Thursday, 9 October 2014

Heaven must be missing a portrait painter

Looking up John Prescott Knight in the old DNB, I found a reference to his enthusiasm for the teachings of the Scottish preacher Edward Irving, and the fact that he held "high office" in Irving's Catholic Apostolic church. The author is coy about naming his exact rank, but all is revealed in the memoirs of the Punch writer and farceur Sir Francis Burnand.  

It seems a strange thing to say, but 'tis true nevertheless, that I once had my portrait painted by an Angel. This is an absolute fact. The reader may think that the painter's name was Angel or that it was by M. Angeli, which would be "angels." No. This is how it came about.

Among the many artistic friends of my Uncle Theophilus was John Prescott Knight, R.A., secretary to the Royal Academy, and portrait painter whenever he got the chance of a sitter. I suppose in early days he had done some good work, and had some influential friends on the Academy Council, or otherwise how he could ever have been elected Academician it is difficult, judging from such works of art as I have seen of his, to imagine. My good-natured uncle thought he "owed him a turn," and so gave him the commission to paint my portrait .

J. Prescott Knight was an " Irvingite," that is a follower of the Irving who in the early part (I believe) of the nineteenth century professed to be " inspired," and with his followers to have received the gift of "prophesying with tongues." The Irvingites, when under divine inspiration, spoke as the Spirit moved them, and their unintelligible utterances were translated by other spiritually gifted Irvingites. The Irvingites, or members of the "Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" (most Londoners know the fine building in Gordon Square), were governed by "Angels," and little Knight was "an Angel." In private life I have no doubt he was as excellent a man as he was upright and honourable in his public capacity. He might have been occasionally inspired as an ''Angel'' but very rarely as an artist.

''We"' meaning the Irvingites, he said to me while at work on the picture — " we have restored the Order that was lost in the Roman Church and in the whole Christian world"

" What is that ? " I inquired.

"The Apostles" he replied, painting away quite methodically. "You have bishops, priests, deacons, and so forth; but where are your apostles ? "

I looked as wise as I could, and confined myself to echoing his inquiry. "Ah! where are the apostles?" I asked.

Then he began his exposition of Irvingite doctrine, from which I only gathered that he, personally, appeared entirely satisfied with his own explanation. He ignored the Pope as succeeding to the "prerogatives of St Peter," but saw no sort of difficulty in accepting the teaching of Irving, Angel, preacher, and member of Parliament. I was there to be painted, not to be lectured, and still less to be led into a theological argument. So, though it might have been "pain and grief to me," yet I held my tongue, and I rather think that he congratulated himself on having either secured a convert to his Irvingite creed, or on having silenced me as a Catholic. He evidently saw the Catholic Church as he saw me, that is, from his own point of view, and he painted me as he thought he saw me, the result being a figure intended for a portrait of myself, bearing as much resemblance to the original as did his ideas of the Catholic Church to the Catholic Church itself.

A more notable artistic figure  was less enthusiastic about Irving. AWN Pugin's mother was also a follower, and regularly took the nascent Goth to hear him preach. It was as a  reaction  against this style of worship, that Pugin, according to his friend Benjamin Ferrey, turned to the ritual and colour of Roman Catholicism.

[Sources: Francis Bernand: Records and Reminiscences, volume 2; Benjamin Ferrey: Recollections of A.N. Welby.Pugin, and his Father Augustus Pugin ]

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