One of the things that Loretta and I enjoy most about this blog is learning from each other, and from our readers. Whenever we write a post with questions or things we don't quite understand, there's always someone out there who knows the answer. My recent post about the painting Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family by Arthur Devis (detail above; click on the image to enlarge it) inspired such interesting comments that I thought I'd share them here.
The first comment came from my fellow Nerdy History Girl, Loretta, who has a fine eye for old London landmarks, and at once recognized the bridge in the background, detail right, as the first Putney Bridge. Designed by architect Sir Jacob Acworth, the bridge was opened in 1729; legend says that the bridge was built after Sir Robert Walpole was unable to cross the river for an important meeting with King George I on account of a drunken ferryman. Loretta forwarded this slightly later image of the bridge from Picturesque Views on the River Thames Vol. II (1802); to the right you can also see the same square church tower that is in the Vanneck portrait.
Loretta also shared a quote about the bridge from Old and New London, Vol. 6, 1878. By this time, over a century after the painting, the old bridge must have seen better days: "Putney Bridge cost upwards of £23,000; it is not only a disgrace to the neighbourhood, considered as an object of use and necessity, but is more dangerous to boats upon the river." You can read more here.
When I shared the post on Twitter, I heard from Rebekah Higgitt, a Historian of Science and a Lecturer at the University of Kent. She pointed out that the small telescope used by the Vanneck ladies, detail left, to survey the river was very similar to this portable reflector telescope made c1750, and now in the collection of Royal Museums, Greenwich.
Finally, there is this comment from Sarah Hall, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Frick Museum of Art, where I first saw the Vanneck painting last week. She had much more information to contribute regarding the Vanneck family, the mystery of Roehampton House, and the painter, Arthur Devis:
"[Devis's] way with fabrics is superb - although he often used figures/dolls in the studio to help him work out his composition - so the faces and figures tend to look similar and not have any real weight to them. The painting was made two years after [Sir Joshua's] wife died, so she is not included. There is no record of the sitters, but scholarship suggests the portrait may have been commissioned to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Anna Maria (in pink), and the subjects are likely (left to right): Sir Joshua, Mrs. de la Mont (likely his sister), Henry Uthoff (Anna Maria's husband), Gerard (son), Gertrude (daughter, with telescope), Joshua (son, on ground), Margaret (youngest daughter, on ground) , Anna Maria, Elizabeth (eldest daughter), and Thomas Walpole (Elizabeth's husband and cousin of Horace Walpole). They did live on an estate at Roehampton on the banks of the Thames which was known as Roehampton House - his son made extensive renovations and changed the name to Roehampton Grove - hence the confusion with what is now known as Roehampton House. Many wonderful details in this - I love the flowers strewn about strategically, and the glint of shoe buckles and hat trim, and the date and signature, camouflaged in the bark of the tree at left. The clothing is so beautiful, the figures are like frosted pastries."
So the Vannecks are in fact posing on the grounds of their own house. I'll admit I'm relieved to learn they're not trespassing in their beautiful silk clothing. That's Sir Joshua and his sister in the detail, lower right, with Henry Uthoff to one side (and doesn't Henry look as if he shares a tailor with Thaddeus Burr, as painted by John Singleton Copley?)
But Loretta came up with one final, scathing comment on Sir Joshua's house, also from Picturesque Views on the River Thames:
"Amongst the many elegant mansions that adorn the village of Putney, few have been erected on the banks of the Thames. That of the late Sir Joshua Vanneck stands conspicuous, but has nothing about it to render it an object worthy attention."
But one more update: Loretta came across yet another reference to Sir Joshua's house, from Eighty picturesque views on the Thames and Medway, engraved on steel by first artists by W.G.Fearnside, n.d. - though probably mid-19thc or later:
"On passing through the bridge, the large red house, with a fine verdant lawn, situated on the right was originally the residence of Sir Joshua Vanneck, and once the boast of the river; but so many elegant villas have of late years adorned the banks, that this respectable mansion appears to have lost its former consideration."
Many thanks to Sarah Hall, Rebekah Higgitt, and of course Loretta for their contributions to this post. "Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family at Roehampton House, Putney" by Arthur Devis, 1752, Frick Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.