Bridgwater was made a free borough, with rights to levy taxes, in the reign of King John. It remained a significant mercantile port until the twentieth century. In 1469, the first Mayor was appointed and from that time, public property became vested in the mayor, aldermen and burgesses.
The Municipal Corporation Act of 1835 resulted in the dissolution of the former Corporation (of gentlemen, many of whom had obtained town property for their advantage) and the formation of the new Borough Council, which resulted in a number of prominent local tradesmen being elected.
The Council found much of the town property in a ‘ruinous and dilapidated state’. With the typical zeal and rigour of the early Victorians, they instituted a series of municipal improvements for the benefit of the public: new streets, bridges, houses and cemeteries; new and improved public utilities; libraries, reading rooms and public buildings such as the Market House and a Town Hall. The population grew rapidly from 7,807 in 1831 to 12,636 in 1871. Workers supported a flourishing trade, particularly in the manufacturing arts of brick and tiles as well as ironwork.
The profits of trade and the social climate encouraged philanthropy from those whose wealth was accumulating. In August 1854, an exhibition was organised in the Assize Halls, in aid of St Mary’s Church restoration fund. Local residents contributed works of art from their personal collections. The contemporary catalogue for the exhibition lists 375 oil paintings and 394 watercolours, including works by Rembrandt, Murillo, Rubens, Gainsborough, Constable, Van Dyck, and Velázquez.
In this context, it is easy to understand how it might have been that the portraits of the leading citizens were commissioned and donated. The earliest recorded portrait is of five-time Mayor John Browne (a brickyard owner) by W. Baker, presented to the Borough in 1865 and described as ‘of great merit’. It is missing. Also missing are contemporary copies of Royal portraits, as are tapestries presented in 1836, and understood to have hung previously in Enmore Castle.
The surviving portraits illustrated demonstrate the typical characteristics of the men of the time. Sully was a coal merchant; Stanley gave a gold badge for the chain of office of the Mayors; Thompson was the first President of the Bridgwater Teetotal Club (‘the one thing by which I have been enabled to do the greatest amount of good to my fellow townsmen’), donated £100 to the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and was elected a first representative for Bridgwater for the newly-formed Somerset County Council on 1st April 1889; Pollard, a builder, read the Riot Act to end the 14 week Brickyard Strike in 1896.
The end of Victoria’s long reign brought many changes and the commissioning of works of public art in the twentieth century has not been a prominent feature of local government. Town Twinning schemes have generated most of the other works.
Dr Peter Cattermole, Local Historian
Text source: PCF / Bridgwater Town Council
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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