The Clapham Sect and the naming of children


Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire and her daughter, another Georgiana, illustrates the eighteenth-century practice of naming children after their parents

There is a strange scene in the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace, in which Wilberforce, ground down by the apparent hopelessness of his cause, is considering giving up the battle for the abolition of the slave trade. However, he is held to his campaign by the encouragement of his wife who talks him out of his depression, promising that their next child will be a daughter, and that they will call her Emma. This is peculiar in two ways. Firstly, to the best of our knowledge, Barbara Wilberforce was no particular enthusiast for abolition; she had married the man, not his cause and would probably not have been sorry if he had retreated into private life. Secondly, the Wilberforces were very conventional in the naming of their children. ‘Emma’ was not a family name and it is most unlikely that they would have given it to one of their daughters.

These are the children of William and Barbara Ann Wilberforce:

William (named after his father)
Barbara (named after her mother)
Elizabeth (named after her paternal grandmother)
Robert Isaac (named after his two grandfathers, Robert Wilberforce and Isaac Spooner)
Samuel (the future ‘Soapy Sam’, bishop of Oxford; named after Samuel Thornton, the banker and Member of Parliament and Wilberforce’s second cousin)
Henry (named after Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton’s younger brother)

If they had had another daughter, it is a reasonable guess that they would have followed convention and named her Sarah, after Wilberforce’s beloved sister. If another daughter had followed, she would have probably been named Ann; it was Barbara’s second name, as well as being the name of her sister, and of a little sister of Wilberforce’s, who had died in childhood and to whom he had been deeply attached. Continue reading

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.