William Hamlet the Elder

20th October 2020

The chance discovery of an article published in the first Afro-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal (28 March 1829) has prompted new research into William Hamlet’s background and family. The article concerned the arrest in Norfolk, Virginia of William Hamlet’s third son, George. George was living in New York but, whilst travelling, he was ‘arrested and cast into a loathsome prison’ as he did not have the necessary documents to prove that he was a free man. The article goes on to state that ‘the father of the individual … is Mr. William HAMLET, of London, a man of colour, who is profile painter to his Britannic Majesty and the Royal family, and his mother, is a white subject of the same government: so that if the “righteous judges” of Norfolk, are desirous of seeing the body of George HAMLET sold to the highest bidder in the market place of the aforesaid republican city they will find themselves most sadly mistaken’.

An advertisement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal in 1785 stated that William Hamlet was ‘From Abroad’.  His birthplace remains a mystery but the Bath Abbey Register has revealed that ‘William Hamlet a Negro’ was baptized on 11 November 1772. His parents are not recorded nor did he have a sponsor. He would by then have been in his early twenties; several similar baptisms are recorded around that time. Perhaps William arrived on these shores from somewhere like Bermuda after serving time in the Royal Navy.

The next official record for Hamlet is his marriage on 17 April 1779 at St Thomas’s Salisbury to eighteen year old Elizabeth Morgan (bapt.1761). Elizabeth was illiterate so the register was signed by her mark. Presumably Hamlet had in the interim moved from Bath to Salisbury.

Just over eight months later on 21 December 1780 their first child, William, was baptised in the same church. They went on to have four more children: Thomas (baptised 29 October 1783), Elizabeth and George, presumably twins (baptised 31 August 1788) and Charles (baptised 27 December 1792).

The earliest recorded silhouette by Hamlet is dated 1785 and depicts an Oxford scholar. The first known reference to him as an artist is an advertisement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal midway through 1785. By then he was married with two children.

From the advert it appears that Hamlet had invented two devices: a hard to envisage ‘methodical Model of Amusement’ small enough to fit into a pocket book and designed to take two quick likenesses; and, a ‘Profile Reflector’, a larger mechanical device using mirrors that Hamlet had launched in Bath where he took 400 drawings. A few months later the device was on show in Birmingham by which time it had clocked up 1,000 drawings. Presumably he and his device continued to tour during the following few years.

1788 was a propitious year for Hamlet as not only did he become a father again (to twins) but he was also granted a sitting at Cheltenham Spa by King George III. This was for a full-length profile of which copies were subsequently painted to order. The King was clearly pleased with his portrait as he paid Hamlet generously for it and then went on to grant him further commissions of himself and his family over the following two decades. Hamlet was quick to capitalise on the royal patronage in advertisements placed in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal in the autumn of 1788.

©British Library Board

The following year found Hamlet working in Oxford. He advertised in the Oxford Journal (21 November 1789) using the strapline ‘Encouraged by their Majesties’. It is interesting that he was still only charging 2s. 6d. for a basic silhouette on card and 10s. 6d. for a full-length silhouette on glass.

Silhouette of HRH Princess Mary painted by William Hamlet the Elder

HRH Princess Mary. Private Collection

Apart from the birth in Salisbury of his youngest child in 1792, William Hamlet effectively disappears from public life during the 1790s. There are no known examples of silhouettes from this period and no advertisements have been traced. Did he take up a more regular position in order to support his growing family? Might he have focused on teaching drawing? Maybe he moved abroad?

At some point the family moved from Salisbury to Bath. Hamlet’s eldest son, also named William, was married at St Michael’s Church in Bath on 10 August 1801. (The Abbey Church was being repaired at this time.) William Jnr’s wife, Sarah Fox, came from Salisbury: presumably the couple had met and courted there before the family’s removal to Bath? Like her mother-in-law, Sarah was illiterate. It was in Bath that Hamlet’s career as a silhouettist revived. Indeed the majority of surviving silhouettes by Hamlet were painted during the period 1805 to 1816.

Major Sir Robert Bruce Kingsmill, Bristol Light Cavalry. Private Collection

During these years Bath was at the height of its popularity with a steady influx of well-heeled visitors arriving to take the waters, and all seeking diversions to while away their days. Capitalising on this, Hamlet ran a busy studio in Union Street, within easy walking distance of the Roman Baths and the Abbey.

This coincided with the new streamlined female fashion of high-waisted dresses and dainty slippers that lent themselves to elegant silhouettes.

Mary Hobbyn. Private Collection

William Hamlet Jnr, who had joined his father in the business, died in 1815 whilst in his mid-thirties. His widow (possibly still illiterate) was left with five children aged between 2 and 13 years with a sixth child born three months later. Presumably her father-in-law would have done his best to support the young family but it was around this time that Hamlet Snr’s career as an artist ceased perhaps brought about his advancing years and possible infirmity, but undoubtedly affected also by his grief at losing his eldest child.

William Hamlet died in 1822, seven years after the death of his son, and was buried on 19 September. If his recorded age of 73 on the burial record was correct, it would place his birth in 1748 or 1749. He was living at No. 79 Avon Street, an area of Bath that was filled with boarding houses during the 1800s and was described as ‘a desperate and impoverished place’. Church burial records stand as mute testimony not only to its multiple occupancy but to its being disease-ridden with consistently high death rates.

This was a sad and lowly end to a career that had peaked with Royal patronage but which was clearly driven by hard work and a talent that manifested itself in precise and neat work coupled with an eye for detail.


© Wigs on the Green
Research assistance by B. Wellings

John Church Dempsey, Street Artist

23rd September 2020

John Church Dempsey spent over twenty years as an itinerant artist starting out during the 1820s, known not only for his silhouettes but also for his fascinating character studies of the street people that he encountered on his travels. He himself came from a lowly background: his father, originally from Ireland, was in service so the family would have lived modestly. His background would have made Dempsey sympathetic to the characters he chose to portray: he befriended and painted blind beggars, match sellers, lunatics, street sweepers, bellmen, and disabled veterans amongst others. He had a raw talent for creating engaging likenesses and is unlikely to have benefitted from any formal training.

John Church Dempsey watercolour street character

© Private Collection

Early Life

John Church Dempsey was born on 2 May 1802 and christened at Monmouth Street Chapel in Bath. Curiously one of the ministers at the church was named ‘John Church’ so the child may have been named as a tribute to him. His father, Edward, was from Stradbally in Waterford (b.1756); his mother, Martha (née Payne), was from Sherborne in Dorset (b.1765). Records show that they were married in St Swithen’s, Bath in 1786.

Edward & Martha later became Moravians being received into the Episcopal Church of the United Brethren in October 1798. The register shows that Martha became a communicant in March 1799, Edward five months later.

John had an older sister, Esther, born in October 1789. She too was received into the Moravian Church, taking communion ‘on her sick and death-bed’ just three days shy of her twenty-second birthday in 1811. Within the month she had ‘happily departed’.

Private Collection

Marriage

John Church Dempsey married at least twice, firstly in 1819 when just seventeen. His bride, Hagar Maber, was eleven years older and may have been a family friend as, like Dempsey’s mother, she grew up in Dorset.

Records show the birth of a child, Edward John, to a John Church and Sabina Elizabeth Dempsey in Bath in 1822. Given that this is within three years of Dempsey’s first marriage and that no record of Hagar’s death has been traced, it remains unproven this is the same ‘John Church Dempsey’. The child died when he was nine years old.

Working Life

At this time Dempsey was travelling the length and breadth of the country, painting as he went. His earliest known portrait is thought to have been painted in 1820 in London. Over the next two decades he travelled extensively journeying up the east coast via Great Yarmouth, Bridlington and York, as far north as Kilmarnock, west to Manchester and Liverpool, across the sea to Ireland and south again to Portsmouth stopping at many, many places to record social history with his brush and colours.

Signature of John Church Dempsey
In the 1841 Census Dempsey is listed as sharing an abode in Bristol with “Sarah Dempsey” who presumably is the same Sarah Neal Muirhead (1808/9-1901) whom he marries in May 1844. By now he is supplementing his income teaching drawing as well as dealing in artists’ materials, pictures and even lamps. But he has clearly over-stretched himself as a year later he is made bankrupt. Nonetheless, Dempsey continues to be listed regularly in directories as an artist.

Dempsey rarely signed his work making attribution of his silhouettes especially tricky. When he did sign, he used ‘Jno Dempsey’, ‘J. Dempsey’ or simply ‘J.D.’. At least two printed trade labels, both using more or less the same text, have been seen: one used whilst in Liverpool, the other later when he was settled in Bristol.

John Church Dempsey trade label

© Private Collection

By the 1851 Census Dempsey has diversified yet again and is supplementing his income by tinplate working and employing two men. He and his wife are lodging with a retired tinplate worker who, it must be assumed, had initiated him in this new trade. Success was short-lived, however, as by 1853 he is once again listed in the directories simply as an artist.

His Later Years

The advent of photography would have inevitably impacted his trade but, rather than be defeated by it, Dempsey embraced the new technology and re-invented himself yet again as a photographic artist (over-painting photographs probably) before finally getting behind the camera as a photographer.

Dempsey’s final Census appearance in 1871 sees him re-listed as an artist / landscape painter.

John Church Dempsey’s death on 9 February 1877 at the age of 75 is announced in the Western Daily Press. His widow was thrown on hard times but outlived him by over twenty years being 92 when she died as an almswoman in Bristol in 1901.

For a man of humble beginnings, John Church Dempsey left a rich legacy of portraiture giving a rare insight into an often-overlooked class of society.

A more in-depth study of Dempsey’s watercolour portraits is to be found in ‘Dempsey’s People’ by David Hansen (Australian National Portrait Gallery, 2017).

Dempsey's People


© Wigs on the Green
Research assistance by B. Wellings

Hinton Gibbs & Miss Gibbs

20th June 2020

Silhouette collectors will be familiar with the name Hinton Gibbs and his distinctive profiles reverse painted on glass and backed with wax. But apart from his service in the Bedfordshire Militia, little else has been known about his background and family.

Similarly, Miss Gibbs who was recorded by Sue McKechnie as a cutter of silhouettes on the strength of two advertisements in the West Briton in June 1824. No examples of her work had been seen by her nor had the relationship between Hinton and Miss Gibbs been confirmed.

Recent research in public records and other sources has brought some new evidence to light, allowing the following chronology to be constructed:

  • 31 December 1783 – Baptism of Hinton born to John & Sarah Gibbs, alehouse keepers in Bedford
  • 1786 – Birth of sister Sarah (There was possibly a second son, John, who went on to be a sadler.)
  • February 1793 – Re-embodiment of the Bedfordshire Militia under the command of Colonel The Earl of Upper Ossory; Hinton Gibbs is listed in the Militia Rolls as a drummer. He would have been ten years old.

Between 1793 and 1799 the militia was based in Essex and East Anglia before marching south to Kent and then on to Sussex and the south coast where they operated until September 1798. In 1796 Hinton is listed as a Private. They are then sent to Ireland where they remain for a year before returning to Bedford in the autumn of 1799. By now Hinton has been away from home for nearly seven years.

  • 1800-01 – Hinton is listed as a Corporal in 1800. In May the Militia march to Taunton where they are stationed until September. They then spend a month near Exeter before being posted to Plymouth. In November 1801 the men are ordered back to Bedford where the Militia are to be disbanded. They march a total of 254 miles in 17 days in what was the severest winter on record.

Hinton’s earliest known works as a profilist date from this period, so he was likely using his skills to supplement his income as evidenced by one of his early trade labels “By H. Gibbs, Beds. Militia”.

  • 1803-04 – In March, amid fears of a new attempt at invasion by Napoleon, the Bedford Militia is re-embodied and Hinton reverts to the rank of Private. In May they march to Bristol where they stay a year, then to Taunton where they rest before going on to Aylesbeare and moving into winter quarters in Exeter.

On 3rd December 1804 Hinton marries Eliza Sanders in the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Exeter. The 1851 census gives her birthplace as Exeter but no record of her birth has been traced.

  • 1805-07 – Quartered at Exeter until March, the militia subsequently moves around South Devon spending the winter and spring at Ottery St. Mary before being sent to Gosport. In August 1806 a detachment that includes Hinton is sent to the Isle of Wight. Hinton’s wife accompanies them and the couple’s first child, Sarah, is born in Freshwater in January 1807. Hinton may have been recalled to Gosport before the birth as by October 1806 the garrison is stationed at Fort Monckton.
  • 1808 – The militia is stationed at Winchester for duty during the Assizes before being sent to Weedon in Northamptonshire where they are quartered in newly built barracks.
  • 1810-12 – Ordered to Hastings; during August 1810 they participate in a Review at Brighton in the presence of the Prince of Wales (later George IV). In December the regiment go to Horsham Barracks for the winter and then to Littlehampton until April 1812.

Hinton & Eliza’s second child, named Eliza, is born during 1810 and christened at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Harpur Street, Bedford.

  • April 1812 – the militia make a speedy journey from Littlehampton to Norman Cross near Peterborough where their main duty is guarding French prisoners.
  • 1813-14 – With things kicking off in Ireland, they are ordered to make their way to Bristol with utmost speed for embarkation.

By now Eliza is heavily pregnant again so she remains in Bedford where she gives birth on 7 July 1813 to their first son christened Hinton on 30 August at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Harpur Street, Bedford.
Meanwhile, the Bedford Militia arrive in Roscommon in August 1813 and remain until July 1814 when they return to Colchester. In December 1814 they move to Ipswich.

  • 1815 – The militia are ordered back to Bedford where they are disembodied on 1 February 1815.

When Hinton is discharged his eldest daughter Sarah would have just celebrated her eighth birthday and baby Hinton would have been eighteen months old. It is at this point that Hinton becomes a full-time profilist working from various addresses in London but also touring (with his family) as evidenced by an advertisement on 1 November 1815 in the Bury and Norwich Post. Based at Sudbury. Hinton acknowledges “the friendly, hospitable and generous treatment” he and his family have received.

  • 1816 – The couple’s second son is born on 4 January and baptised James on 12 April at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Harpur Street, Bedford. Hinton’s profession is given as ‘limner’.
  • 1819 – A third son is born on 26 June and baptised John at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Scarborough.

Presumably Hinton was now working in Yorkshire though no adverts have yet been traced. An ‘H Gibbs’ is paying Land Tax during this year as the occupier of a house in Green Man Lane, Islington.

  • 1821 – A third daughter, Harriet Emma, is born.

Hinton is working in Oxford as evidenced by a lengthy (and somewhat boastful) advertisement in the Oxford University & City Herald (27 October 1821). At this point he is charging 15s. for a framed profile. A further brief notice appears in the same newspaper on 17 May 1823.

  • 1824 – Hinton is working in Cornwall and is for the first time actively promoting the work of his daughter (presumably 17 year old Sarah rather than 14 year old Eliza) who, unlike her father, is cutting silhouettes as shown by an advert placed in the Royal Cornwall Gazette (26 June 1824).

© THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD

A further notice appears in the same newspaper on 23 October 1824 when she is working in Falmouth.

  • 1825 – During this year there are four known adverts for Miss Gibbs:
    North Devon Journal (27 May, 3 June, 10 June)
    Taunton Courier (21 Sept)

The advert of 3 June includes a price list and indicates the range of cut work now offered by Miss Gibbs from plain busts for 1s 6d through to conversation pieces. Interestingly, profiles on glass are also offered though it seems likely that these were still being painted by Hinton who was by then still in his early forties.

  • 1829 – No further adverts have been traced until the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette (1 August 1829).

This is the advert that finally confirms that Miss Gibbs is the daughter of Hinton Gibbs. She is now back in her father’s home town of Bedford and has diversified into Oriental Tinting, a fashionable painting technique that involved transferring a drawing with oriental (aka tracing) paper to velvet, paper or other surface, and working up the colours to the desired brilliancy. Because the design was traced, it appealed to talented amateurs.

  • 1839 – Hinton Gibbs dies in Astbury, Cheshire on 27 March aged 56. He may have travelled there to visit family. There is a record of a Susannah Gibbs born in Astbury in 1827; other Gibbs born there subsequently moved a few miles north to Stockport.
  • 1841 – Hinton’s sister, Sarah, is living in Mercer Street, Long Acre along with her recently widowed nephew, John, and his daughter Helen Hinton Gibbs, aged 4.
    Hinton’s wife, Eliza (Betsy), is living in Chapman Street, Islington with four of her six children: Hinton Jr (a clerk), Eliza, James (a clerk) and Harriet.
  • 1845 – Hinton’s daughter Harriet Emma marries W. H. Smith, a newsagent (not that one!)
  • 1847 – Hinton & Eliza’s daughter Eliza marries the boy next door, A. J. Wright, a clerk, who is ten years younger than her.
  • 1851 – Hinton’s wife Eliza, aged 67, is living at 33 Freeling St with a female servant; her daughter Eliza is living in the same street at no. 18 with her husband, his two brothers, and his mother.
  • 1853 – Hinton Jr. emigrates with his family to Australia where he dies in 1877.

Miss Gibbs & Her Work

It would appear that, unlike her father, Miss Gibbs did not use a trade label though she did print hand bills to advertise her presence as she toured, and her work. No example of her work has hitherto been recorded. However, a a cut down hand bill for Miss Gibbs working in Bath had recently come to light. It is interesting to note that cut paper landscapes have now been added to her repertoire!

Two loose silhouettes accompanied the handbill but duffer in style and so appear to be cut by different hands. It’s therefore unclear which of the two was actually cut by Miss Gibbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah’s body of work was probably quite small as she ceased working as a silhouettist upon her marriage to Bedford-born Francis Herbert in December 1830. Herbert was a solicitor with a thriving practice in London. The couple resided at Chelsea and had a large family of four daughters and six sons. Sarah died in 1864 whilst still only in her fifties; her husband outlived her by eleven years.


© Wigs on the Green

Henry Readhead (Redhead)

26th May 2020

Little is known about the silhouette artist Henry Readhead who was working during the 1790s. His style of painting is distinctive but yet there are only a handful of known examples of his work. Where there has been provenance or sitters have been named, there is a link to Yorkshire so it’s possible that he may have had northern connections.

His profiles are reverse painted on convex glass in an accomplished and detailed style. The face is painted in solid black with the hair and attire painted in transparency with individual brush strokes visible. The bracketed bust-line is a consistent feature. When he signed his work, Readhead added his studio address –  54 Upper Norton St, Fitzroy Square, London. Norton Street was popular with painters and sculptors — Richard Wilson, the landscape painter and Sir David Wilkie, the Scottish painter both has studios there during the 1770s and 80s. … (show more)