A Twopeny Portfolio: #12 Portrait of John Hemsley at Woodstock

This is the twelfth work of twenty-five bought at Anderson & Garland Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 March 2-17, lot 46 as Various Artists (British 19th Century) Sundry drawings and watercolours, mainly topographical and floral studies, including a grisaille “South Gate Lynn, Norfolk”, bearing the signature J.S. Cotman, various sizes, all unframed in a folio.

Here we complete a group of drawings connected with Woodstock House, near Sittingbourne in Kent. The others are all landscape subjects but this is a portrait and somewhat later in date. It offers a tantalising memorial of a long-lived working man, without which he might otherwise be unremembered.

Unknown artist
Portrait of John Hemsley, aged seventy-seven, at Woodstock, 1850
Pencil on heavyweight, cream, wove paper, 353 x 252 mm
Inscribed lower right presumably by the artist, ‘John Hemsley Aet 77/ Woodstock Jany 9th 1850’.

This is a fluent pencil portrait of a man seated on a cushioned wooden-framed chair, facing left, reading a book. He is dressed in a riding coat, waistcoat, cravat, breeches buttoned spats and laced soft leather shoes. It is smart but practical attire and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned, the best suit of an ordinary county farmer. One might have encountered this outfit almost any time from the later eighteenth century.

The inscription tells us that this is a portrait of one John Hemsley, aged seventy seven, drawn at Woodstock on January 9th, 1850. There is no indication of the artist, but given the context in this portfolio we might assume a member of the Twopeny family. Woodstock was the country seat of the Twopeny family and at this time was the residence of Edward Twopeny and his family.

The date of the drawing proves that items continued to be added to the portfolio through at least until 1850. It might even be by David Twopeny. There is nothing quite like this amongst the other work given to him in the portfolio, but many of the drawings that we have already considered show a considerable facility with figures, albeit not as the main subject and not requiring the skills of portraiture as such. This appears to be quite practiced in that art. The head is confidently handled and the drawing is decisive around the features. Other parts of the figure – the shoulder at the right and the legs are less definite, and perhaps indicate that this is not the work of a professional.

We can only speculate as to what the occasion might have been, but we can add some detail to the identity of the sitter.

The 1841 census records a John Hemsley aged sixty nine resident in nearby Bexon.

This hamlet is less than a mile south of Woodstock House and there can hardly have been any residences nearer, at least as the crow flies.

He is recorded as a labourer living with his wife, Sarah, aged 68 and one ‘Lodger’ Susan Styles aged 70. The word lodger is crossed out; perhaps she was a permanent housekeeper. There is no indication of any children, but if there were any they must have been long fledged.

There are only four dwellings besides Hemsley’s recorded on this page of the census. One is occupied by a waggoner and his large family, another occupied by a farmer and one child, another with just a couple in it, and Bexon Farm occupied by a Farmer and a large family. Perhaps significantly from a demographic point of view, all the householders in the village are elderly. John Hemsley at sixty-nine was one of the youngest. It is impossible to be sure which was John Hemsley’s house, but it seems likely that it was a modest dwelling. There are at least two very grand medieval timbered houses in Brexon, but both are far too large to have been occupied by only three persons. In the centre of the village, however is the old maltings, the component parts of which are the right size and age to have accommodated John Hemsley.

His profession is described as ‘labourer’, although the fact that he is shown reading marks him out as educated well above the level of most common labourers. He looks alert and of quizzical character, and distinctive in that he has a scar, perhaps a cleft, on his upper lip. He appears to be in excellent health, even spry, but it is something of a moot question as to quite what kind of labour might have been required of him at seventy-seven years. The issue should give us pause for social thought, but the fact that he was drawn at Woodstock suggests that he was retained there in some capacity.

Since the inscription specifically mentions the sitter’s age, it seems likely that the occasion marks a significant length of association, perhaps even a retirement. Aged seventy-seven, he could have worked for the Twopeny family at Woodstock for sixty-five years, almost since the house was built. That could even be him sweeping up in the garden outside the drawing-room window in a previous drawing of 15 July 1828.

To be continued:
That concludes our exploration of the Woodstock subjects in the portfolio. In the next part, we will return to Little Casterton in Rutlandshire, to examine a significant group of subjects made in and around the Old Rectory, the home of Revd Richard Twopeny.

One thought on “A Twopeny Portfolio: #12 Portrait of John Hemsley at Woodstock

  1. Dear Professor Hill,

    Many thanks for these messages. They have been fascinating on several levels and most enjoyable. I’ve learned a lot about drawing in the 19th century too.

    I shall look forward to more at some future date.

    Kind regards

    Michael Brewer

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