Boy with a Hoop

head and shouldersframeMy great grandfather George Swift was born in Sheffield in 1840 so I guess that this portrait of him was painted around 1845. As far as I can tell, the painting isn’t signed.

It reminds me of those formal Victorian studio portrait photographs which often have a formal park on a painted backdrop.


My mum remembered as a toddler being prompted to look at this painting and say ‘Granddad, pull your sock up!’

The urn of flowers is a corner of the painting that appeals to me. I can imagine the portrait being produced by a team, with one artist adding the floral flourishes.


George SwiftThe pleasure dome in the background looks like the artist’s invention but the setting reminds me of Sheffield Botanical Gardens, a place that my great granddad George was familiar with.

When we drive past the gardens, I always find myself remembering my mum’s story that, when she was a baby, George would push her in her pram to the gardens but he complained that;

‘This baby always starts crying as soon as I get to the gates! And I have to turn around and bring her back to be fed.’

His good looks have come down through the generations and we’ve got photographs of one of his great great great grandsons standing by the portrait, hoop in hand looking very like his ancestor.

I had some difficulty photographing the painting because of the glossy varnish. Surprisingly, even though I had my camera on a tripod it came up with a ‘blink detected’ warning! I think it’s more likely that great granddad was winking at me.

Blitz Damage

versopatchThe canvas has a tale to tell. Two patches of rubber glued to the back show where it was repaired when a bomb hit my granddad Swift’s house during the Sheffield Blitz.

lips1846rowneyThere are two maker’s stamps on the back of the 3ft x 2ft 6 inch canvas. Geo. Rowney & Co. supplied the canvas, and perhaps the stretcher. I can’t decipher that London address.

There’s a clearer stamp from H. Hodgson of 39 West Street, Sheffield. It appears that Hodgson was a ‘Carvre & Gildre’, so presumably the carver and gilder who supplied the ornate frame.

1846hodgsonIf you’ve any ideas on that last line of Hodgson’s stamp, please let me know. Could that last word be ‘Stationer’?

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  1. Richard, I loved seeing this and reading your commentary. I wondered if you had a similar tradition in England to the one we had—Itinerant painters. In the 1800s they would travel the country with already finished canvases. The backgrounds were in place and even the bodies and much of the clothing. Then you could have them paint your loved one by selecting a “backdrop” from those on offer. (And if they were traveling in a certain area the backgrounds would reflect that area with landmarks etc.) In some situations all they would paint in was the face and hands. In others they could get a more “customized” look by the addition of other features and clothing and jewelry additions. This would support your sense of the flowers having been produced by another artist.

    In fact given the composition of this painting I wouldn’t be surprised if all was in place except the dome in the back, the face and hands. And then when the painter showed up he could paint the face and hands, and add the dome in the background, in the space specifically left by the “factory” painters, because this will make the painting meaningful to the client. (And the face is painted with lovely delicacy.)

    I’ve seen examples of these paintings from the US (a friend has a couple) and it’s very interesting to me.

    Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse Code, was actually an itinerant painter going about the United states doing exactly this.

    Thanks for sharing this fun bit of family history.

    1. I think that method of painting would account for the slightly disjointed – almost dreamlike – feel of the painting. I’ll try and find more. The painting is on its way to one of mum’s grandsons whose wife studied at the Courtauld Institute in London and who lectures at the Scottish National Gallery and Scottish Portrait Gallery, so I’m hoping she will be able to do a bit of detective work on the painting. I bet there aren’t many paintings in the Scottish National Gallery with puncture repair swatches glued to the back of them.

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