Friday, 10 April 2015

Rice portrait of Jane Austen - A case of the wrong Legg?

The 'Rice' Portrait
In previous posts I have been looking at the Byrne portrait of Jane Austen but in this one I thought I would share some research I have carried out into what is now known as the Rice Portrait – once erroneously known as the “Zoffany Portrait” - believed by its owners to be a portrait of Jane Austen when she was about 12 or 13, painted by Ozias Humphry. 

There is plenty of information about the on the Rice portrait’s website here. The portrait has a long and tortured history and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) no longer accept that the portrait is of Jane Austen or indeed that it is by Ozias Humphry.

One of their principal objections relates to a linen stamp found on the back of the portrait. Duty was payable on linen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and each piece of cloth was required to be stamped with the supplier’s name and place of abode. Relining has revealed one such stamp on the back of the Rice portrait for William Legg of High Holborn. It is known that there was an artist’s colourman named William Legg who hailed from Reading and who traded from High Holborn for a short period at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He appears in Kent’s Annual London Directory for the years 1803-1806 and in Holden’s Triennial Directory and the Post Office London Directory for 1805. However, William Legg was known to be trading in Reading prior to 1801 in partnership with his brother John as a coach maker, painter and glazier. The NPG have argued that the portrait therefore cannot be of Jane Austen when she was 12 or 13 as the earliest date W. Legg was in Holborn was 1801 when she was aged 25. Furthermore Ozias Humphry stopped painting when he went blind in 1797 so if William Legg was the linen supplier then the portrait cannot be painted by Ozias Humphry. 

The evidence of the linen stamp is therefore one of the main objections raised by the NPG to the portrait being painted prior to 1800. 

But is it possible that this is a case of mistaken identity? Could there possibly have been TWO William Leggs supplying linen from High Holborn, one at an earlier date to the other? 

There are two known stamps for William Legg from Reading – but they are not exactly the same as the one on the Rice portrait. They read: W & J Legg/High Holborn/LINEN. 

But the stamp on the Rice Portrait reads: 

Wm Legg High Holbourn 1 Linen 

The stamp on the reverse of the Rice portrait

The Rice portrait stamp has no ‘J’ and also spells Holborn with a ‘u’, an earlier form of the name. 

So is there any evidence for another William Legg who might have traded in linen from the High Holborn area during the late 1780s? I have discovered one man who may have done so, a certain William Daniel Legg. 

William Daniel Legg was born in 1743 and baptised at St Sepulchre, Newgate Street, Holborn, London. His parents were Thomas and Mary Legg. A Thomas Legg married a Mary Thursby at St Sepulchre on 19 February 1739, probably William’s father and mother. Thomas Legg was a printer, stationer and carpenter from Deptford. In 1755, when he was fourteen years old, William Daniel Legg was apprenticed for seven years to John Norris of the Haberdasher’s Company. Norris is variously described in the records as a haberdasher and as a joiner. (Merchants in the eighteenth century were commonly pluralists utilising a variety of skills.) John Norris owned property at Cherry Tree Alley, Bunhill Row in London and traded as a ‘ready made linen draper’ at Cornhill, but his property was sold when he went bankrupt in December 1785. 

William Daniel Legg had a brother, Thomas John Motley (sometimes Mottley) Legg, born in 1745. Motley is not a particularly common name. It also happens to be the name of the first wife of Jane Austen’s great uncle Francis Austen, the man responsible for commissioning the portrait. Anne Motley was the daughter of Thomas Motley of Beckenham, Kent . It is possible that Thomas Legg senior had a friend named either Thomas or John Motley and named his son after him. Naming a child after a valued friend or patron was common practice. It is also worth noting that Thomas Legg later mentioned in his will some property in Beckenham Lane, Bromley, not far from Thomas Motley’s Beckenham estate. This may, of course, be nothing but coincidence. Thomas John Motley Legg was apprenticed in 1760 to the printer Halhed Garland. Garland had himself been apprenticed to the printer turned novelist Samuel Richardson who was so greatly admired by Jane Austen. As a young girl Jane may have borrowed Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison from Francis Austen’s second wife Jane (born Chadwick, later Lennard). 

Thomas John Motley Legg died suddenly in 1778. His father Thomas Legg was now living at Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, Mayfair in the parish of St George Hanover Square where he was apparently  involved in the management of Mount Street Workhouse, which with a capacity for up to 700 paupers was one of the largest in the country. He, along with Alexander Grant of Mount Street and Robert Grant of White Rose Court, Coleman Street, London, are named in a document of the same date in which Thomas Legg applied for administration of his son’s property. Thomas John Motley Legg was buried in the family vault at St Paul’s, Deptford. 

Like John Norris, William Daniel Legg is variously described as a haberdasher and joiner. He also had an interest in architecture, which at that time required no formal qualifications or training. He apparently obtained the patronage of Brownlow Cecil, the 9th Earl of Exeter and there are several building projects at the Earl’s estate at Burghley and at nearby Stamford attributed to him dating from the 1780’s onwards. His father’s will, written in 1790, describes him as ‘William Daniel Legg of Stamford in the county of Lincoln surveyor and architect’. (The Stamford connection may be as a result of relations of his mother Mary Thursby, the name has connections with Stamford. John Harvey Thursby was MP for Stamford from 1754 until 1761.) 

William also continued to trade in London as on 17 June 1797 he temporarily took over the apprenticeship of John Walters from the latter’s father, Thomas Walters a prosperous merchant in Shadwell, East London, who traded in ship’s biscuits, Irish provisions and sail cloth. (Sail cloth was made from the same or similar linen canvas as that used by artists for picture cloth. For more information on picture cloths see the National Portrait Gallery’s website.) 

William Daniel Legg died in 1806 at Stamford and like his brother was buried in the family vault at St Paul’s, Deptford. His father Thomas Legg had died five years earlier in 1801. William apparently did not marry or have children and I have not yet traced a will for him. But on 23 May 1806 the Stamford Mercury advertised an auction of his possessions to take place on 26 May 1806 and for five following days, which included over 400 books, a similar number of prints and ‘too great a variety of other valuable and good furniture to insert in an advertisement.’ 

Could William Daniel Legg have traded out of High Holborn in the 1780s? It is possible. His connections and origins were in the area and the streets of Holborn and High Holborn were one of the main trading areas for drapers in the late eighteenth century; the National Archives hold records for dozens of linen drapers trading here at the time. He was apprenticed for seven years by a haberdasher who traded just down the road at Cornhill and, despite his interests in Stamford, William Daniel Legg continued trading in London. In my next post I will look at William Daniel Legg’s trading connections and why two William Leggs supplying linen from High Holborn may not be a coincidence at all.