeared from the Russell Reliquary, which was displayed in 1999 at an exhibition in Limoges. 14 others from the four corners of Christendom were also on view. Not since 1170 had so much Becket been assembled in one place.


With thanks to Kirsty Clarke, Library and Archives Assistant, Hereford Cathedral.

The Hereford Congress picture originates in the Illustrated London News, but was sourced from here .

Every Picture Tells A Story Index

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