Monday, 1 April 2019

William Legg

Today I want to return to the vexed question of the linen stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait.

The stamp reads Wm Legg/High Holborn/Linen

Regular readers will know about the Wm Legg stamp on the back of a painting which was very conveniently purchased by a Financial Times journalist and featured in that paper in April 2017.  However, as the owner refuses to show anyone the painting despite repeated requests, I believe this 'new evidence' should be disregarded unless the painting is produced for examination.

So, leaving that aside, what is the current situation?

There is a great deal of evidence supporting the claim that the Rice Portrait dates to the eighteenth century not the nineteenth century, including the expert opinion of the conservator who worked on the painting and the identification of the signature of Ozias Humphry on prints of glass negatives taken in 1911. (Since the signatures were identified, the NPG won't allow anyone except their own staff to look at the glass negatives themselves, claiming they are too fragile).

The sole evidence to which the NPG continues to cling, like a drowning man clutching driftwood, is the stamp for William Legg on the back of the Rice Portrait which they insist belongs to an artist's colourman called William Legg (1760-1823). This individual originated from Reading, and is known to have traded at 163 High Holborn from around 1801/2 - 1805/6, for a period of 3-5 years. The Rice Portrait they argue, must therefore also date to 1801-1806.

It is undisputed that this William Legg was trading with his brother John in Reading from August 1785 when they took over their father's business in 'the Coach, Sign, House-painting and Glazing Branches' until October 1801 when the business was dissolved and they moved to London to take over the business of colourman James Poole at High Holborn.

James Poole was trading as a colourman at 163 High Holborn for exactly the same period. He took out insurance at 163 High Holborn on 04 May 1785 and was listed in land tax records as being resident in High Holborn from this year, apparently at the same residence as a Henry Beard, in a property owned by an Elizabeth Smart, presumably number 163 High Holborn. James Poole was not living there in 1784 as the premises was then occupied by a Richard Parsons.

James Poole died on 6 July 1801 and his will was proved on 15 July 1801 by his friends and beneficiaries John Donner, victualler of High Holborn and William East, a paper maker from Wooburn, Bucks.

As Jacob Simon pointed out, William and his brother John would have been qualified to trade as colourmen and in late 1801 or early 1802 they left Reading and moved to London to run Poole's business. They traded here for 3 or 4 years only, as by January 1806 the brothers had moved to Oxford Street and were trading as coach builders and Thomas Brown took over the business at 163 High Holborn.

James Poole's executor and beneficiary William East was a friend of William Legg's cousin Samuel Legg, who traded as an upholder in London. (Samuel Legg later named William East's son as his own executor). It is possible that the arrangement for William and John Legg to run the business was only ever intended to be temporary until a suitable buyer could be found. This is supported by an entry for William Legg's successor, Thomas Brown, whose entry in the Post Office Directory for 1807 reads 'Brown T. Colour and Primed Cloth Manufactory, 163 High Holborn, Successor to Mr Legg, late Poole.'

We have no records for William Legg between his birth in Reading in 1760 and his taking over his father's business in 1785 at the age of 25. The ten first years of William Legg's working life are unaccounted for. It is at least a possibility that he was trading as a colourman or linen supplier in High Holborn prior to 1785 but returned to Reading to take over his father's business in 1785. This would explain why he was chosen with his brother to return to London after Poole's death to run the business on a temporary basis.

William Legg also had an uncle named William Legg who we know traded as a tallow chandler in Cursitor Street, close to High Holborn, in the 1790s but again, we have no record of where he was before this date. It is possible that he was trading in High Holborn at an earlier date.

On the other hand the 'Wm Legg' on the Rice Portrait could be a completely different individual. We do know that (the 'Northcote' painting excepted) the stamp on the Rice Portrait is unique in reading 'Wm Legg' rather than 'W&J Legg'.

Records are so sketchy for the eighteenth century that we simply do not know who was supplying canvas to artists from High Holborn before 1800. We do know that there were plenty of colourmen and linen drapers trading in High Holborn.

The National Archives, for example, holds records for the following:

John Atkinson (1798) 10 High Holborn, colourman
William Mayor (1795) 31 High Holborn, colourman
Samuel Strode (1777-1795) 126 High Holborn, colourman
George Woods Bird (1807) 203 High Holborn, colourman

NONE of these individuals are mentioned in the NPG directory of artist's suppliers.

There are certainly others for whom we have no record at all.

There are also records for dozens of linen suppliers.

For Jacob Simon to say it is impossible for the Rice Portrait to date to 1788/89 solely on the basis of the Wm Legg stamp on the back of the painting flies in the face of the facts.

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