When I signed off my last entry on this blog I mentioned the upcoming open day at Haberdashers' Hall, London. Well, I'm delighted to say that I made the trip to London last Saturday with Jan & Helen, and together we enjoyed a terrific day out in the capital. This open day was part of the annual Open House London event, whereby on 20-21 September a number of houses around London were open for the public to visit free of charge. Luckily the weather was lovely for this event, and we noticed that there were many people walking the streets of our capital, seemingly en route to the next house on their itinerary. According to the information on the Open House London website the day was a great success.
So, what of our first visit to the new Haberdashers' Hall?
I must say, we were very impressed. It is quite fashionable to knock modern architecture, but I thought that this was a superb building. The facade blends well with the surrounding buildings in West Smithfield, but when you cross the portals and make your way into the building you come face to face with a lovely courtyard . The courtyard is grassed, with a most attractive fountain at its centre.In the walkways around the courtyard were displayed a number of interesting items, including sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick.
We entered the Orangery and were greatly impressed by a painting of a Panorama of the Modern City of London by Jeffrey Morgan. This was a very attractive work, but what struck us most were the figures painted into the foreground of the picture. These were four eminent members - Princess Margaret, Sir Robin Brook, Robert Aske of the Haberdashers' Company - Princess Margaret, Sir Robin Brook, Robert Aske and "our" John Bankes (c1652-1719)! The artist had copied Bankes as he appears in his portrait, which has hung at successive Haberdashers' Halls since his death in 1719.
We went up the stairs, to visit the suite of rooms on the first floor. These are very fine indeed, and they contain many treasures. We saw many fine paintings (including works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Kneller and Romney) much beautiful furniture, and many interesting and impressive artefacts. However, the item that we really wanted to see was the portrait of John Bankes, which still hangs in the Company's Court Room, as laid down in Bankes's will.
A few years ago I contacted the National Portrait Gallery in the hope that they could tell me something about the Bankes portrait. Of course, I would have liked them to be able to tell me when it was painted, and who was the likely artist, but I knew that it was rather a long shot so was not too disappointed when I got their response. They said (quite fairly) that it was not possible to date the portrait, or begin the process of attribution, without having access to the original. They considered that "... like so many city portraits the hand is competent but not recognisable.."
We spent quite some time gazing at the Bankes portrait, and taking photographs. To me this is the most wonderful thing. To be able to see an image of our benefactor, nearly 300 years after he died!
Usually the artefacts in portraits dating from Bankes's time were included to tell the viewer what type of person the subject was - his trade, or religion, his values etc. With this in mind I have tried, many times, to make sense of the iconography of this picture. On the table by Bankes there is a hat, and some other items. As far as I can make out these seem to be a light coloured cloth, a pair of compasses and some needles of some kind (probably wooden). I realise that I've almost certainly mis-identified some of these items, but if anybody reading this feels able to put me right I'll be delighted for you to do so. Try as I might, I cannot understand what the items tell us about Bankes. On this visit we were able to have a close-up look at the picture with this in mind, but we still were no nearer to understanding it, I'm afraid.
One other point - do the clothes worn by Bankes tell us anything about him, apart from the general point that he was a prosperous man?
One thing that struck me about the picture this time is that Bankes looks quite a young man. Possibly in his middle age. I have always thought that the portrait was probably painted to mark him becoming being Master of the Company, but he was in his 60s then, and he looks much younger than that. This throws up a number of possibilities. For example, maybe Bankes was in his 60s , but the artist flattered him by making him look younger - distinctly possible - or maybe the portrait was painted somewhat earlier in Bankes's life. If anybody reading this has any ideas on these and any other points, I'll be very pleased to hear from them.
Our visit to Haberdashers' Hall was completed by a short meeting with David Bartle, the company Archivist. He very kindly spared us a few minutes for a chat, and a look at the Bankes Pedigree Books. Yes - you read that correctly. There are two pedigree books. One of them is exactly as it was when it was created at the start of the 20th century - by Mr Eagleton, I think. The other copy is updated with any additional information about the Bankes pedigree that the company receives. Jan and Helen had never seen the pedigree boook before, and were very pleased to be able to put that right.
We left Haberdashers' Hall having enjoyed our visit greatly, and with a very favourable impression of the building which, I think, effectively combines the modern with the traditional. The building is well lit throughout, and has a very spacious feel, compared to the previous hall in Staining Lane. The Company's collection of pictures and artefacts are able to be displayed to very great advantage.
Having completed our main mission for the day, we were left to decide what to do in the remaining couple of hours before leaving for home. After a brief discussion we opted for a visit to Bunhill Fields, the great non-conformist burial ground in the City of London. A number of Bankes descendants were buried in this burial ground, including Joseph Collyer the Younger (1748-1827) and members of his family, and my direct ancestors, Ann Hunt (c1770-1811) and her spouse John Stephens (c1770-1802).
A great many non-conformists were buried at Bunhill fields over several centuries up to the 1850s. It is now managed by the Corporation of London as a garden, and I must saw it is beautifully maintained. There are two main paths that criss-cross the burial ground, and a sizeable grassed area with seating, where one can sit and enjoy the calm atmosphere of this tree-shaded haven. There are a number of famous people buried there, and we saw the graves of Daniel Defoe (writer of Robinson Crusoe) Susannah Wesley (wife of John Wesley) and John Bunyan (writer of the Pilgrim's Progress). The footpaths have been laid out so that visitors can easily see these graves, but the rest of the graveyard is only viewable through railings - a necessary precaution, I would think, to guard against damage. Thus, it was not possible for us to attempt a visit to the graves of our forebears.
We very much enjoyed the short time we spent in Bunhill Fields. It is a very restful place, and with the sun shining through the many trees, it looked very attractive.
As we left Bunhill Fields we noted the great Methodist Chapel on the other side of the road. This was John Wesley's chapel , and next to it is his house, which is also open to the public. We just had time to go into the chapel - which is a quite magnificent building - and Wesley's house. The house is quite small and modestly furnished, and contains many items that were once Wesley's possessions. Among these are his christening robe, his spectacles, a lock of his hair, items of his clothing, and a number of items of furniture. The house was staffed by two guides who were simply bubbling with enthusiasm, and very knowledgable on their subject. We learned a lot in our short visit, and left the capital having had a really super day.