This weekend we’re going up to see my family before Christmas. Last week it looked like this, in Dad’s photo of the Monument at Welcombe.
I love the Monument. As a landmark it’s a familiar friend, and the grey stone is golden in the summer. Up close it’s an awesome presence . The stone blocks are massive. The cornice was higher than the guttering on our house. You could make yourself dizzy by looking at the lightning conductor at the top. I’ve heard it’s 86 feet tall, and I can believe it. I remember first hearing the word obelisk, and feeling how beautifully it fitted this charged and mysterious thing. Growing up I’ve walked there in all times, seasons and moods.
On two sides of the base there are inscriptions celebrating the Philips brothers of The Park Manchester and Welcombe House, Stratford, and there is a coat of arms on the third. The Monument was built in 1876 by Robert Needham Philips (1815 – 1890) MP for Bury as a memorial to his brother Mark Philips (1800 – 1873), who with Charles Poulett Thomson one of the first pair of MPs for Manchester since 1660. The city had been disenfranchised for supporting Parliament in the Civil War, and the seat wasn’t returned until the Great Reform Act in 1832. The inscription to Robert Needham Philips was added after his death.
The brothers were the sons of textile merchant Robert Philips and his wife Anne Needham. The family motto Simplex Munditiis could translate as ‘I’m a plain man.’ Politically they were Manchesterists, radical entrepreneur Liberals who believed in free education, public libraries, non-sectarianism and pacifism. I hadn’t realised how modern the radical wing of the Liberal Party was in the Nineteenth Century. They were also great philanthropists and backed their causes with their own money, including when Mark Philips was High Sheriff of Warwickshire. Mark built Welcombe House in 1866, a huge redbrick neo-Jacobean mansion in the fold of the hills, replacing an earlier and perhaps uninhabitable house. Welcombe was inherited by his brother Robert, and then by Robert’s daughter Caroline Lady Trevelyan, who had to sell in 1920. By 1931 it was a hotel, which has always been since.
And out of the blue, by the oddest coincidence, while I was looking up all of this, Dad emailed to say that he had found a reference to Mark Philips while going through Thomas Baker’s diaries on his catalogue raisonné thomasbakerofleamington.com.
Scene in Monsal Dale, Derbyshire 1843 is recorded as no.209 in the artist’s diaries, Memoranda of Pictures Painted by Me.
It was sent first for exhibition in Birmingham, returned unsold, varnished with isinglass, and then sold at Manchester to Mark Philips MP for £25 including frame.
Philips also bought the next painting in the diary, no.210, at the same exhibition, Ashford Mill, Derbyshire for 12 guineas including frame.
Monsal Dale found its way to Sotheby’s, New York. Ashford Mill is still unallocated, though from Baker’s thumbnail sketch in the diary, it will be identifiable when it does. Baker even numbers his canvases on the back of the stretcher, corresponding the diary entry.
We don’t know – I don’t know at least – what exactly prompted Mark Philips to base himself in Warwickshire, and Stratford particularly. But it’s interesting to know that he was aware of Baker’s work at around the date he was planning his retirement from Parliament. Philips bought Welcombe in 1845. If Philips had bought two South Warwickshire landscapes, you might say that Baker’s paintings had sold Stratford to him. The diaries might reveal examples. It’s likely either way that Baker would have stayed in touch with Philips as a client. It will be fascinating to see if the diaries reveal anything more about the relationship. As I’ve said before, I’m sure Harvest Scene in Warwickshire 1856 is a view of the hill before the Monument was built. Harvest Scene wasn’t bought by Mark Philips though, but the dealer-collector Henry Wallis. It is as perfect an English landscape as ever painted.