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About a Painting - ‘Portrait of a Man’

PUBLISHED: 10:56 19 May 2014

Portrait of a Man, possibly Jeremy Bentham, unknown artist and date

Portrait of a Man, possibly Jeremy Bentham, unknown artist and date

Derby Museum

Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums and Museum & Art Gallery Development in Derby, writes about a ‘Portrait of a Man’, possibly Jeremy Bentham, unknown artist and date

Like many museums, we have our fair share of paintings which pose more questions than they answer and this portrait certainly fits that criteria. Given to Derby Museum in 1936 by FW Hampshire, who ran the chemist’s business at the Silk Mill making medical supplies and fly papers, for a long time it was believed to be a portrait of the celebrated philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and to have been painted by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797).

However, more recent information casts some doubt on this. Not only are we unsure whether it was painted by Wright, we are no longer certain that it is a portrait of Jeremy Bentham. We do know that the painting cost Mr Hampshire £500 in 1936. This was a substantial sum, so we can assume it was the work of a well-known and accomplished artist and that it depicted an important sitter.

When it arrived at the gallery, the curator, Frederick Williamson, had worked at the museum for 18 years and seen many works by Wright. The museum accessions register shows that he firmly believed in the identity of both painter and sitter, but another note in the hand of Williamson’s successor, Arthur Thorpe, states clearly that the painting was not a Wright. This note is not dated, but Mr Thorpe retired in 1971 and the painting was loaned and presented as by Wright in 1959, so we can assume it was written some time between.

What deepens the mystery is that most books on Wright were written after 1960 and none of them mention a painting of Jeremy Bentham. The 1968 two-volume work by Benedict Nicolson, who is still regarded as one of the best authorities on Wright, contains ground-breaking research but still presents no evidence that Wright painted Bentham and makes no mention of this painting.

Forty-six years on, we are still no wiser as to the identity of the painter. When it comes to Wright, this is not unusual. At Derby museum we have a number of paintings that we affectionately call our Not Quite Wrights, which have been attributed to him but we now think were done by others. In fact, we have so many that we are to explore them in a special exhibition, called ‘Wright Inspired’, which opens at the museum on 24th May.

So the next question – is it really a portrait of Jeremy Bentham? To answer this we need to find out more about Bentham and why he would have warranted having a portrait painted. I confess that when I was a student at University College, London, Bentham was a hero of mine. He was also a well-known figure on the campus – his preserved skeleton was kept, fully dressed, in a case passed each day by hundreds of students.

Bentham was ahead of his time, both figuratively and literally. As a toddler, he was found sitting at his father’s desk perusing a multi-volume history of England. By the age of 12 he was reading law at Oxford University. Throughout his life he wrote prolifically, often up to 20 papers a day, and his writings were still relevant to many of the causes that my friends and I supported, including social and political reform, animal welfare, religious tolerance, decriminalisation of homosexuality and everyone’s right to an education. He is probably best known for his utilitarianism and belief in the principle of ‘greatest happiness’, which prioritises the happiness or pleasure of the greatest number of people.

So why do we think that this painting could be of him? It all comes down to the letters on the spine of the book that he is holding – ‘EN HAM’. These are thought to mean Bentham – evidence which is, admittedly, somewhat scanty.

If we look at the painting, are there any clues in the style of the sitter’s clothes? Not many, although when we compare this to other portraits of Bentham – there are a number although most represent him as an older man – we can see similarities. His plain style of dress, the brown coat cut in the style common to Quakers, his naturally long hair and his facial features have much in common with other depictions.

However, these comparisons do not give us much to go on and certainly do not provide enough evidence to let us state confidently that this is a portrait of Bentham. For me, I would like to think that it is, and that there will always be a place in Derby Museum devoted to one of my personal heroes.

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