This painting of Henry Sykes Thornton (1800-81), the banker son and heir of Wilberforce’s friend and second cousin, Henry Thornton, was wrongly ascribed to John Hoppner and sold as such to its present owner, His Honour Judge Richard Hone, QC. However, research points the finger pretty strongly at Sir William Beechey (1753 – 1839), a fine English portraitist who worked between the 1770s and 1830s. Famous portraits by Beechey include those of the royal family, such as Queen Charlotte, as well as portraits of Lord Nelson, John Kemble, and Sarah Siddons, among many others.
Four lines of evidence suggest that the portrait may also have been by Beechey:
(1) Style: other portraits of men known to be by Beechey are identical in style and format with the Henry Sykes Thornton portrait. For example, his early self-portrait is likewise remarkably similar:
(2) Links with Banking Families: Beechey is known to have painted the portraits of a number of people associated with important banking families, witness his fine portrait of Thomas Coutts. Beechey could thus well have been the artist of choice for the bankers of the Thornton family, and for a young man just entering into the banking profession. [There is also a link with the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is the final successor of the Thornton bank.]
(3) Submissions to the Royal Academy: there exists an important monograph on Beechey and his submissions to the Royal Academy by W. Roberts, entitled ‘Sir William Beechey, R.A.’, which was published in London (1907), and which includes Beechey’s account books and a list of works exhibited during his lifetime.
(4) Sobriety: Beechey’s portraiture is often described as being relatively sober, surely a characteristic which would have much attracted the son of of a leading Evangelical banking family.
Further work is now clearly required, both at the National Portrait Gallery and in the remarkable Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art.