Hannah, William, and me

The UCL history alumnus magazine has published a little piece of mine on my fifteen minutes of fame and my two books, Hannah More: The First Victorian and Wilberforce: Family and Friends. Scroll down to page 16 if you want to read it.


First academic review

I am absolutely delighted to have had a very good review in the current (20 March 2013) online issue of the Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature.  Unfortunately, it is not open-access. The reviewer, Dr Gareth Atkins of Magdalene College, Cambridge, completed a very well-regarded PhD on the Clapham Sect, so his opinion matters a great deal to me.

Of course Atkins has a few reservations and qualifications, but overall, his comments are extremely positive.  He has read the book thoroughly and perceptively. I especially like the sentence,

‘The chapter dealing with [Wilberforce’s] abortive hunt for his life in his mid-thirties…is priceless: instead of the polished orator we hear the authentic voice of a sexually frustrated bachelor, whose flirtatious indecision almost landed him in a legal suit for breach of promise.’

He ends,

‘that Stott can be sympathetic without being uncritical makes the “Saints” seem both more human and more believable, and it is this above all that makes her book such a good read.’

Well, I tried to make it readable and I’m glad Gareth enjoyed it.

Grave of Robert Wilberforce

Robert Wilberforce's grave

Robert Wilberforce’s grave

One aspect of William Wilberforce’s life that has always intrigued scholars is his failure to pass on his evangelical beliefs to his surviving children. Samuel, the third son, became a High Churchman, bishop first of Oxford and then of Winchester. The other three sons, William, Robert Isaac, and Henry all became Roman Catholics.

Robert, possibly the most intellectually gifted of the sons, became a Catholic in 1854 and though he was twice widowed, he was allowed to take minor orders. He died at Albano  in February 1857 and was buried in the chapel of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

The grave location, looking west along the south aisle.

The grave location, looking west along the south aisle.

I have not seen his grave myself, but the historian, writer, and teacher, Guy de la Bedoyère, has kindly sent me a couple of photographs he has just taken.

For more on the Wilberforce sons, see David Newsome’s marvellous book, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning (London: John Murray, 1966).

A Link with the French Revolution

Wilberforce’s friend Hannah More also had an intriguing personal connection with the French Revolution. As she told her friend Eva Garrick, widow of the great actor-manager, David Garrick, in the early years of the Revolution, two French sisters had been teachers at the school in Park Street, Bristol, run by More’s sisters. The young women were ardent revolutionaries. (See Anne Stott, Hannah More. The First Victorian, Oxford, 2004, p. 151.) When one of them, Félicité Dupont, left the school and returned to France, she married , Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Brissot subsequently became the leader of the moderate Girondin faction in the revolutionary Convention, and he was guillotined in October 1793 (the same month as Marie Antoinette).  I wonder if any French scholars are aware of the relevant letter in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC (W.b.487, fo. 87, Hannah More to Eva Garrick, 21 November 1793), which shows Félicité’s links with Bristol.

Portrait of Henry Sykes Thornton

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.