Deepening the Tradition

The Paintings of John Walters of Denbigh

From Planet 241

by Peter Lord

Peter Lord discovers new work that can be attributed to the painter John Walters. He argues that it is important to acknowledge an overlooked Welsh artisanal tradition that encompasses pub signs and portraits of those from all classes in order to deepen our understanding of life in pre-nineteenth-century Wales.

Written almost exclusively from a metropolitan perspective, until recently mainstream art history concentrated heavily on academic painting. In particular, it had little to say about the large body of work carried out from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries by painters trained in an artisan tradition. Among the few exceptions are a group of six pictures of servants and tradespeople associated with Erddig, near Wrexham, painted between 1791 and 1796. Because of their unusual iconography, these pictures are justly celebrated among the small number of surviving portraits of eighteenth-century people born outside the ranks of the gentry. The lengthy inscriptions in verse-form that they include identify the individuals depicted and have enabled research and documentation of their lives. Similarly, the patron and author of the verses, Philip Yorke (1743–1804), has been the subject of considerable research, not least because of the unusual interest that he took, as a gentleman, in the servants and tradespeople with whom he came into contact. However, of the painter of the Erddig portraits nothing is known other than his name, John Walters, and his association with the town of Denbigh.

Walters was identified as the painter in a single reference in the Erddig papers to the payment of four guineas in 1793, the year in which the portraits of William Williams the blacksmith and boxer, and Jane Ebrell, the spider brusher, were made. These pictures had been preceded in 1791 by that of Jack Nicholas, the kitchen man, and in 1792 by Jack Henshaw, the gamekeeper, and Edward Prince, the woodman. In 1796, the series was completed with the portrait of John Jones, the butcher and publican of the Royal Oak in Wrexham. The commission was not surpassed for its depiction of the common people as named individuals until the mid-1830s, when William Jones Chapman painted at least seventeen portraits of industrial workers employed by Francis Crawshay at Merthyr Tydfil.

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