Sunday, 22 July 2018

Two portraits by John Constable?

In my last post I argued that two paintings which came up for sale in November 2015 at Clevedon Salerooms near Bristol (see Here and Here) are in fact portraits of Louisa Manners Tollemache, Countess of Dysart and her relative Henry Greswolde Lewis of Malvern Hall.

The pictures have been neglected and their whereabouts prior to their appearance at the Clevedon auction in November 2015 is something of a mystery.

'Mr Jones' or Henry Greswolde Lewis                                              'Mrs Smith' or Louisa Manners Tollemache

Henry Greswolde Lewis aged 55 and at 69 

Louisa Manners Tollemache at 16 and at 78

If I am correct, then there is one artist whose name is inextricably linked with both the Tollemache and the Lewis family.

John Constable was introduced to Wilbraham Tollemache, the 6th Lord Dysart, in 1807 when the latter was looking for someone to copy some family portraits. In November 1807 John Constable wrote that he had for the past three months been employed by Lord Dysart in copying pictures and painting original portraits at the Earl's house in Piccadilly.

It was probably at this time that he met Lord Dysart's sister, Louisa Manners Tollemache, and in the following year Constable is recorded as carrying out work for her. By 1809, John Constable was also receiving commissions from Henry Greswolde Lewis whose two sisters, Magdalene and Anna Maria Lewis, had married into the Tollemache family:

In July 1809, Constable's mother wrote to her son: 'I hope you will go to Mr Lewis's, as you mention, & that it will prove to your advantage.'

Constable painted Henry Greswolde Lewis' portrait that year, as well as his home, Malvern Hall and his ward Mary Freer.

Mary Freer, ward of Henry Greswolde Lewis
 by John Constable 1809

Malvern Hall, Home of Henry Greswolde Lewis
by John Constable 1809

Henry Greswolde Lewis by John Constable 1809

In March 1811 Ann Constable wrote to her son, 'I am glad to know you have received a friendly letter from Mr Lewis, tho' he is a very eccentric character, he is a friend of value to you  - and such, artists must cultivate.'

Over the next ten years came regular commissions from Henry Greswolde Lewis, some of which were rather strange, such as Lewis' request to paint Mary Freer's eye for a shirt pin. In 1818 Lewis asked Constable to paint a nine foot portrait of Lewis' Norman ancestor for the stairwell at Malvern Hall and later, in 1829, Constable designed a sign for a pub that Lewis owned in Solihull. As Christie's remark in their essay to accompany the sale of Constable's original 1809 portrait of Henry Greswolde Lewis in 2011, 'That Constable was prepared to carry out such commissions is testimony to a strong and enduring friendship.'

When the 6th Earl of Dysart, Wilbraham Tollemache, died in March 1821, the male line of the Tollemache family became extinct, and Wilbraham's sister, 75 year-old Louisa Manners Tollemache inherited the title and estates, including Ham House. Long since widowed, after her inheritance Louisa appears to have relied on Constable even more than previously. On 24 March 1821, Henry Greswolde Lewis wrote to Constable from Ham House: 'I am desired by Lady Louisa Manners to ask you to come down here, after Monday – any day at your convenience, you will find a bed for you if necessary to stop here. It is some arrangement of pictures she wishes to consult you about.'

Constable was tasked with collecting some pictures from Mansion House, Piccadilly to take to Helmingham Hall as required by the late Earl's will. Two views of Malvern Hall by Constable went to Magdalene Tollemache. She died two years later, leaving her collection to her brother Henry Greswolde Lewis. Constable was called upon again, to take charge of the pictures until they could be sent down to Malvern Hall.

Constable's biographer R B Beckett notes, 'the somewhat tiresome patronage that Constable had long received from Louisa Countess of Dysart was now intensified; but it was blended with so much kindness – one might almost say affection – that he never seems to have resented it.'

Although Beckett may have perceived Louisa's requests as 'tiresome', perhaps Constable saw things differently - Louisa was supportive of Constable, even providing employment for his elder brother Golding Constable as a warden of woods on the Helmingham Hall estate which Louisa had inherited. There does seem to have been a genuine fondness between them which developed into a lifelong friendship.

The Dell at Helmingham Park
John Constable 1800
Henry Greswolde Lewis died in 1829, John Constable in 1837. Louisa outlived them both; she died at Ham House in September 1840 at the age of 95. When she died, Mary Constable (John’s sister) wrote to her nephew John: ‘alas – the Countess of Dysart is no more - her memory must ever be mixed in our sweetest cup…; we are only left to be thankful that we ever received her favours’.

Given the close relationship that existed between artist and patron, it is almost inconceivable that the portraits of Henry Greswolde Lewis and Louisa Manners Tollemache the Countess of Dysart would be painted by anyone but John Constable.

Stylistically the two portraits very much fit with Constable's known works.

The size of the portraits are three-quarter-size, Constable's preferred format. After 1816 with a family to maintain, Constable made considerable efforts to develop a practice as a portrait painter and almost all his portraits after this date are painted in the three-quarter-size format. (Read more Here.)

Constable used minimal props and the lack of distraction meant he could focus on the facial expression of the subject and this is exactly what we see in the two portraits of Louisa and Henry, where in both cases the eye is drawn towards the face of the sitter.

Constable did not like painting hands, something he found difficult. In Constable Portraits The Painter and His Circle co-written by Martin Gayford and Anne Lyles to accompany the exhibition of the same at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, the authors write: ‘When Constable includes one or both hands – which happens more frequently in the case of female sitters, perhaps at their request to show off their wedding rings – they often fall dangerously close to the lower edge of the picture.’

Mrs James Andrew by John Constable c1818

Mrs Edwards by John Constable c1818

Mrs Tuder by John Constable c1818

Golding Constable by John Constable c1815

Particularly interesting is this portrait of Constable's mother which is in the Tate Gallery and thought to have been painted in Constable's studio:

Ann Constable by John Constable 1815?

There is a noticeable similarity in the poses of Ann Constable, Henry Greswolde Lewis and Louisa Manners:

     Ann Constable                                       Henry Greswolde Lewis                                      Louisa Manners   

Furthermore, Ann Constable and Henry Greswolde Lewis are seated on the same chair:

Ann Constable                          Henry Greswolde Lewis

Louisa is sitting on a coordinating chair of the same colour and on hers we can see more clearly the gold studding which is evident on the chair in the portrait of Ann Constable:

Louisa Manners                             Ann Constable 

Also of interest is Constable's portrait of Reverend Dr James Andrew, painted in about 1818 and also held at the Tate:

Revd Dr James Andrew by John Constable c1818

The pose is similar to Henry Greswolde Lewis, with one hand resting on an object near the bottom of the painting:

Also, if you look closely at Revd James Andrew, he too appears to be sitting in the same red chair as Ann Constable and Henry Greswolde Lewis:

This suggests that the portraits of Louisa Manners and Henry Greswolde Lewis were painted at Constable's studio in London.

There is more evidence that the portraits are the work of Constable.

On the NPG's website there is an image of a frame stamp on Constable's painting, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. The frame mark was a stamp placed by the canvas supplier, in this case Henry Matley. Rectangular in shape, the frame mark gives the dimensions of the cloth sold, the date, and a 'progressive control number' or serial number applied by the supplier. (You can read more about frame marks on the NPG website Here.) Although Constable did not paint Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows until around 1829, the date on the frame mark is 1816 or 1818. The progressive control number, or serial number, is 607.

On the back of the portrait of Henry Greswolde Lewis ('Mr Jones') there is a stamp which shows a progressive control number of 610. This would suggest that this canvas was supplied by the same supplier at the same time or very shortly after Constable purchased the canvas for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 1816 or 1818. Unfortunately the date stamp is not visible.

The frame mark is not visible on the portrait of Louisa Manners Tollemache, Lady Dysart, ('Mrs Smith') save for the end of the last digit '2' on the date stamp on the far right of the image. The rest of the frame mark is obscured by the stretcher bar but I believe the complete date, were it visible, would read 1822.

In February 1823 Magdalene Tollemache Lewis died. Lady Louisa was now the only surviving descendant of the sixteen children of the 4th Earl of Dysart and Henry Greswolde Lewis' three sisters were all dead too.

Anjana Ahuja, the owner of the portrait which she calls 'Mrs Smith', wrote that she calls her picture 'the Merry Widow'. The sitter is wearing half-mourning - predominantly black with a black veil but with a cream blouse. ('Half mourning' was the stage after 'deep mourning', during which phase the bereaved relative wears lighter clothing or accessories.) But the mourning was not for Louisa's husband John Manners who died thirty years previously but for her recently deceased sister-in-law Magdalene Lewis Tollemache. The two women were of a similar age and had been related by marriage for over thirty years.

Henry Greswolde Lewis was now aged 69. The death of his sister meant that he was the last survivor of the family and as neither he nor any of his three sisters had any offspring, Henry knew that when he died the family line would become extinct.

Lady Louisa celebrated her 78th birthday on 02 July 1823. She held a grand party at Ham House on 10 July, recorded by John Constable in a letter to his friend Fisher: 'Lady Dysart (the last of the Tollemaches) has a grand party tonight. I was there yesterday.' 

That Louisa and Henry were the last of their generation would be reason enough for Lady Louisa to commission portraits of the two of them But another reason may have been to help Constable financially.

Since 1819 Constable had devoted time to producing large scale landscapes for exhibition at the Royal Academy. 1823 was the only year he did not produce a landscape for exhibition and the reason, it seems, was because he was occupied in working for other people. During the previous winter Constable and other members of his family were unwell, which resulted in him accruing large medical bills. In consequence Constable needed more commissions to pay off his debts. That year Constable told his friend Fisher, 'my difficulty lies in what I am to do for the world, next year I must work for myself – and must have a large canvas.'  While portrait painting was not Constable's first choice - he dismissively referred to them as 'jobs' or 'dead horses'  - a commission from Lady Dysart for two portraits would have provided him with much needed income.

On 18 August 1823 Constable wrote to Fisher: ‘I was at the Countess of Dysart’s (the last of the Tollemache’s) fête champêtre at the old house at Ham. I have pleased her by painting two portraits lately, and she has sent me half a buck.’

So here is written evidence, from Constable himself, confirming that he painted two portraits for Lady Louisa in the summer of 1823.

The portraits are noted in the 1937 edition of C R Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, edited by Andrew Shirley but their whereabouts are unknown.

Shirley lists the portraits but no asterisk denotes that he had never personally seen them

I believe the portraits of 'Mrs Smith' and 'Mr Jones' that mysteriously surfaced at auction in November 2015 are the two portraits which Constable painted for Lady Dysart in 1823.

The obvious question now is how did they end up at auction in Clevedon with one of them bearing the signature of James Northcote?

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