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Of beef in burgundy

by Angus Trumble, 19 December 2017

Portrait of William Manning, c.1821 by Henry Bone
Portrait of William Manning, c.1821 by Henry Bone

In 1824, William Manning MP (1763–1835), together with 27 other Members of Parliament; the Governor, Deputy Governor and eight other directors of the Bank of England (including Manning); and the Chairman, Deputy Chairman and five other directors of the Honourable East India Company joined forces and formed in London the Australian Agricultural Company. By its élite composition this consortium effectively formed one of the most ambitious and important pieces of private enterprise in the early history of colonial New South Wales. It was, in turn, almost certainly prompted by the successful establishment of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819: a free port under British control that thenceforth linked East India Company possessions (in India, Ceylon, Burma and parts of modern Malaysia) to the Australian colonies, and also to China and the trans-Pacific trade. In a sense, we are today only beginning to realise the full potential.

The following year, through the Governor of New South Wales (Sir Thomas Brisbane), the Australian Agricultural Company formally sought the advice of his Surveyor-General, John Oxley, about suitable land in which to invest. Oxley duly sent Henry Dangar, a surveyor employed by the Company, to assess the region stretching between Port Macquarie and Port Stephens. On this expedition, Dangar named the Manning River after William Manning, who was by then Deputy Governor of the Company. The Company soon extended its reach to the area around Tamworth. In due course it opened the first railway in Australia, and established a virtual monopoly on coal mining around Newcastle. However, cattle grazing for the production of beef has long since been the company’s main focus. It continues to prosper.

Manning was the son of a West India merchant and planter on St Kitts and Santa Cruz (today Saint Croix in the US Virgin Islands). William joined his father’s firm and took it over in 1791. He inherited two thirds of his mother’s estates on Santa Cruz and purchased the remaining third. He was an official agent for St Vincent from 1792 to 1806 and for Grenada from 1825 to 1831. He became the leading advocate for the West India interest in the unreformed House of Commons, where he represented Plympton Erle (1794−96), Lymington (1796−1806), Evesham (1806−18), Lymington again (1818−20; 1821−26), and Penryn (1826−30). More importantly, Manning became a director of the Bank of England in 1792. He went on to be Deputy Governor from 1810 to 1812 and then Governor from 1812 to 1814, right in the middle of the crucial ‘Restriction Period’ when the bank issued £1 and £2 notes to stop the drain on gold bullion that was caused by the high cost of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Bank commissioned James Lonsdale to produce a full-length oil painting of William Manning, presumably to mark the conclusion of his term of office; it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in the summer of 1814 and is still in the collection of the Bank of England. The work by Henry Bone, recently acquired for the National Portrait Gallery Collection, is a superb enamel on copper replica in miniature of that oil painting. However, the original portrait was also engraved by Charles Turner RA (1774–1857), so it circulated widely by that relatively inexpensive reproductive medium. William Manning was a famous man. He resigned his directorship in 1831.

Henry Bone RA (1755−1834) was a leading miniaturist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Born in Truro in Cornwall, Bone was the son of a cabinet-maker and learned to paint first on china whilst working for the Cookworthy factory in Plymouth. He was apprenticed to Richard Champion in Bristol. He then moved to London where he designed jewellery and later began painting portrait miniatures. From 1781 he began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy, at first using watercolour on ivory and later shifting to the extraordinarily complex technique of enamelling on copper. He was eventually appointed ‘enamel painter’ to The Prince of Wales (King George IV) and subsequently to King William iv.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1811 by Henry Bone, after Titian

One of Bone’s earlier enamel plaques, Bacchus and Ariadne (an exact replica of Titian’s High Renaissance original, which we know was in London by 1807) is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The artist painstakingly recreated Titian’s rendering of the Classical legend of Bacchus, god of wine, falling in love at the first sight of Ariadne as she stands on the shores of Naxos, mourning the departure of her lover, Theseus, as his ship shrinks into the distance. It took Bone three years to complete the intricate work, and, at the time (1811), it was the largest enamel that had ever been made.

William Manning, 1814 by James Lonsdale

Bone’s working drawings are bound in three large volumes that are today in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. These include his drawings for the present enamel portrait of William Manning. This sumptuous work therefore stands at the intersection of several technical and studio traditions: portraiture of the highest quality, which stood at the pinnacle of the institutional art world of Regency London; reproductive engraving, and the fine art of enamel painting. Enamel has existed in many cultures at least since Greek and Celtic antiquity. Put simply, it is the logical fusion of the skills of the metalworker with those of the glassworker. Ground glass or ‘vitreous paste’ and metal oxides combine to produce different colours that are dusted as a film of powder or ‘frit’ over a prepared metal surface, in this case copper. This is then fired in a kiln at temperatures ranging from 300 to 850 degrees Celsius. The glass and oxides melt, resolving into the desired effects of colour and form, and fuse to the copper surface. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

The artist first made a precise drawing or tracing on squared paper from the pre-existing original, in this case almost certainly the published engraving by Turner. That drawing was the exact size of the enamel Bone intended to produce from it. Then he traced this image onto another sheet of paper coated with red chalk, and laid that over the copper plaque. The plaque was then fired so as to affix the chalk outlines. Effectively these formed a kind of superstructure or shallow framework on the surface of the copper that would prevent subsequent applications of enamel from running. Only at this point could the application of colours begin – essentially thin layers of finely-ground glass. These, in their dry form, did not necessarily correspond with the saturated colours produced by firing, so every aspect of this technique was laden with complexity. Besides, the merest puff of air, a sneeze, or a sudden gust of wind through an open window could ruin several weeks’ painstaking preparatory work. An enamel such as the present work could be fired up to twelve times, possibly several times more than that, because different colours require firing at different temperatures. Naturally you begin with the colours that require the highest temperatures, and work your way down to colours with the lowest melting points. Depending on its elaborateness, a single plaque could take three years to complete. It was a technique desperately prone to mishap because each successive firing carried with it the very real possibility of wrecking the entire work, so it required the patience and forbearance of a saint. Moreover, copper contracts faster than glass as it cools, so plaques of this type are subject to enormous stress in the crucial minutes after firing. To prevent or counteract any catastrophic buckling or cracking, therefore, generally the back of the plaque is counter-enamelled with a layer of ‘flux’, ideally of equal thickness to the layer of enamel on the front. Thus forming a type of enamel sandwich, with the sheet of copper as the filling, the finished work is made as stable as possible, and indeed will maintain indefinitely the same saturation of colouring and surface gloss that it exhibited on the day it emerged from the kiln for the last time. This is why such an arduous, time-consuming medium has any sort of rationale or viability, especially as some of the colours are unthinkably expensive, for example gold oxide (which produces reds and crimsons, which obviously dominate this example). Oil paintings change very gradually over time; they become more transparent, and they are also prone to fading. Enamel does not change.

Mindful of the complexities of the technique alone, we may well marvel at the effects Henry Bone achieved in his portrait of William Manning. Look at the embroidery on his waistcoat, for example; the lace of his kerchief; the gold tooling on the cover of the octavo volume he holds in his left hand; the articulation of the ornament on his footstool. And what about that ink-stand? An unabashed gesture of artistic flamboyance, this, for Bone surely revelled in the fact that the ink-stand in Lonsdale’s original is itself a deluxe article, an elaborately wrought product of a fine goldsmith’s workshop, and largely adorned with – what else? – guilloché enamel. No doubt the personal costume and accoutrements of bankers have evolved beyond recognition since William Manning was shown here, sitting in state more than 200 years ago, further dignified by Classical architecture and a rich fall of drapery, but their power is still more or less the same.

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