Saturday, November 30, 2013

Every Picture Tells a Story: Readers Digest

Number 23 in a never-ending story: this one by Martin Smith with borrowings from, and comment by, Richard Tillett.

Followers of our EPTAS saga – told here – may be wondering what, if anything, has happened since our last post a year ago; and new readers may be wondering what we are talking about anyway. To save the latter the trouble of wading through all 22 posts to date, and to provide a refresher for the former, there now follows the edited highlights, a digested read, during which we will explain how we have not been completely idle in the last twelve-month.  

In 2010 your intrepid bloggers Richard Tillett and Martin Smith were much taken with the reproduction of an early 19th century painting of six gents playing chess in Hereford, observed by a seventh.

Thomas Leeming's Portraits of the Gentlemen of the Hereford Chess Society
(version exhibited Royal Academy 1818; current whereabouts unknown)
The artist - one Thomas Leeming - was pretty obscure, and the players just as much so. But undeterred, and by fits and starts via several blind alleys, over two long years, we unearthed the full story, including three versions of the picture, a few other works by Leeming, one of them hanging in the unlikely environs of the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, and a web of social and business relations between these gents of Hereford who are the subject of the painting – some of whom, we discovered, were not quite as obscure as all that. 

We reconstructed Thomas Leeming’s life in most respects, from Lancaster where he was born in 1788/9 to Oxford, London, and of course Hereford, which is where he married in 1817. He fathered two sons with his wife Mary, one of whom died in infancy. Thomas himself died in 1822 - too young at 33. Happily his widow remarried. Thomas, by the way, is the standing figure at the back: he had inserted his own self-portrait, suggesting that he too was a chess player.  

We established that Leeming was certainly a talented artist, but not of the top rank, and consequently he struggled in his main line of business, as a painter of miniature portraits – the fashion of the time and a highly competitive market. He had to make do as best he could otherwise with commissions and copying. 

In the first decade of the 19th century he fell in with the bunch of professional gents in Hereford who he depicted in his group portrait; they were identified on a panel (now destroyed, but recorded in a photograph) on the back of the version in the Hereford Museum. The version that was shown in the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1818 has one substitution when compared with the Hereford version – the newcomer is the chap in red; and thereby hangs an extraordinary tale of its own, which we recounted here. Some of the background details of the picture change version to version as well – which all adds to the fascination and intrigue.

The chess game is painted with enough precision and authenticity to enable the position to be reconstructed (we discussed it in detail here). This formed the centrepiece of a display about the painting at Hereford Museum a year ago to mark the 200th anniversary of the formation of the first Hereford Chess Club (the subject of the painting), and the 50th anniversary of the modern club. We are, as at today’s date, at the 201st and 51st anniversaries respectively.

The "Hereford Version" of Leeming's painting, with a reconstruction of the chess position,
on display in November 2012 in Hereford Museum.
 (from episode 22)
So who were the various Chess Gents of Hereford? Well, we won’t go into details of them all here as that would take us too far afield, but they were a colourful crowd and if you fancy checking them out in our original blog series two posts are particularly relevant here and here. Rather, we will refer in this post to just one: the larger-than-the-rest fellow who is playing the white pieces, Edwin Goode Wright. He was the proprietor and editor of the local paper, the Hereford Journal, and he may have commissioned the painting. Thomas had done very well to make his acquaintance and paint him as if winning the game.

Goode Wright merited a notice of his own death in the Illustrated London News in 1859, from which we learnt that during his life he made quite a bang with the “discovery of the advantageous employment of fulminating mercury in the preparation of the percussion cap”. We have not delved into the breadth of Goode Wright’s principal talent as a journalist, but in one particular area we found that he was first rate: he turned in a very fine obituary (Goode Wright - good read); and the one we think he wrote for Thomas Leeming in May 1822 proved an important source of contemporaneous information and opinion to help us unlock his biography.

Of the many other obits that Goode Wright might have penned there is another that has a particular connection with Thomas as he had painted a watercolour portrait of the very same subject: the Reverend William Hollings (1750?-1820).

Thomas Leeming's watercolour of the Reverend William Hollings (c 1819)
Courtesy of the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery ©
An obscurity Hollings may now be, but in his time he acquired considerable celebrity  - if that be the right term to use - in Hereford at any rate, as you can judge below.

And here we can interject an explanation of just how it is that the grass has not been growing under our feet in the past year. Richard, you see, has another string to his bow. He is a card-carrying member of The Parson Woodforde Society (PWS), and as such has an occasional interest in the life, times and quirks of provincial clergymen. To be more precise: in the minutiae of their times, and the fine grain of their pursuits as observed and as committed to their personal notebooks and diaries: Parson Woodforde (1740-1803) himself having been a model chronicler of his temps otherwise perdu.

The Revd. James Woodforde.
Not a Leeming, but by Woodforde's nephew Samuel,
from here.
The PWS produces a handsome Quarterly Journal and the front cover of the current issue is adorned with Leeming’s portrait of Hollings. Inside, Richard provides a short and lucid introduction to the contemporary obituary of the Reverend Hollings, one that he plausibly conjectured was written by our chess-playing newspaper editor Edwin Goode Wright. In the course of Richard’s intro a link to our esteemed blog appears. Is there no corner into which our writ does not run?

As Richard says “avaricious, mean, duplicitous, and of dubious personal habits…to call the Reverend William Hollings of Hereford ‘eccentric’ scarcely does him justice….Oh, and there’s a hint of cross-dressing as well.” In such a litany of aberration, obsessive chess-playing might be considered a saving grace, but sadly there is no mention in the obit of such a redemptive feature. (Nor, since we are on the subject, did Parson Woodforde fess up to chess.) However, if you want to check the chess indulgencies of other, later, “Fighting Reverends” as Tim Harding dubs them, chapter 5 of his Eminent Victorian Chess Players discusses them, as does Batgirl in this excellent post.

Here are a few extracts from that obituary of Hollings, and to quote Richard again “It is a splendid specimen of the obituarist’s craft...” informed no doubt, for better or worse, by intimate neighbourly proximity in St. Owen Street, Hereford. Of course, these snippets give only a snatched sketch of the salient features of the creature that was Hollings. The complete obit animates the full grotesquery in a way not captured by Leeming’s, perhaps sanitised, watercolour. But for that you will have to buy a copy of the PWS’s Quarterly Journal (details in the acknowledgements below).

Extracts from obituary of Reverend William Hollings, from the Hereford Journal 12th April 1820  
“In the night of 25th March 1820, died the Reverend William Hollings, in the 70th year of his age. He was a native of this city, brought up in the College School, and afterwards graduated at Brasenose College, Oxford.
“Taking holy orders, he officiated many years as Curate of Ullingswick, in this County…but left the situation in disgust, and under a vow that he would never resume his clerical functions. This resolution was strictly adhered to during the remainder of his life…
“His understanding was good, his education respectable, and his conversation not unpleasant; cleanliness did not distinguish his person, and his dress was singular and shabby…
 “His diet was cheap and homely: a few pennyworths of tripe and a quart of water in which it had been boiled, occasionally constituted, with the aid of a sixpenny loaf, two meals of more than usual indulgence. The cooking on these occasions was simple and efficient: it consisted in soaking the crumb hollowed out from the loaf in the liquor of the tripe, for one day’s repast; and of placing the tripe itself in the cavity of the loaf for the next day’s junket.
“ [His] appearance….was grotesque in the extreme. The capacity of his pockets seemed to be the principal object in the construction of his coat…the effect of time had strongly tinged it with the verde antique so valuable in the eye of the antiquary…His hat was round and shallow; his hair was sandy and despising the vain control of a black and bushy wig, it acquired for him the title of “Will of the golden whiskers”.

“The mother of Mr H. lived with him to the time of her death…She left a set of chemises nearly new, and the circumstance of her son wearing and washing them afterwards might have been concealed from history, had he not often been observed to place them on the drying line in his garden.
 “Mr Hollings was never married; but notwithstanding all his eccentricities, he had the merit of great devotion to the female sex; and the faithless promise of his mother’s black silk cape had induced many a fair damsel to indulge him with her society.  
“He was found dead in a miserable house, in a miserable room, without an attendant, without fire, without sheets, without curtains, and without any other visible comfort…The scene which succeeded bids defiance to description…Wives, widows and maids urged the promises they had received; parsons and proctors, lawyers and doctors assembled on the spot; one person required remuneration for drugs, another for drams, a third for dinners, and a fourth for cider. In short, the demand, the expectations, the confusion seemed universal; and on unfolding his will it appeared that, with the exception of a few trifling legacies, his relatives were wholly excluded, [and] his expectants disappointed…
“Thus lived, and thus died, the Reverend William Hollings…and if he be unentitled to the credit of having performed much positive good, perhaps he cannot be charged with the commission of much positive evil.”
These extracts give you something of the pungent flavour of the man who was the Reverend William Hollings, as was well told by his obituarist in the Hereford Journal: and herein lies another twist in our tale, typical of the unanticipated surprises that have waylaid us over the past few years. Only last week, as the ink was drying on our post and it was poised for publication, Dr John Eisel, the historian of Hereford who has generously helped us throughout and saved us from occasional embarrassment, got in touch and had us reaching for the delete button.

He alerted us to the possibility that the Hollings obituary was written by a hand other than of Leeming's friend and chess partner Edwin Goode Wright. And thus yet another character appears in our chronicle: the Reverend J. Duncumb, Rector of Abbey Dore (a few miles south west of the City). Duncomb also had a house in St. Owen Street, Hereford (and, as it happens, was the man who officiated at Thomas Leeming's marriage to Mary Link in 1817). He would have known Hollings and would have been in the unenviable position of savouring his personal habits. Perhaps he, given his calling, was better practised, even than Goode Wright, in the art of not speaking ill of the dead, however unappetising the subject.

When and if there is anything more to report in the EPTAS saga, you will be the first to know.   

Acknowledgments etc.
Parson Woodforde Society  The PWS may still have some copies of the Autumn 2013 issue of their Quarterly Journal, which contains the full obituary of the Reverend William Hollings, cost £3.00 including post and packing from Martin Brayne, email:
With thanks again to Dr John Eisel, and to Hereford Museum and Art Gallery for use of the Leeming painting of Hollings.
Dr.Timothy Harding (2012) Eminent Victorian Chess Players published by McFarland.

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