22 November 2012

The Mystery Sitter

Painting in the BMAG collection. Original painting is hung in the
Best Drawing Room at Aston Hall.

When BMAG (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) received this painting in 1979 they had no idea who it was of or whom it was by. After some research it was thought that it could be by the Birmingham based artist James Millar, and the sitter being the surveyor, William Westley the younger, due to the portfolio with the image of St. Philip's church conveniently protruding from the leaves. BMAG would love to find any evidence that this is indeed William Westley, or to prove any different conclusion, so if anyone has any information, please let me know.

There are a few problems with this portrait being both of William Westley and by James Millar, as although Westley was alive when Millar was painting, he would have been an elderly man. Westley was born in about 1700, and Millar (born in about 1735) began his painting career in about 1763. The sitter does not seem to be a man in his 60s or 70s, which would cast some doubt on the pairing. But perhaps the painting was commissioned after Westley's death, possibly based on an earlier portrait, to show Westley in his youth.

Another anomaly is the drawing of St. Philip's itself; Westley produced a north-west prospect of St. Philip's church in 1732, but the drawing in the portfolio looks like the engraving of the north of the church produced by architect and architectural writer, Colen Campbell, for his Vitruvius Britannicus which was published in three volumes between 1715 and 1725 (see left). Campbell himself died in 1729, and had no relation to Birmingham apart from visiting and writing about the Baroque St. Philip's church. The architect of the church itself, Thomas Archer, died in 1743 aged 75.

A historian of fashion would serve well in dating the dress of the young man which would help in discovering if the painting was painted in Millar's time. James Millar painted many portraits of Birmingham's inhabitants, including John Baskerville, John Freeth and Francis Eginton, but perhaps we may never know who is sitting in the painting staring back at us, with their connection to what is now our little cathedral.

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