Saturday, June 02, 2012

Every Picture Tells A Story: A Tale Horrid to Relate

Blog Number 21 in the series, in which we bring the story of Thomas Leeming’s painting of the gentlemen of the Hereford Chess Club up-to-date with a report from Richard Tillett, with some additions from Martin Smith.

The grinning figure of Death embraces a suicide victim
– an engraving of 1785.
In September 1817 the Morning Chronicle carried a grisly story about a ‘melancholy suicide’ in Ireland:
"Cork, Sept. 15 – Yesterday, about one o’clock, the door of a bedroom in the Royal Mail Coach Hotel, Patrick Street was forced open, in consequence of the person who slept there for the last eight nights, and who was in the habit of rising at or before nine o’clock every morning, not appearing, when horrid to relate, he was discovered in bed, covered with blood, having discharged the contents of a pistol, which he held in his hand, through his head, a little above the right ear, which was supposed to have caused instantaneous death. Another pistol lay on the bed to be used in case the first should not have accomplished his fatal purpose.”
An inquest was held and the coroner declared that the deceased ‘came by his death by a pistol ball, fired by his own hand in a fit of mental derangement’.

The unfortunate fellow was a young man, around 26 years of age, who had been travelling under a false name, Mr Browne. He was on the run, having absconded from his employers, the Hereford Bank, the previous month after defrauding them of a substantial sum of money. A reward of £100 had been offered by the bank for his apprehension.

His real name was Samuel Beavan, a name that may be familiar to readers of previous posts in our Every Picture Tells a Story series about Thomas Leeming’s painting of the gentlemen of the Hereford chess club.

We think that the Samuel Beavan who committed suicide in 1817 is the same Samuel Beavan portrayed in the foreground of the 1815 version of the painting. We cannot be certain about this, as there were other Samuel Beavans in the Hereford area at this time, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling.

This is a detail from the picture showing Beavan on the left playing Edwin Goode Wright, owner of the Hereford Journal which carried the same story of his suicide a few days after it appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and this is the picture in its entirety:

By kind permission of Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, Herefordshire Heritage Services ©
We didn’t know much about Samuel Beavan when we last wrote about him, and some of our speculations have turned out to be mistaken. However it does seem likely that he came from a prominent family of Beavans which had military and landowning connections in Herefordshire and the Welsh border country, as suggested by David Whitehead, Honorary Secretary of the Woolhope Club (the long-established Hereford society that investigates the history, geology and culture of the area).

The discovery of the suicide appears to have solved one of the mysteries surrounding the two main versions of the painting. We wondered why Beavan was the only sitter in the 1815 version to be replaced when Leeming came to paint the picture again for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1818. Now there’s an obvious explanation - the Beavan scandal of 1817 and his suicide would have so appalled Hereford society that he had to be removed from the composition and another sitter found. The convenient solution was James Buckton, the thoroughly respectable lawyer who in 1819 married Eliza Link, sister of Thomas Leeming’s wife (as we recounted here). The substitution would have been easy to arrange as Buckton was based in London and could have sat for Leeming at his studio in Park Street, Mayfair.

Samuel Beavan’s replacement James Buckton
- in the 1818 version of the picture
None of this would have emerged were it not for the historian and President of the Woolhope Club Dr John Eisel. Martin and I met John in March when we gave a talk in Hereford to the Club about Thomas Leeming and his work in the city. John brought the Beavan suicide to our attention, as well as giving us further valuable information about the chess gents in the picture. Thank you John - and thanks to the fifty or so members of the Club who came along to the Shire Hall to share our fascination with Leeming and his works.

Another mystery solved
We’ve long been puzzled about Thomas Leeming’s origins – all we knew was that he was a Lancashire man. Now we’ve found the answer, in the British Library’s ever-expanding online database the British Newspaper Archive.

In 1822 the Lancaster Gazette carried a brief mention of Thomas’s death, noting that he was the brother of John Leeming, a bookseller in the town. This confirms that Thomas was the sixth of seven children born to Ann and William Leeming, variously described as a letter case maker, bookbinder and stationer. John was the oldest of Thomas’s brothers and by 1812 had a bookselling business and circulating library in the town.

We can speculate that Thomas Leeming’s entrée to Hereford society came through the Allen family who, like the Leemings, owned a bookshop and circulating library. John Allen Junior is one of the sitters in Leeming’s picture of the Hereford chess club and was the subject of an earlier post in our series.

And finally...
It is possible that there are more revelations to be discovered in the Thomas Leeming saga, in which case, dear readers, you will be the first to know. There is also the forthcoming bicentenary, in November, of the inauguration of the first Hereford Chess club, commemorated in Thomas’s painting – when we expect that Hereford Museum and Art Gallery will put their version of the picture (the one reproduced above) on public display. But, otherwise and for the time being, the Every Picture Tells a Story story has been told.

Death claims a suicide pic comes from here
Every Picture Tells A Story Index

1 comment:

Jonathan B said...

Spectacular series this. Still going too.