Many people familiar with the School will also be familiar with the picture of Chevalier Ruspini leading the girls before the assembled Freemasons headed by the Prince Regent.
This portrait was painted by Thomas Stothard, RA in – well no-one is entirely sure when. If one attempts to count the number of girls, it might be anything from 20 to 26, or more. Fifteen little girls started at the School when it first began with five more being added to the School roll the following year and five more the year after and … After about five years of the School’s existence, some of the girls would have been ready to leave so the numbers did not rise without end. A rough calculation of the number of pupils shown here might suggest a date of c.1793. However – and this is key – this is not a photograph, it is a painting. As such, a degree of artistic licence is permitted. If Thomas Stothard wanted to show a line of children stretching into the distance to represent the permanence of the Institution, he was at liberty to do so. Indeed, he may have even been instructed to do so by whoever commissioned it, presumably the School authorities or the gentlemen of the committee or even Ruspini himself. Because that’s another thing we don’t know about the picture – who paid for it.
Thomas Stothard was a Royal Academician born in 1755, ‘the son of a well-to-do innkeeper in Long Acre.’ http://blueplaquesguy.byethost24.com/content/Stothard_Thomas_W1T.html?i=1 As a young man, he demonstrated a talent for drawing and was apprenticed to a draughtsman of patterns for brocaded silks in Spitalfields. After his master died, Stothard decided to concentrate on art and became a student at the Academy in 1778. Much of his work held there shows his drawing skill. It includes many nude studies, which are exquisitely executed, and also this study of a child’s limbs:
If we take a closer look at one of the girls, we can see something similar.
The two children holding the hands of Ruspini seem to be very young, perhaps too young. Although British Freemasonry, 1717–1813, Volume 5 by Robert Peter gives that pupils ‘must be between the age of five and nine years’, between 7 or 8 was generally the age at which they were admitted. Perhaps another example of artistic licence?
Stothard was elected RA on 10 February 1794 but his association with the Royal Academy continued after this as he was appointed Deputy Librarian, and then Librarian, from 1810 until his death in 1834. He married Rebecca Watkins in 1783 and they had eleven children, but only six survived infancy. Their home was Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. In 1763 three of the inhabitants of Henrietta St were artists but ‘several others were resident in the street during the eighteenth century … from 1747 to 1758. There were still as many as five artists and engravers with addresses in Henrietta Street as late as 1816’ https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol36/pp230-239
In 1794, the Stothards moved to 28 Newman Street, Fitzrovia. As Stothard owned this property – or the freehold at any rate – he was doing very nicely thank you.
28 Newman St, now occupied by a film company, has a ‘blue plaque’ commemorating Stothard’s residency – only it’s not blue but made of lead to blend with the facade of the building.
Image adapted from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/thomas-stothard/
Two of his sons entered the art world: Charles Alfred Stothard became an illustrator and Alfred Joseph Stothard was a medallist to George IV. Charles died tragically after falling out of a window whilst executing a drawing. His wife Anna Bray (later re-married) wrote a biography of her former father in law. https://www.donaldheald.com/pages/books/6120/anna-eliza-bray/life-of-thomas-stothard-r-a-with-personal-reminiscences
Towards the end of his life, Stothard grew increasingly weak and deaf but still took long walks. Unfortunately, during one of these, he was knocked down by a carriage. He appeared to sustain no physical injury but he never recovered from the shock and died on 27 April 1834. He is buried in Bunhill Fields burial ground as is his former friend William Blake, although the two men fell out later in life over the commissioning of a painting of the pilgrims to Canterbury.
So that’s the artist but the picture itself is worth a much closer look. Along with the portrait, there is also an outline drawing which identifies many of the people in the image. Perhaps this was created by Stothard himself as part of his preparation.
And because we can identify the people depicted, it tells a much greater story. We need to gloss over here the fact that not one female is named, not even the two little girls right in the centre and the focus of our immediate attention when we first look at the picture …
Having the identity of 37 of the men shown enables us to pin down the date more accurately. Or at least as accurately as anything designed by an artist in the days long before photographs. It is possible that this specific event took place on one specific occasion and that Thomas Stothard was commissioned to paint it but it may also be an amalgam of several occasions with a bit of imagination thrown in for good measure. The pupils were brought before assembled Freemasons but this happened every year, possibly from 1789 onwards and continued until the latter end of the nineteenth century so it does not help with the dating. However one of the people shown, the Ambassador from the Sublime Porte, was only in London between 1794 and 1797 so if it were one specific event, it has to be between those dates. Another person who is date-specific is the Stadtholder who was exiled to Britain in 1795 so that fits quite nicely with the Ambassador’s presence in Britain. Unfortunately, this is almost immediately countered by the identification of George Downing esq. who is described as ‘late’ in the attribution. He died in 1800 which then puts the portrait back to after this date.
Another anomaly – which could easily be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Stothard – is the naming of a Mr Haydon in the picture. This could be Benjamin Robert Haydon (26 January 1786 – 22 June 1846), a British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures. However, if it is he, we have another problem with dates as he does not appear in London until 1804.
Sir John Eamer is identified as the Rt Hon Lord Mayor of London in the portrait and he was Lord Mayor from 1801. Indeed, during his mayoralty, ‘on Easter Monday, April 19, 1802, the Prince of Wales, with his brothers the Dukes of Clarence and Cumberland, accompanied by a train of nobility and gentry, honoured the dinner and ball with their presence.’ https://www.grosvenorprints.com/stock_detail.php?ref=21988 [a ticket to Mansion House Ball]. Is it possible that this specific event has been metamorphosed with the parading of the girls before their supporters to create the Stothard portrait?
Four others named – Dr de Valangin, James Heseltine, Mr Cuppage and Mr John Jeffryes – died respectively 1805 (de Valangin) and 1804 (Heseltine, Cuppage & Jeffryes) which gives a cut off date if it is an image of a single event. One curious presence is that of a Cherokee Indian Chief John Bowles – although there is no certain evidence that he was ever in Britain at all. He became the Chief in 1792 so the portrait should come after this period.
But just when you thought it was safe, Adam Gordon esq., according to researcher ‘Emma’,
is in fact the fifth son of the twelfth laird of Abergeldie, Charles Gordon. Adam Gordon was born around 1757/1758 and died on the 28th May 1800 in Bath and is buried in Bath Abbey.
So this would place the date of the portrait (or the event thereto) to before 1800. Before which time, George Downing was not ‘late’!
Adam Gordon of Lime Street is listed as the treasurer of the school in the Freemasons’ Calendar for 1796 and again in a newspaper advert in 1798. He left £100 to the school in his will so would be a good candidate for inclusion in a commissioned portrait.
‘An interesting man, [Gordon] was in New York acting as a banking agent during the American War of Independence (and was accused of trying to fix exchange rates) before returning to London and setting up a successful engineering, shipbuilding and ironworks with his brother David Gordon (14th laird of Abergeldie) and his brother-in-law John Biddulph. Their company was originally based in Lime Street, London and the two brothers later built a house in Dulwich (Dulwich Hill House). ‘ (Emma, researcher)
The conclusion appears to be that the event shown in the Stothard portrait – described recently and understandably, if incorrectly, as the opening of the School – is actually NOT a single event but a representative image of occasions in School and Masonic history; a combination of a number of similar events given some artistic licence by the painter and dating to somewhere around 1800 give or take a few years here and there and a few people who might not have been there but then again might have.
What a pity that in all this no-one knows the names of the girls!