Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Legg Stamp on the Rice Portrait - a correction and a new stamp

This post concerns the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait for Wm Legg in the light of a recent addition to the debate  - a portrait which it has been claimed definitely ends the debate as it purports to carry a stamp for the same Wm Legg and to be unequivocally dated to 1803. This picture, if it is as claimed, would be conclusive evidence that the Rice Portrait is not of Jane Austen.

I have posted a number of times about the 'Legg' stamp on the Rice Portrait. For example, see my post HERE for 'A case of the wrong Legg'.

William Legg and W&J Legg

This stamp forms the crux of the National Portrait Gallery's argument that the Rice Portrait cannot be of a young Jane Austen. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) claim that the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait belongs to a certain William Legg who traded with his brother John in High Holborn as a colourman from 1801 to around 1805/6. It is known that this William Legg was in Reading prior to 1801 and so if the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait belongs to this individual then the NPG are correct to argue that the Rice Portrait cannot be a young Jane Austen as she was in her mid-twenties in the year 1800.

But - and it is a big But - as I have previously explained, the case is not clear cut as this for until recently all the known stamps for the colourman William Legg from Reading are shown with both William and his brother's initials, as W & J Legg.

Stamp for W&J Legg

The stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait is different. This stamp is for Wm Legg  -  NOT
W&J Legg.

Wm Legg stamp on Rice Portrait

I have argued that it is quite possible that the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait is for a different individual.

William Legg from Reading had an uncle whose name was also William Legg who is known to have traded as an upholder close to High Holborn and there was also another William Daniel Legg who was a linen trader in London at that time. There was also a very well established wollen trading family who traded in Cornhill by the name of Legg who were distantly related to the Knights of Godmersham Park - you can read about this Legg family on my blog HERE.

It therefore does not seem impossible that there was an earlier William Legg trading as a linen supplier and/or colourman from High Holborn at an earlier date, especially when you consider that Holborn was the prime area for linen traders - there were hundreds of such traders in this area in the late Eighteenth Century and many of them would have been undocumented.

As William Legg from Reading had previously traded as a coach maker and glazier in partnership with his brother, and as he only traded as a colourman in High Holborn for a few years, it is my belief that the Leggs were invited to come up to London to keep the business going after the death of the long-time proprietor James Poole. By 1806 they had gone back to coach making, this time in Oxford Street. This implies there may have been some earlier connection between James Poole and the Legg family. We also know that James Poole and Samuel Legg (the uncle of William Legg from Reading) had a mutual friend in one William East who came from the same small village of Wooburn as James Poole - and that they were all non-conformists.

I therefore believe it is perfectly possible that there was a previous William Legg who was responsible for the stamp on the Rice Portrait.

I have also argued that the Legg stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait differed to the linen stamps for 'W&J Legg' in two respects - that Holborn is spelt with a 'u' as Holbourn and also because it has a '1' after the words High Holborn.

A new William Legg stamp

Then, in the spring of 2017, the NPG updated the research pages on their website to include information about a picture which had recently come to light which carried a stamp on the back which was for Wm Legg:

'Legg’s canvas stamp, “Wm. LEGG,/ High-Holborn,/ LINEN.” is found on James Northcote’s Mrs Smith, 1803, with duty stamp dated 1802 (Private coll., London).' 

You can read more about the NPG research on their website HERE

This stamp, the NPG claimed, was identical to the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait. The painting was a portrait of an elderly woman dressed in black, which Jacob Simon of the NPG authenticated as being by James Northcote. It is signed 'J Northcote' and is dated 1803.

Jacob Simon subsequently produced a report: British canvas, stretcher and panel suppliers’ marks. Part 1, 1785-1831, which included an image of the Legg Stamp on the back of the Northcote and also an image of a partially obscured frame mark from the back of the Northcote painting which he claimed showed the date of 1802. (This is a PDF file  - you can locate it easily by putting the title in the search engine. If anyone knows how I can link to a PDF file please let me know!)

On the face of it then, this was categorical proof that the William Legg stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait dated that picture to the period 1801-1805 and it therefore could not be a portrait of Jane Austen.

Stamp on back of newly discovered 'Northcote' painting

A Correction

In the light of this I re-examined the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait. Here are three images in increasing scale:

The stamp on the Rice Portrait

I compared the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait to the stamp on the back of the 'Northcote' painting:

Holbourn or Holborn?

I now believe that the stamp on the Rice Portrait does NOT read 'Holbourn' after all  - I now believe that it reads HOLBORN and that I had been mistaken in believing the word to have been spelled differently.

The Figure '1' at the end of the words 'High Holborn'

In his report cited above, British canvas, stretcher and panel suppliers’ marks. Part 1, 1785-1831, Jacob Simon gives an example of a stamp by T Brown which has marks on the side, probably from the way the stamp was applied:

Rather than a numeric '1', I now think I was wrong about this too and that it is likely that the marking at the end of the stamp on the Rice Portrait could be a similar incidental marking from the edge of the stamp rather than a number which I originally believed to be the case.

(These are my opinions only and are not, as I understand it, shared by the owners of the Rice Portrait)

So where does this leave matters?

A conundrum

It appears that a near identical stamp to the Rice Portrait is indeed on the back of the portrait which the National Portrait Gallery has authenticated as being by James Northcote and dated 1803.

So is this the end of the story?

Far from it! For when I began investigating this picture I discovered that this so called Northcote portrait raises many intriguing and even disturbing questions - which I will be covering at length in future posts. This portrait is not what it seems.

As for the stamp, as I have noted, we know that William Legg from Reading only traded for a few years at High Holborn, from 1801 at the earliest until around 1806. Yet during this time he apparently used two different stamps concurrently. The stamps for W&J Legg, of which there are three, as far as I am aware, occur on paintings dated 1804 and 1807 and on one which is undated. The Northcote portrait is the only picture which bears a stamp identical to the one on the Rice Portrait. So how reliable is the date on this picture?

The 'Northcote' portrait is claimed by the owner and by the NPG to carry a date of 1802 on the frame mark on the back of the picture. On closer examination however this is by no means clear from the image of the frame mark which Jacob Simon shows in his report.

By way of comparison this is an image from the back of a Hoppner painting also contained in Jacob Simon's report:

The date 1800 can be seen sideways on the right hand side, reading from top to bottom.

So now let's look at the date on the back of the 'Northcote' which the NPG claim reads 1802:

Date 18 (02) is said to be visible on the far right turned sideways

Closer view - I can only see the back end of a 2 on the far right hand side NOT 02

It is claimed that the final two digits on this frame mark show the date as being (18) 02. However with the stretcher covering part of the markings I can only see the back of a '2'.

Were it not for the existence of the date 1803 on the portrait itself, then this date could read any year ending in a '2'. It certainly is not clear from this partial view that it reads 1802.

As Jacob Simon, acting for the National Portrait Gallery, authenticated this portrait as a genuine Northcote, despite some very questionable features, presumably he took the stretcher off the portrait to show the entire date. And yet the NPG have thus far, declined to share images of either the Legg stamp or the complete frame mark on the back.

A request by Mrs Rice to view this portrait and photograph these markings was refused by the owner, Financial Times journalist Anjana Ahuja, who replied:

I did, however, want to address your request for access to Mrs Smith to examine the stamp. This is not necessary. The William Legg stamp that appears on her reverse, can be found in three separate places in the public domain: on the NPG website; on the Clevedon saleroom website; and in my FT article at

As noted above, this is not adequate as the date on the back of the stamp cannot be seen unless the obscuring stretcher is removed so that the complete date can be scrutinised.

I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request via the website What Do They Know to the National Portrait Gallery for information about this picture including images of both the Legg stamp and the date. I am currently waiting for their response.

But how can it be possible that the date is not 1802 as claimed? After all, there is also a date on the front of the portrait of 1803.

Well - this too raises questions.

Let's take a look at the signature and date on the front of the portrait. Here is an image from the auctioneer's website. At the time of the sale the painting was described as 'attributed to James Northcote' despite carrying a signature - a warning to prospective buyers that the picture may not be all that it seems. The auctioneers also refer to 'a strange rubbed/greyish area around the signature also some scuffing in the same area'.

(You can read the auctioneer's report HERE)

Strange indeed! Could it be that the area has been rubbed back to reveal the signature? But if this was the case the signature too would have faded out whereas the lettering remains dark relative the surrounding area. It looks very much like the signature has been added AFTER the rubbing out has occurred. So what has been rubbed off? Who put this signature on this picture? And when?

What is certain is that there was no interest in this portrait and it sold for the reserve price of £400 to the journalist from the Financial Times, a fraction of the price a signed Northcote painting would usually reach at auction.

These days, in the age of the internet, it is extremely unlikely that this picture would have come to the market unnoticed. Clevedon Salerooms, like most auction houses, advertise online and email interested parties as to upcoming sales. So why was there no interest in this portrait? Did other prospective buyers dismiss it as not being a genuine Northcote? In which case what evidence is there that the picture IS genuine, that it does date to 1803 and that the frame mark is dated 1802? What research did the NPG carry out before authenticating it?

These are just a few of the very many questions which this picture raises. In my next post I will be examining this portrait in detail and revealing a surprising fact  - that a companion portrait was entered in the same sale.

Thank you for reading. Please note that the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone. If you have any information you would like to share then I would be delighted  to hear from you. You can reach me via the contact page on this website.

Ellie Bennett

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