“Proving” is an ambitious word. How do you “prove” that a mid-1800’s painter depicting an important historical scene was aware of and attempting to portray specific actors and their inter-relationships in a drama that was already more than 200 years old at the moment he first stood before his empty canvas? Clearly, Thomas Woolnoth went to pains to realistically portray the principals of the scene in “The Trial of Strafford”, but was he aware of Richard Lane and his role? How much research did he do? How can we assert that he would have been aware of historical research that was being done in his own time? Without corroborating evidence, such assertions must be considered a hypothesis – one based on raw speculation…but, I think we can do better!
Since publishing my initial article on the Trial of Strafford painting, I’ve thought a lot about the critical need to establish that the painter was aware of Richard Lane’s role in that trial. Studying the painting and the characters in it, it’s clear that Woolnoth did his research – and likely also leveraged the research of the historians of his day. The 1641 Hollar engraving of the trial was clearly a key reference for him, even if he did take some artistic license with some details. But despite that engraving only naming a few specific individuals, the Woolnoth painting includes a surprising number of specific individuals accurately depicted per historic portraits of them. But what historical research did Woolnoth use when choosing which characters to be depicted in that scene?
The account of the trial I first read was that provided in the biography of Richard Lane by Lord John Campbell. This biographical chapter occupies 10 pages at the end of volume 2 of Campbell’s multi-volume biographical masterpiece “Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England…”). This fascinating account of Lord Strafford’s trial from the perspective of his lead advising attorney (Richard Lane) occupies approximately 4 of the 10 pages of Richard Lane’s biographical chapter. My own set of the 8-volume 3rd edition printing is pictured below (note the little blue tag flagging Richard Lane’s chapter late in volume 2).
Could Lord Campbell’s research have been available to Thomas Woolnoth when he created this painting? Initially, I thought the two occured further apart in time – my own copy of this set of books was published in 1848 – 4 years after the Woolnoth painting was created. But then it occurred to me that my set was a 3rd edition. So, I looked into the publication of the first edition, and found that it was published in 1845, and consisted of the first 3 volumes. Looking further, I found additional information stating that Lord Campbell began his project when he was 63, which would have put the start of this work as early as 1842.
This is where things get really interesting to me… I had just established that the timing of Lord Campbell’s research into the trial (within the window of 1842-1845), and in particular, Richard Lane’s specific role in it correspond precisely with the time Woolnoth created his dramatic painting of that trial (1844). Could that simply be a coincidence?
But if the Woolnoth painting was created in 1844 (which I assume to be accurate), then he couldn’t have used Lord Campbell’s published book as a source – the first edition wouldn’t appear on shelves until a year later. So, is it possible that the men knew one another, and that through that association Thomas Woolnoth had early access to Lord Campbell’s work? What evidence could possibly substantiate that they even knew one another?
And here’s what was really driving me: if you study the painting and the biographical chapter of Richard Lane, there is a strong correlation between the various threads of the account of the trial in Richard Lane’s biography and the subtle details captured in moment depicted in the Woolnoth painting… It just isn’t something I would have expected.
Before I dug into more research, I had to ask myself: am I over-interpreting the painting? Was my familiarity with Lord Campbell’s passage making me see connections and aspects of the scene the artist hadn’t really intended – like some kind of a complex Rorschach test? Perhaps, but I really don’t think so. Let’s discuss the correlations as I see them:
- The face and body of the foreground figure is painted in detail, implying it is an intentional depiction – a specific, historical actor in the scene. Woolnoth’s painting is a combination of detailed and vague faces – and the majority of the detailed faces have already been identified through correlated to portraits of specific individuals. It seems reasonable to assume that the additional detailed faces are likely to be intentional depictions of specific people.
- The foreground figure’s depiction corresponds well to the Atlow watercolor copy I found of a portrait of Sir Richard Lane.
- The foreground figure appears in ordinary clothing – not the garb of the nobility or judges that otherwise fill the main floor of the Hall. At the time of the trial of Strafford, Richard Lane was still “only” a private lawyer. It was his role in the trial that would launch his fateful and metioric rise to the title of Lord Keeper over the next 4 years.
- The foreground figure is depicted clutching a thick, important looking book – in this context this was likely intended to portray its bearer as a legal expert / scholar (Richard Lane was lead counsel of 4 advising Lord Strafford, was attorney General to the Prince of Wales Charles II and was a Master of the Bench at the prestigious Middle Temple Inn of Law at the time of the trial).
- The foreground figure is depicted almost completely in shadow… This is a very interesting effect, as the eye is drawn past him to the central figures in the drama – who are all depicted with well-illuminated faces. This effect, if intentional, was a masterful way to depict the limitations under which Lord Strafford’s legal advisors were forced to figuratively operate during the trial – in the shadows. It is easy to miss that the shadowed foreground figure altogether, despite the fact that he is standing by himself, and is one of the closest figures to the perspective of the painter! It is easy to look right past him…
- The foreground figure is clearly absorbed in the proceedings, and is depicted with a determined, somewhat anxious look and a balled fist- that of a participant in the drama, and not a spectator. If this figure is Richard Lane, it is easy to imagine Woolnoth depicting him waiting for his opportunity. That opportunity would come late in the trial, when Richard Lane took the floor and gave his critical address undercutting the legality of the charges, and setting the stage for an acquittal. As mentioned in my earlier article, at the end of that address (per Campbell), Lane “sat amidst great applause” in the packed Hall of Westminster.
- The foreground figure is depicted away from (and with his back to) the trial managers conducting the prosecution of Lord Strafford.
- The knot of trial managers (including the identified Bulstrode Whitelocke – who drafted the charges against Lord Strafford) are clearly depicted with their attention trained on the shadowed foreground figure – instead of paying attention to their parliamentary master, John Pym (also identified), who at that moment stands fully illuminated addressing the court with upraised hands! Pym is otherwise the obvious center of attention in the packed hall, with many turned in their seats to watch him while he speaks…
- Bulstrode Whitelocke’s depiction among the trial managers is especially interesting – he looks contemplative as he stares at the foreground figure’s back. Uncertain, perhaps? My research into young Bulstrode has shown him to have been capable, but an opportunist who sided with Parliament while the Parliament was strong, and rose in stature with it. During the “Commonwealth” years ahead, he would be named Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal of Parliament and ambassador to Sweden. And when the restoration of the monarchy came in 1860, he would successfully downplay his role in the revolt, avoiding treason charges under the restored King Charles II. After the Stafford trial, and after Richard Lane followed King Charles I to Oxford, young Bulstrode seems to usurp the world of his supposed intimate friend, Richard Lane. As established by Middle temple records I have found, with his growing influence in parliament, Whitelocke would request to take over Richard Lane’s quarters at Middle Temple (a room normally reserved for a Master of the Bench, which Whitelocke was not). This request was granted, but came with the stipulation that the prestigious accommodations being given the young lawyer did not come with the privileges normally available to the senior members of the bar who occupied such rooms. As related by Campbell, Bulstrode would also apply for and be granted Richard Lane’s personal possessions from that room in Middle Temple (something I have confirmed). Despite this (according to Campbell) Whitelocke denied that he even knew Richard Lane when Lane’s son later asked for those possessions for the benefit of his father in exile. This denial was clearly untrue – in addition to facts already mentioned, Whitelocke’s own memoirs mention Richard Lane being among the King’s commissioners he dealt with during negotiations at Uxbridge!
The similarity of the face of the foreground figure to Richard Lane’s portrait, his general depiction and the attention of the trial managers behind him seems uncannily well correlated to the account of the trial given by Lord Campbell. The fact that the painting was created at the same time Lord Campbell was working on first release of his biographical books (which included the chapter of Richard Lane) seems even to raise the question of which came first? Is it possible that Woolnoth knew Lord Campbell, and became so intrigued with the story of the 200-year-old trial that he decided to depict that scene? It certainly is possible. But this hypothesis rests on the assumption that the two men knew one another…which leads me to my latest discovery!
Perhaps the only way to have found better evidence would have been the discovery of dated letters between the two men discussing the details of the trial – which I did not find, unfortunately! So, I will have to settle for what I did find: that Thomas Woolnoth, who was a famous and prolific engraver, appears to have created as few as three surviving paintings:
- “The Trial of Strafford” (1844)
- “The Separation of Sir Thomas More and his Family” (another historic painting, year unknown)
- and, a dramatic 1851 Portrait of none other than… Lord John Campbell.
How interesting that his only contemporary painting, and the only painted portrait created by the acclaimed engraver Thomas Woolnoth was of the man who, at the same time Woolnoth was painting “The Trial of Strafford”, was writing the dramatic account of that same trial in his biographic chapter of Richard Lane!
The portrait’s existence is solid proof that the two men knew each other – sitting for a portrait takes time and acquaintance, at the very least. The twist is that Painting portraits is not what Woolnoth did for a living – he was an engraver. Engraving was an artistic medium that allowed his work to be reproduced as prints or illustrations in printing presses. So why did this famous steel engraver create that single painted portrait?
Without further supporting evidence, his motivations would be speculation on my part, but it is factual that the creation of this portrait was unusual for Woolnoth, to the point of being singular. It was created when the artist was 66 and his subject was 72 – both men were London contemporaries in the last decade of their lives. Its unlikely that Woolnoth was “moonlighting” to pay the bills – he was still working as an engraver for Queen Victoria, was involved in several major projects through at least 1853, and was exhibiting at the Royal Academy until 1857 (which was the year he died, at age 72). Perhaps the singular 1851 painted portrait of Lord Campbell was the done as a favor or a gift between elderly friends…
Lord Campbell’s portrait by Thomas Woolnoth is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is the only painting among a trove of 121 of Thomas Woolnoth’s works in their collection.
Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed. I admire great writing, but have little choice but to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime!