An Unusual Victorian Painting
One of the most exciting and satisfying aspects of my job is meeting new people and, especially, seeing a fascinating range of inherited family pictures, from artworks to photographs. After talking to the Hastings & St. Leonards National Trust Association earlier this year, one of the group’s members, Paul Cabban, showed me a copy of a large painting that had been passed down within his family. It is believed to portray prosperous Irish ancestors on their estate at Belvedere, Kent: Eli Earle Collins, b.1814; his wife Mary (nee Fenn), b.1821; and their children, Horace (on the pony), Mary Emma (holding the dog) and probably James, Edwin, Seldon and another.
I work on dozens of family paintings every year but had never before seen anything remotely like this ambitious picturesque scene from a private collection. As is usually the case, the picture is not identified, dated or signed by the artist, so one can simply hope to date the image accurately from the appearance of its human subjects.
The head of the family, Eli, seems to be wearing rather plain early-nineteenth century male attire, while Mary and her daughter, Mary Emma, broadly follow contemporary Victorian fashions. Their ringlet hairstyles and deep V-necklines date to the 1840s/1850 and indeed the date of the scene seems to be c.1850, based on the apparent age of Horace (b.1848) on the pony. Otherwise, these ancestors are wearing whimsical costumes comprising elements of 17th-century dress, such as the wide-brimmed ostrich-plumed hats and lace collars, while the boys’ colourful tabards and the flying pennant convey a lively sense of pageantry.
Such were my initial thoughts and later Paul kindly emailed me some comments from Amina Wright of the Holburne Museum in Bath, who saw the painting some years ago and had also suggested a date of c.1840s, noting the fanciful dress details reminiscent of the period of Rubens, Van Dyck etc. Paul also quoted from a professional Irish conservator’s report that he had previously commissioned. The conservator had identified the cart on which some of the family are ‘travelling’ here as being of traditional Irish style, supporting the probable identity of the family portrayed in this wonderful and curious painting.