Dr Gareth Lloyd writes:
One of the fascinating aspects of working with special collections is the opportunity to uncover treasures that have previously lain undetected and unidentified.
One recent find from our world-leading Methodist collection is what appears to be an early 18th century oil painting of a young man wearing preaching bands – the forerunner of the modern clerical dog-collar (image 1). Written on the back of the portrait is the identification “John Wesley 1726” (image 2). This handwriting is probably late 19th or early 20th century in date – more recent than the painting itself. There is no provenance (record of ownership or custodianship) with the portrait and no indication of how or when the item entered the collection.
If authentic, this portrait would be of great interest as a previously unknown likeness of the founder of Methodism. It would have particular value as a depiction of Wesley as a young obscure Oxford academic before his meteoric rise to fame as one of the greatest leaders of the post-Reformation Church.
Accurate identification of portrait subjects is often fraught with difficulty even for experts and this particular example is no different.
Many likenesses exist of John Wesley. Over the last 250 years, his face has appeared in formal portraits, street sketches, caricatures, on commemorative tea pots and Christmas calendars. However, comparatively few of these were taken from life and what Wesley really looked like remains an open question, particularly as his appearance changed over the course of an 87 year life span.
The confirmed likeness of the adult Wesley that is the closest in date to the 1726 portrait is an engraving by John Faber of an original painting by John Williams dated circa 1741 when Wesley was aged 38 (image 3). There appears to be a superficial facial resemblance between the subjects depicted in the two works, but there are also significant differences, which cannot all be accounted for by the interval of approximately 15 years between the sittings. Most noticeably, there is a dimple in Wesley’s chin in the Faber engraving, which is not there in the 1726 portrait. The 1726 sitter also has a high forehead and thinning hair compared with the later likeness.
Facial comparison is a very uncertain way of identifying a portrait and is inevitably subjective. This is rendered even more complex when one is reliant on engravings produced by printers of varying quality. This problem is illustrated by image 4, which is another 18th copy of Faber, but one that is noticeably different in appearance from the likeness in image 3 even though it is taken from the same source portrait and engraving. To further complicate matters, image 4 is misidentified as Charles Wesley. All of this testifies to the difficulties in making accurate identifications even from contemporary or near-contemporary evidence.
If one assumes that the 1726 painting is not a portrait of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, then could it be a different John Wesley? The fact that the sitter wears clerical bands indicates that he was in Anglican orders and was probably therefore educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. No-one by the name of John Wesley matriculated at Cambridge during the first half of the 18th century, but four John Wesleys or Westleys entered Oxford during this time-frame. However, with the exception of the founder of Methodism, none of them are recorded as having subsequently entered Holy Orders.
Another less likely, but nonetheless intriguing possibility, is that the 1726 subject was not John Wesley, but his younger brother Charles (1707-88). Charles entered Christ Church Oxford in 1726 at the age of 19 with a prestigious King’s Scholarship from Westminster School and a portrait might have been considered appropriate to mark the occasion. Charles was not an ordained minister in 1726, but his formal dress as a King’s Scholar comprised a robe and bands. Again, there are some intriguing facial similarities between the 1726 sitter and the earliest generally accepted adult portrait of Charles Wesley by an unknown artist, dated circa 1735 (image 5).
Ultimately, identification of this early portrait with Wesley rests principally on the name and date written on the back. It is possible that whoever recorded that information was wrong and that there is no connection. However, it is also possible that the subject of the portrait is correctly recorded as “John Wesley 1726”.
The question should be asked why would the anonymous owner/custodian have made such a positive and precisely dated identification without specific reason? In support of this possibility is the fact that the painting is a crude piece of work. It has been described by Dr Peter Forsaith, an expert on Wesley portraiture, as “extremely primitive, in composition and technique – an itinerant rural artist at best.” This is perhaps the kind of portrait that John Wesley, as a poor scholar, would have been able to afford to mark his election in 1726 as a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. Perhaps the artist was not talented enough to add Wesley’s dimple or paid enough to do full justice to Wesley’s flowing locks – always a source of great personal pride to the Methodist patriarch. Such niceties of depiction lay in the future when Wesley was painted by eminent society artists and knew his own “best side”.
In conclusion, the best that can be said is that this portrait is supposedly of John Wesley in 1726. It certainly belongs in the category of many ‘unauthenticated likenesses’ of the Methodist leader, but it raises enough doubt and possibility to allow for a lively and fascinating debate.
(Dr Peter Forsaith of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History at Oxford Brookes and Professor Richard Heitzenrater of Duke University kindly provided comments that informed the writing of this blog entry)
How fascinating! I suppose this area of research and knowledge adds further to the mystique and mystery of the lives of late great literary geniuses; such as for example, Shakespeare topically, Austen, certain portraits of the Brontes and Gaskell, so on and so forth. In this age of digitization and electronic recording, its comforting to know that not everything can be proven, or in fact that we can know for certain. As in life, sometimes I think we have to just go with a ‘gut feeling’, not necessarily the most proven scientific method, but however still makes research and history exciting and rewarding. The ‘unknown’ and the ‘unknowable’ and the chase for knowledge.
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Fantastic article and very interesting find! I shall pass this onto our curator.