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More about Norwich Civic Portrait Collection

The Norwich Civic Portrait Collection encompasses an important number of portraits of mayors of Norwich, local members of parliament and civic and other dignitaries from the late sixteenth century to the twentieth century. Since at least 1936, the Collection has been recognised for its strengths: ‘… no other municipality in the country possesses a collection of portraits … with so long a tradition behind it, and of such a generally good level of quality… ’.1

The earliest group numbers just over 30 portraits painted before 1715. They are all of similar style and size, dominated by four colours: red, black, white and gold. They were painted to be hung in the Mayor’s Court Chamber in the Guildhall, the seat of civic government, and were closely hung one above the other on all four walls.

At that time Norwich was the second city in the United Kingdom. Much of its wealth was founded on the textile industry. The portraits of the three earliest mayors represented – Robert Jannys (1517 & 1524), John Marsham (1518), and Augustine Steward (1534, 1546, 1556) – are painted in an archaistic style, probably in the late sixteenth or very early seventeenth century. It is significant that they were also civic benefactors, in particular contributing towards the rebuilding of the Guildhall which was completed in 1537. It therefore seems probable that the tradition for civic portraits was begun in order to commemorate the generosity of benefactors. This is confirmed by the inclusion of portraits of London donors such as Alan Percy (1560), Sir Thomas White (1567) and Mrs Joanna Smith (1594), one of the few women represented in the Collection. The portrait of Sir Peter Reade (1646) is accompanied by a separate painted panel recording his gifts to the city and it is possible that similar memorial panels existed for other portraits.

The unknown artists of the earliest Norwich portraits were artisans employed by the Council to undertake a variety of decorative work for the City. The Chamberlain’s accounts for the Guildhall show that in addition to working on various buildings and bridges, the painters were also required to paint anything from water tankards to the ducking stool. One payment of 37s. to George Trewe in 1637–1638 was for ‘writing the guift and names of many benefactors and frames’, but none of the payments can be identified with any of the civic portraits.

The first full-length portraits on canvas in the Collection were presented by the Guild of St George in 1705, when it commissioned local artist, Thomas Starling, to paint the portraits of Queen Anne and Prince George. This ancient religious guild, which after the Reformation became virtually a social club, gave extensively to city charity. Its pageantry centred around the spectacular Guild Day procession and feast held at St Andrew’s Hall which accompanied the inauguration of the new mayor.

By 1731 the Guild was in debt, and the city took over much of its pageantry and customs. It is probably significant that this coincided with the commissioning of the first full-length civic portrait of a mayor (Robert Marsh, 1731), which was presented by the Grocers’ Company of which he was a member. Presumably the city wished to continue the tradition of memorialising its leading citizens, and there can be no doubt that the portraits were connected with the mayor-making festivities: ‘On Monday a fine picture of Timothy Balderstone was put up at the Guild Hall and on Tuesday the said gentleman was sworn mayor for the year ensuing’.2 Initially some of the portraits were taken to St Andrew’s Hall to decorate the walls during the feast-making, and eventually it became their permanent home.

Of the 84 full-length paintings acquired by the city from 1705 to 1934, the Corporation itself commissioned only eight. These were of officers of the Council, benefactors and the local hero, Lord Nelson (1801). The majority of the rest were acquired by public subscription and it is known, for example, that over 300 citizens subscribed to the portrait of Crisp Brown (1817). Others were given by trade companies, militia or private individuals or presented by the sitter.

Initially a single artist secured all the full-length commissions. German émigré, John Theodore Heins, received every commission from 1732 until 1746, followed by Thomas Bardwell who later had to compete with other local or visiting artists such as Charles Stoppelaer and Joseph Anton Adolphe from Austria. The early portraits followed a pattern in which the sitters are shown in poses derived from classical sculptures, usually in toga-like mayoral robes, surrounded by civic symbols.

This pattern was broken in a spectacular way in 1783 with the portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of Sir Harbord Harbord, MP for Norwich. It is believed that Harbord persuaded his constituents to commission the portrait, which was then presented to the Corporation. It heralded a series of some of the most attractive portraits in the Civic Collection.

Two London-based artists, William Beechey and John Opie, shared the commissions over the following 20 years. Both artists visited Norwich to work, and met and married Norwich women. During this time the Corporation requested Lord Nelson to sit for his portrait to celebrate his triumph at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Nelson was allowed to select the artist and chose his friend Beechey. As a memento of the sitting he gave Beechey his hat, which is shown in the portrait. It is now in the collection of Norwich Castle.

It is evident that the social status of the sitter influenced the choice of artist. For example in 1804 two of the leading portrait painters of the day, John Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence, were commissioned to paint respectively portraits of the statesman William Windham and Charles Harvey, Recorder of Norwich and a member of a wealthy Norfolk family. Conversely, when it came to select an artist for the next portrait of local banker Thomas Back (1809), the young Norwich artist Joseph Clover was chosen.

By this time the style of portraits had changed. Gone were the elegant poses. The sitters are now shown in a more business-like stance, often holding documents and sometimes seated. One portrait that stands out is Robert Hawkes (1822) by Benjamin Robert Haydon, in which the mayor is shown walking in procession in the Guildhall. When offered one hundred pounds to go to Norwich to paint the portrait he replied ‘… I am not very fond of painting portraits; but a mayor is a mayor, … I’ll go; moreover, I am just at this moment confoundedly in need of money …’.3 Sadly, it was considered a failure, and the Corporation reverted to tried and tested artists such as Thomas Phillips and Samuel Lane of King’s Lynn.

Soon after this phase the standard of the portraits declined, although some notable artists such as James Jebusa Shannon and Hubert von Herkomer were commissioned. The sombreness of the men’s dress and the uninspired backgrounds in several are typical of much Victorian portraiture. There are one or two exceptions, such as the portrait of Jacob Henry Tillett (1859) by the Norwich Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys, and that of Ernest Blyth (1910) by William Orpen.

The whole tradition of portraiture had changed following the advent of photography in the late 1830s and from that date the paintings never quite matched the glory of the former portraits. Nevertheless, the Collection demonstrates the development of portraiture over four centuries, and is a unique record of the city’s colourful civic past.

Norma Watt, Assistant Keeper of Art

1Henry Hake, Report of the City Committee to the Council on the Subject of the Preservation of Civic Portraits, 2 January 1936
2Norwich Mercury, 26 June 1736
3George Borrow, Lavengro, 1851

Text source: PCF / Norwich Civic Portrait Collection

This description was originally written for a catalogue.

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