Wallingford Town Council owns a collection of some 28 works which it inherited from the former Borough Council. The Borough was served by a succession of High Stewards, prominent men who undertook to represent the town’s interests at a high level nationally. Several find a place in the Collection. Others were active in charitable work while a third group were leaders in the business and intellectual life of the town and in its administration. In general, the more prominent the sitter, the higher the national profile of the artist who painted him. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the town was itself home to a group of artists whose work was well known at the time and it is not surprising to find a number of their works in the Collection.
Arguably the painter with the highest profile to be represented in the Collection is Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) who provided the portrait Jacob, 2nd Earl of Radnor (1750–1828). The painting is dated from around 1806 and the inscription confirms that the Earl was High Steward of Wallingford, a post he held from 1806 to 1828, and he gave the painting to the Borough in 1822.
The other well-known name is that of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) with his portrait of Sir Francis Sykes. However, it is now clear that this is a copy of part of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough. The original featured not only Sir Francis but also his groom, two horses and a dog. It was painted in 1787, the year before the painter’s death. Unfortunately it was lost in a fire in 1874. The town’s painting was commissioned by the Borough in 1808. Sir Francis was a prominent local landowner from Basildon Park who had made a fortune in India. He served as High Steward and also represented the Borough in Parliament.
The Gainsborough family did provide another item in the Collection, however. Thomas’ sister, Sarah Gainsborough, married Philip Dupont and their son Gainsborough Dupont (1754–1797) was a successful portrait painter who was trained by his uncle Thomas and worked with him in Bath and later in London. His portrait of Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780) gives us a likeness of one of Wallingford’s most illustrious inhabitants. Sir William was a judge who, while living at Castle Priory in Wallingford, wrote his vastly influential Commentaries on the Laws of England. The American founding fathers found this book invaluable when they were drafting the constitution and the name of Blackstone is well-known to lawyers in the United States. A very similar portrait of Sir William by Thomas Gainsborough is in Tate Britain.
The group of artists who themselves lived in Wallingford revolved around two dynasties each with its own patriarchal figure. These were George Dunlop Leslie (1835–1921) and James Hayllar (1828–1920). Both painters lived in large houses by the river, James Hayllar in ‘Castle Priory’, where Blackstone had lived earlier, and George Leslie at ‘Riverside’. Other painters involved were George’s sister Mary Leslie and his son Peter, and four of James’ daughters, Jessica, Edith, Mary and Kate. All except Mary Leslie exhibited at the Academy and other prestigious venues regularly at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the town followed their progress with interest and pride. Their story is told more fully in Anthony Wilder’s Victorian Artists of Wallingford published by Pie Powder Press in 2006. George Leslie and James, Jessica and Edith Hayllar are all represented in the town’s collection.
James Hayllar’s striking portrait of Edward Wells (1886) conveys the feeling of a man of power and influence. Wells (1821–1910) was a brewer and banker, probably the biggest single employer in the town and an important philanthropist. He was elected MP for the Borough from 1872–1880, was four times Mayor and also served as High Steward.
Edward’s brother Thomas Frederick Wells (1837–1907), was painted by Jessica Hayllar (1858–1940), probably posthumously in 1908 and arguably she achieved one of the finest portraits in the Collection. The artist shows us a kindly, scholarly and somewhat world-weary gentleman for whom we feel she had great sympathy. Thomas Wells was an Alderman of the Borough, who like his brother served four times as Mayor and promoted literary activities in the town. The painting was bought by public subscription.
James Hayllar was also responsible for seven of the set of eight portraits of prominent Wallingfordians which are typical of a format in which he delighted - fine detailed brushwork in an opaque medium on paper, with a plain background. The sitters were George Dunlop Leslie, James Hayllar, Henry Hawkins, John Kirby Hedges, Alfred George Field, Thomas Frederick Wells, John Hedges Marshall and George Herbert Morrell. They form a striking feature of the main chamber of the Town Hall and are an interesting social comment in that the two artists are counted amongst the leading lawyers, bankers and businessmen of the town.
George Leslie joined with James Hayllar to paint a portrait of Queen Victoria as a gift to the town to celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 1887. A major refurbishment of the Town Hall was also undertaken as part of the celebrations and George Leslie, who was a Borough Councillor, took the lead in organising it. His Wallingford Bridge (1890) was originally hung next to the portrait of Queen Victoria and above the set of eight portraits. Leslie’s day book, preserved in the Tate Archive, tells us that it cost Hawkins £20. Alderman Henry Hawkins was a member of the Corporation with George Leslie and this was a low price for the time. On the other side of the Queen’s portrait was James Hayllar’s Wallingford from Grim’s Dyke (1896).
The Lemonade Drink, a genre painting by Jessica Hayllar, arrived in 1961, the gift of Mr Simpson. This completes the Collection.
Anthony Wilder, Local Historian
Text source: PCF / Wallingford Town Council
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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