Two British Portraits from the New-York Historical Society

By Molly Harrington
Left: Lot 160, Thomas Payne I (1719-1799) ; Right: Lot 161, Thomas Payne II (1752 – 1831)

Thomas Payne I opened a bookselling and publishing shop with brother Oliver, and took over the business in 1739 when Oliver went bankrupt. From 1750 he was headquartered at Mews Gate, near Leicester Fields, London, which is the present-day site of the National Gallery. His shop was notoriously small, but cozy, and became known as the "Literary Coffee House," a sort of gentleman's club for literati. Payne himself was also famous in London for his fair dealings. Upon his retirement in 1790, the business passed to his son, also named Thomas Payne, who moved the premises to Pall Mall. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, the author of the four-volume Bibliographical Decameron (1817) lavished several pages on the character of the elder Payne, and reprinted an epitaph composed on the occasion of his death in 1799:

Around this tomb, ye friends of Learning, bend! It holds your grateful, though your humble friend: Here lies the literary Merchant, PAYNE: The countless volumes that he sold contain No name by liberal commerce more carest For virtues, that become her Votary’s breast: Of cheerful probity, and kindly plain, He felt no wish for disingenuous gain; In manners frank, in manly spirit high, Alert good nature sparkled in his eye: Not learn’d he yet had Learning’s power to please, Her social sweetness, her domestic ease: A SON, whom his example guides and chears, Thus guards the hallowed dust his heart reveres: Love bade him thus a due memorial raise; And friendly Justice penn’d this genuine praise.
--first published in M. Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vol. ix, p. 666

Though Dibdin congratulated the younger Payne for following in his father’s footsteps in business and in fairness, he felt it prudent to note that in one area, the son deviated from the father: he did not wear the same cut and color of clothing (brown) every single day.

The Payne family business kept meticulous records and catalogues, which have proven a valuable resource for book historians throughout the years.

Louis François Gérard van der Puyl (1750 - 1824); Right: Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794 - 1847)

Louis François Gérard van der Puyl, often called Gerard van der Puyl, was born in Utrecht, Netherlands, and worked in his home country as well as in France and England as a portrait painter to elites. The attribution of the N-YHS portrait is based on the similarities with a group portrait currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art depicting Thomas Payne and His Family and Friends (fig. 1). The elder Payne sits at center wearing spectacles and playing a popular card game called Whist. The setting is presumably Payne’s shop in London, where friends and colleagues often gathered. Van der Puyl depicted himself as a literato at the far left, looking toward the viewer.

Gerard van der Puyl, Thomas Payne and His Family and Friends, 1787. Oil on canvas, 35 by 47 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, inv. 1951-125-17.

Wainewright: Poet, Painter, Poisoner?

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, (Probable) Self Portrait as a Convict, graphite on paper.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright is a highly unusual figure in British art and history. Although he was a painter, draughtsman, and also a published author, he is undoubtedly most famous for killing several members of his wife’s family and committing bank and insurance fraud related to their murders. Much of the information about Wainewright is based on conjecture and on sensationalized versions of his story that were popularized shortly after his life by writers as influential as Oscar Wilde, among others.

Wainewright became an orphan at a young age; his mother died giving birth to him and his father died just a few years later, leaving him to be raised by his grandfather, Ralph Griffiths. Griffiths made a fortune in the literary world as a bookseller, publisher, and founder of the Monthly Review, England’s first literary magazine. He apparently disliked his grandson, however, leaving only a small portion of his estate to the young Thomas. Upon the death of his grandmother, Thomas then fell under the care of his uncle George, another heir to the Griffiths money and also a dabbler in the literary scene.

After schooling, Wainewright bought a commission as an ensign in an infantry regiment, though he served less than a year and never saw action in the field. It is unclear whether he suffered a nervous breakdown before or just after leaving the infantry, and much has been made of this episode as an explanation for Wainewright’s later crimes. In any case he took lodging in a boarding house in Chiswick, where he fell in love with Eliza Ward, the daughter of the landlady, Frances Abercromby. Wainewright and Eliza married in 1817 and began a life in London.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, 6th Lord Byron (1788 - 1824), after Thomas Phillips. Oil on canvas, 89 by 69 cm. Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, inv. NA 496.

In the early 1820s, Wainewright was a popular and charming figure in London's social and artistic circles, with a reputation for kindness, a silver tongue, and dandyish fashion. He began writing fiction and art criticism for the London Magazine, likely bolstered by the reputation of his literary grandfather. Simultaneously he took up painting, training under Thomas Phillips (1770 - 1845) and John Linnell (1792 - 1882) and exhibiting mythological and fantasy works at the Royal Academy, none of which have survived. Wainewright loved hosting parties and counted among his friends the artists Henry Fuseli, William Blake and Charles Lamb, as well as John Clare, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Barry Cornwall and John Keats. He also enjoyed collecting art, which, combined with his extravagant and fashionable lifestyle, pushed him far beyond his financial means.

Although Wainewright had inherited enough from his grandfather to live comfortably, his lifestyle was no match for his income. First in 1822, and again the following year, Wainewright forged the signatures of three of his relatives on a power of attorney to withdraw all of the restricted funds from his grandfather’s estate, a crime which could have earned him the death penalty. Yet even Ralph Griffiths’s fortune was quickly spent, and in 1827 Wainewright and his wife moved back in with his uncle George Griffiths at his sprawling country estate in Chiswick. Just a few months later, uncle George died of a mysterious stomach complaint, and Wainewright inherited the estate, valuable rare book library, and cash.

Linden House, Chiswick High Road, during the time of the 1831 sale

By 1829, Eliza’s mother Frances and her younger half-sister Helen had moved into the Chiswick estate. Upkeep of the estate was very expensive, but the Wainewrights caught a break when Frances died of a mysterious illness similar to what had killed uncle George, and Eliza inherited all of Frances’s money. Helen Abercromby reached legal adulthood in 1830, at which time the Wainewrights took out several life insurance policies on her, creatively avoiding detection for fraud. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Helen died shortly thereafter of (what is now known to be) strychnine poisoning, but not before she could sign a will leaving everything to Thomas and Eliza. While it is broadly assumed that all three of the convenient deaths in Wainewright’s life were in fact murders (perhaps in collaboration with his wife), the only death that raised significant suspicion at the time was Helen’s.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Edward Foss, under Sheriff of London and lawyer, seated, quarter-length, c.1816. Oil on canvas, 75.5 by 60.5cm. Sold Sydney, Bonham’s, 12 May 2014, lot 53.

The timing of Helen’s death led the insurance companies who had insured Helen for such high amounts to conduct an inquest, and Wainewright entered into a long legal battle, during which time he moved to Calais for several years. Eliza and their son, Griffiths, remained in London and lived in relative poverty. Rather than avoiding attention, fleeing the country actually raised the suspicions of the remaining living heirs to his grandfather’s will, who quickly found out that the trust had been depleted. Incidentally, one of those living heirs whose testimony led to Wainewright’s imprisonment was his own cousin, Edward Foss, whose signature he had forged in 1822, and whose portrait he had painted in 1816. Wainewright managed to evade capture until 1837, when he returned to London for reasons unknown. Because there was no concrete proof of murder, Wainewright was officially charged with four counts of forgery and fraud against the Bank of England.

Van Diemen's Land Company's establishment at Emu Bay, 1832. Tasmaniana Library, SLT
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, The Cutmear Sisters, Jane and Lucy, c. 1842. Watercolor over black pencil on paper, 25.4 by 27.6 cm. National Gallery of Australia.

Wainewright was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in modern day Tasmania in 1837, at which time most of his former friends and admirers disowned him, and Eliza and Griffiths moved to America, never to speak to him again. The paintings he had completed in England were scattered or lost. Given that Thomas Payne II died in 1831, and Wainewright had fled the country the year prior, the New-York Historical Society portrait must have been made before 1830 in England. Though he created many portraits in watercolor and ink in Van Diemen’s Land, very few oil portraits by Wainewright are known from his time in England, the two best examples being the above illustrated portraits of Lord Byron and Edward Foss. It is likely that Wainewright and the younger Payne would have crossed paths in the publishing industry and also that Wainewright executed more oil paintings in his early career that remain unidentified.

In Van Diemen’s Land, the capital city of which was Hobart Town, Wainewright originally served breaking rocks, and after two years was transferred to work at the hospital as a ward. After a few years of good behavior, Wainewright was granted some level of freedom, and took up his artistic career, painting and drawing portraits of at least 56 of Hobart’s elite. He may have made some portraits on commission, and others in exchange for favors or better treatment during his sentence.

Nineteenth-century writers were fascinated with Wainewright’s life and crimes, and his story inspired Charles Dickens’s 1859 short story “Hunted Down,” Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Lucretia, and Oscar Wilde’s 1889 story “Pen, Pencil, and Poison.” Wilde’s story contains this exaggerated but mostly accurate description of Wainewright :

...not merely a poet and a painter, an art-critic, an antiquarian, and a writer of prose, an amateur of beautiful things and a dilettante of things delightful, but also a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age.”
Oscar Wilde, “Pen, Pencil and Poison, A Study in Green,” Fortnightly Review, January 1889

Wilde is also the source for a darkly comedic quote apocryphally attributed to Wainewright and almost certainly made up by Wilde’s publisher: when asked, while in prison, if he poisoned his sister-in-law Helen, Wainewright supposedly replied "Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles."

A note on provenance

Frederick Startridge Ellis (1830 - 1901) purchased the two Payne portraits from the grandson of the younger Thomas Payne (great-grandson of the elder). Startridge was himself a London bookseller who served as official book buyer for the British Museum for many years, and his stock of rare books was sold by Sotheby's in 1885. He donated the pair of portraits to the The New-York Historical Society in 1883, where they have remained ever since. The N-YHS was founded in 1804 as the oldest museum in both the state and the city of New York.

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