Collections Long read Research Series

Sign of the Times: the Sitters Books of Frank Salisbury – Part 1

In the first of two blog posts, Reader Services Assistants Ian Graham and Angela Petyt-Whittaker discuss their joint project to catalogue two unique and historically important autograph books…

The Methodist collections of the John Rylands Library includes a large archive of personal papers created by the artist Francis “Frank” Owen Salisbury (1874-1962).

Born into a large family in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Salisbury initially trained as a stained-glass painter. Winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools enabled his artistic talent to flourish. He subsequently became one of the best-known portrait painters of his generation. His subjects included heads of state, kings and queens, generals, industrialists and actors from both sides of the Atlantic. Salisbury’s portfolio also contained depictions of state occasions and he became regarded as Britain’s unofficial Artist Laureate.

The main collection comprises correspondence, drawings and watercolours, but a significant addition arrived in November 2019, generously donated by Salisbury’s grandson.

The new deposit consists of two beautifully bound volumes containing the signatures of people who sat for Salisbury’s portraits and official commissions between 1904 and 1960. This is without doubt the finest single autograph collection in The John Rylands Library, containing the signatures of hundreds of prominent men and women, including some who changed the course of 20th century history.

The signatories include the British Royal Family and their official households. Salisbury’s artwork included ceremonial and commemorative events, such as The Heart of Empire – the Jubilee Thanksgiving … (1935) and The Coronation of … King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (1937). The people depicted in the paintings subsequently signed the Sitters Books annotated with the date and the occasion.

A page from one of the Sitters Books, bearing the signatures of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth taken at sittings for their coronation painting
Coronation painting signatures of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, 1937-8
(MA 2019/96 (2) p. 40)

Salisbury’s art commemorated the two World Wars, including evocative paintings such as The Burial of the Unknown Warrior (1920) and The Briefing of the Bomber Crews (1941). He depicted Winston Churchill more than any other artist, including two iconic images of the war leader, The Siren Suit and Blood, Sweat and Tears (1942).

A page from one of the Sitters Books in 1941 bearing signatures of crewmen featured in Salisbury’s Painting The Briefing of the Bomber Crews
Bomber crews painting signatures, 1941
(MA 2019/96 (2) p. 61)

A devout Methodist, Salisbury painted many religious leaders, both contemporary and historic, including John Wesley and Pope Pius XII.

At present, we are preparing metadata to accompany an online version of the Sitters Books which have been digitised by the Library’s Imaging team and are available to view in their entirety. Given the size of the books and the sheer number of signatures (Salisbury famously worked quickly, a talent honed by painting his twin daughters each day for the first year of their lives) this is a lengthy, tricky and interesting undertaking.

A page from one of the Sitters Books bearing the signatures of some of the attendees at the wedding of Princess Mary in 1922
Signatures of some of those attending the wedding of Princess Mary, 1922
(MA 2019/96 (1) p. 53)

The first step is to identify each sitter by his or her signature, which is usually accompanied by a date. Often, this is easy enough; the signatures are clear, even elegant. Other times, however, they require some deciphering. Now and again, a signature remains impenetrable no matter how hard you squint. This is where a second pair of eyes comes in useful to double-check.

A page from one of the Sitters Books in 1945 bearing numerous signatures one of which is conspicuously indecipherable
Third signature on page, absolutely no idea. Perhaps Gawarordilshaw?, 1945
(MA 2019/96 (2) p. 80)

As we transcribe, turning each page of the Sitters Books reveals a new surprise – there is a real thrill at seeing the handwriting of a famous historical figure leap out from the paper. The volumes are a real ‘who’s-who’ of 20th century establishment, high society and big business. Many of the most famous people of the time are represented, including Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Field Marshall Montgomery, King Edward VIII, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, David Lloyd George, Pope Pius XII, Benito Mussolini, Clement Atlee, John D. Rockefeller Jr, Marjorie Merriweather Post, John P. Morgan, Maria Montessori, Billy Graham and Evangeline Booth. Some autographs are instantly recognisable – in the case of Will Keith Kellogg, his signature is still replicated on the boxes of the breakfast cereal company he founded.

A page from one of the Sitters Books bearing numerous signatures including that of W. K. Kellogg in 1938
W. K. Kellogg signature, 1938
(MA 2019/96 (2) p. 47)

Frank Salisbury took his Sitters Books all around Great Britain, Europe and the United States adding signatures of his illustrious subjects. It is an honour to be able to unlock their contents. This project is all-consuming and has certainly honed our skills in palaeography and detective work.                    

In the second part of this blog, we will explore the fascinating task of researching biographies of the sitters and some of the stories we have uncovered.

Images reproduced with the permission of The John Rylands University Librarian and Director of the University of Manchester Library and The Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes (The Methodist Church in Britain).

2 comments on “Sign of the Times: the Sitters Books of Frank Salisbury – Part 1

  1. A fascinating read. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. John Hodgson

    Thanks to Twitter and @cain_juliendave, we have identified the unknown signature as that of Sir Edward Wilshaw (1879-1968), company manager and financier.

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