The dignity of work; Solomon Brigstocke, Georgian farm labourer, and early portraits of working-class sitters

Back in 2010 I bought this painting an auction in Birmingham, for about the price of a tax disc. It is oil on canvas, 12 x 10 inches, and it was catalogued as Nineteenth Century, portrait of a shopkeeper.

SP English School 1797 Solomon Brigstock

The sitter was wearing a farm labourer’s smock – the Georgian equivalent of the boiler-suits I wore working on a friend’s farm for lambing. As this early Victorian example in Manchester City Galleries shows, these continued to be worn throughout the Nineteenth Century. A friend of mine even swears that he saw farmers wearing smocks in Banbury when he was a boy.

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(c) Manchester City Art Gallery.

I thought that it was significant that the sitter is wearing his smock rather than Sunday best, but this very probably was his Sunday best, according to an account of a farm labourer’s life in 1840, published in the Essex Review 1900:

Those were the days of the smock frock- a worn and shabby one for everyday, a better one, of a soft greenish hue, for Sundays. This in turn descended to the weekday wear and very likely to another and third generation. The smock was a comprehensive garment that reached below the knees. the farm labourer’s lower extremities being cased on Sundays in short brown leather buskins, which met the hem of the smock.

Essex Country Life, Farming in 1840

There was an old label on the back of the stretcher. The label seemed to be about as old as the painting itself. The ink was very faded and hard to read, but by dampening the label slightly – not at all the scientific way to do it – I could read an in a old hand Solomon Brigstocke and a date 1797 or 1777. 

Solomon verso label

All in all it was rather remarkable. Portraits of eighteenth century sitters in work gear are extremely rare. The only examples I could think of were in country house collections where the owner had commissioned a portraits of the house’s ‘family’. Twenty years ago I researched the series of servant portraits commissioned in 1822 from George Garrard by George Lane-Fox at Bramham Park near Leeds (now at Temple Newsam Museum) and I knew how very scarce these portraits are. And as you can see from the Bramham pictures, these portraits tend to define the sitter by their role in the household as much as their character. Garrard’s sitters are individuals, but they are also clearly part of a ‘set,’ and in addition to the Housekeeper and Coachman shown below, Garrard also painted the Steward, a Gardener and the Gatekeeper.

SP Mrs Brown Housekeeper, Garrard 1822

George Garrard. Portrait of Mrs Brown, Temple Newsam (c) Leeds Museums and Art Galleries

SP William Fox, coachman, Garrard 1822

George Garrard. Portrait of William Fox, Temple Newsam (c) Leeds Museums and Art Galleries

They are a fascinating document – the background shows you how little the kitchen and tack-rooms of country houses have changed in 200 years – but the Bramham set are portraits of occupations as much as people. And the same is true of the portraits painted at around the same date for Philip Yorke MP (1743 – 1804) and his family at Erddig near Wrexham. As the lengthy identifying inscriptions at Erddig show, these portraits were painted as an affectionate record of valued and respected workers, people who were an essential part of the estate family.

Jack Nicholas (b. 1720), Kitchen Porter, aged 71 by John Walters of Denbigh (1721 - 1797)

Jack Nicholas, kitchen porter aged 71, by John Walters of Denbigh 1791 Erddig (c) National Trust

Thomas Rogers (1781-1875), Carpenter, aged 48by William Jones of Chester (fl.1818-1853/58)

Thomas Rogers Carpenter by William Jones of Chester, 1829 Erddig (c) National Trust

The Erddig tradition of commemorating their servants may have began early, with this portrait, said to show John Meller’s coach boy, who is mentioned in family records in the 1720s. Philip Yorke wrote the poem top right, which says that the coach boy would have blown the praises of William Wilberforce the Abolitionist had he been born later.

'John Meller's Black Coachboy' (painted over an early 18th century portrait of John Hanby, aged 25) by British (English) School

John Meller’s Black Coachboy Erddig (c) National Trust

According to the National Trust Collections website the portrait is painted over an early eighteenth century portrait of ‘John Hanby aged 25’. Research has questioned the identity on grounds of costume, but if the sitter is not John Meller’s postilion he may have been another Erddig servant a couple of decades later.

Either way, the spirit of the Erddig and Bramham portraits is quite distinct from my portrait of Solomon Brigstocke. There is no sense of ‘ownership’ in the Brigstocke portrait. Even George Morland, the pub landlord’s friend who is known to have painted pictures to settle his bar bills, does not seem to have painted straight portraits of working class sitters, and this superb picture of a boatman (Christie’s London April 30th 2010 lot 73) identifies the sitter by his prominent heraldic arm-badge as a servant of the Earl of Altamont.

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(c) Christie’s London

William Hogarth’s famous Heads of Six of the Artist’s Servants 1750 – 51 (Tate Britain), comes close to the spirit of Solomon Brigstocke, but this – it is believed – was painted as much as an advertisement for Hogarth’s talents as a record of his sitters’ personalities.

Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants c.1750-5 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

(c)  Tate Britain

Perhaps artists in the previous century approach the unpretentious spirit of the Brigstocke. Charles Beale’s drawings of life in the Beale household c.1675 are unique – they give a candid glimpse of family, servants, tradesmen and friends in the daily life of a painter’s studio – and they include servant portraits like this one of their maid Susan Gill.

SP Susan Gill, Charles Beale

(c) British Museum

John Riley painted three servant portraits at around the same date. Of these his Scullion at Christ Church 1680 (Christ Church, Oxford) is an honest, unpatronising picture of a man at work.

riley

(c) Christ Church, Oxford

Riley’s Portrait of Bridget Holmes 1686 (Royal Collection) shows a Royal servant – who would live to be a hundred – in her 95th year, scolding a pageboy behind a curtain with her broom and in the process posing in a palatial interior like a grand manner portrait.

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(c) Royal Collection

Life-size full-length portraits are so rare that we can’t know how contemporaries read them. Bridget Holmes would have hung at Hampton Court alongside the Royal and aristocratic portraits it parodies. An affectionate joke? A heartfelt tribute to a much-loved woman? Both perhaps. We can only speculate. I found one other example of a full-length servant portrait at this date, the portrait of a gardener or labourer in the service of the Onslows at Clandon Park, Surrey. Again it has an echo of the swagger portrait, whilst providing a wealth of detail about the tools of the man’s trade – and pleasures, from the broken pieces of clay pipe at this feet.

A Farm Labourer or Gardener by British (English) School

Onslow Park (c) National Trust

There are also occasional sitters painted as a historical record, like Thomas Parr (?1483 – 1635), painted here in 1635 (National Portrait Gallery, London) when he was believed to be 152 years old.

Thomas_Parr_from_NPG

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Closer in date to our portrait are these two portraits of c.1790, an oil of Martha Gunn, a remarkable woman known as ‘the Venerable Priestess of Brighton,’ and this pastel by John Russell of John ‘Smoaker’ Miles (both displayed at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton). Both ran bathing machines in the days when Brighton was first emerging as a resort, and both enjoyed the favour of the Prince of Wales. Martha Gunn is commemorated in a traditional rhyme as the first person to bathe the Prince in the sea, and was allowed access to the Royal kitchens. ‘Smoaker’ Miles was the Prince’s bathing-attendant, and a loyal friend, who is said to have walked to London to pay his respects after the Prince had been ill. The Prince commissioned his portrait.

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(c) Royal Pavilion Museums

These portraits are all careful to establish their sitter’s context as much as their character. You could say, of course, that most early modern portraits are an expression of social context; from the Sovereign downwards they are pictures of people doing their job. But Solomon Brigstocke’s portrait seems to be the only one here that is a portrait of who they are rather than what they are. The artist portrays him with the same dispassionate respect that Thomas Beach paints George Pitt 1st Lord Rivers in 1779 (The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester). The soldier and the ploughboy; the only difference is the uniform.

(c) The Keep Military Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation    SP English School 1797 Solomon Brigstock

(c) The Keep Military Museum

The artist paints Brigstocke in his smock with the same casual dignity that Beach paints a gentleman-diplomat in his yeomanry uniform. There is no pitchfork in the background, no allusion to ploughing or haymaking; just the sitter at bust-length. Who was it painted for and why? Clearly the artist is a competent provincial painter, who would have made his living by painting portrait commissions. It’s most unlikely that Brigstocke would have commissioned his own portrait. So someone else commissioned it from him, unless the portraitist painted it of his own accord. The evidence of the inscription on the label remains tantalising, since the period script is very slightly heavy-handed. I wondered if it was written by one of Solomon Brigstocke’s family, and if it had belonged to them. The short answer is we will never know. But – applying the test that Tom Lubbbock puts to the Christ Church Scullion – it is a remarkable portrait because it approaches the sitter without moralising, or patronising:

“Does it sentimentalise him? Or does it confer dignity upon him? We like it when the old masters seem to anticipate our own democratic attitudes.” (Independent 25th January 2008)

This is true. I also like it when paintings are as direct as this – a unique snapshot of early modern real life that is so easy to relate to. In this sense Solomon Brigstocke is like a Late Georgian photograph, making the past feel suddenly very recent and alive.

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