Painting: The Wimbledon Wilberforces: their Portrait and their House

In Chapter 1, ‘The Merchants’ Children’, I describe how important emotionally Uncle William (1721-77) and Aunt Hannah (née Thornton; d. 1788) Wilberforce – the Wimbledon Wilberforces – were for the young Wilberforce. A fine portrait in oils of William and Hannah, c. 1750, by Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) may be seen at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull, and can be viewed online as part of the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’ Project. When taken out of their care, the distraught 12-year old boy wrote in a letter that he would give anything in the world to be with them again.  [Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 51, of. 100]

The Wimbledon Guardian has a very interesting article on the elder Wilberforces’ house, known to them as Laurel Grove but subsequently named Lauriston House off Wimbledon Common, Southside. Here is an extract from the article:

‘When [the house] was demolished in 1957, a priceless ceiling painted by the famous Swiss Neoclassical artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)) was lost forever.

The house had also been the home of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Originally known as Laurel Grove, Lauriston House was built in 1724 for William Jackson.

It was set in three acres and next to four cottages pre-dating 1684 which became the stable block. Jackson’s widow sold the house in 1752 to Wilberforce’s uncle. He commissioned Kauffman to paint magnificent murals for the main stairwell and in 1782 his famous nephew moved in to enjoy them.

Wilberforce’s friend, William Pitt the Younger, was then Chancellor of the Exchequer and about to become Prime Minister. He became a regular visitor…

Wilberforce left the house in 1786 and launched his long anti-slavery campaign the next year but Pitt continued to visit Wimbledon regularly as his Cabinet colleagues Richard Grenville and Henry Dundas also lived nearby, respectively in Eagle House and what later became Cannizaro House.’

Wilberforce left the house following his evangelical conversion. He wanted to move nearer to the House of Commons in order to be a more effective MP. For his country retreat, he now used the Clapham home of the wealthy merchant, John Thornton. Its demolition is a typical example of post-war vandalism.

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Wilberforce: The Russell Portrait in Oils

I have been privileged to be able to use for my book, both on the cover and in the text (pp. 108 – 109), the companion portraits in pastel (each 61 x 44.5 cm) of William and Barbara (née Spooner) Wilberforce by John Russell (1745-1806). William’s portrait is dated 1801. Russell was one of the great pastellists of the age, and he completed few commissions in oils. Interestingly, however, there is a Russell version in oils of the Wilberforce portrait, larger in size and with a somewhat grander background. This is an oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm, and it is in the collection of the Leeds Museums and Galleries. The portrait may be viewed online as part of the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’ Project [for further details, see: Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, Part II: Named Sitters L-Z]. Jeffares also records, sadly as ‘lost’, a pastel of Mrs Wilberforce of Wimbledon [née Hannah Thornton], the beloved aunt of the young William Wilberforce.

Pictures: The Younger Marianne

Unfortunately, pictures of the younger Marianne Thornton (1797-1887) – such an important family chronicler and commentator on Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect – are not easy to find. Two at least, however, are known. The first of these is a pencil and watercolour bust portrait (29 x 23 cm) dating from around 1830 by George Richmond (1809-1896). This was presented in 1947 by E. M. Forster (Marianne was his  paternal great aunt) through The Art Fund to Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The second is a drawing mounted on card of Marianne as an old woman, dated 18 July, 1876, also seemingly by Richmond, which was printed in E. M. Forster’s Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography (London: Edward Arnold, 1956) [see: The Papers of Edward Morgan Forster].