Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Ordinary Madness: The life of Frederick Newenham

The life of Frederick Newenham (1897-59) has everything you  could want in the story of an artist, except perhaps genius.

Newenham's origins have, perhaps intentionally, been veiled in mystery. Even the current Oxford Dictionary of Biography makes no effort to clarify his birth, merely paraphrasing the entry in Walter Strickland's 1913 Dictionary of Irish Artists, which says he came from a Cork family, and was somehow related to Robert O'Callaghan Newenham, a naval officer and watercolourist .Perhaps the obscurity of his  identity played some part in the bizarre claims he made towards the end of his life.

A possible clue to the truth comes in the 1851 census returns,  according to which Frederick Newenham was born in Ellesmere, Shropshire in 1807. This would indicate that he was the son of Thomas Newenham of Coolmore, County Cork, known as a writer on Irish subjects, and briefly a member of the Irish parliament, who moved to England in around 1800, and was living in Ellesmere at the time of Frederick's birth. Thomas Newenham was married to Mary Ann Hoare, who died in Cork in 1828. Frederick, unlike Thomas's older children, does not appear in the exhaustive geanealogy of the Hoare family, published in the 1870s, so it appears that Fredrick must have been Thomas' son by another woman. Thomas also had two daughters, both born in Shropshire, Sarah and Isabella. Their mother's name is given as Ann in the record of Isabella's birth. The sisters, and the mysterious Ann, later moved to Cheltenham,  which is where, probably not coincidentally, Thomas Newenham died  in 1834.

Other than his place of birth, I can't find any other records explicitly linking Frederick Newenham to Thomas, Ann, Isabella, and Sarah, so for now his parentage must remain conjectural. According to Strickland he  moved to London  at an early age.  He probably arrived before 1828, when he married Emma Wesley, the daughter of the composer Samuel Wesley (1757-1834), at St Mary's Church, Lambeth. They went on to have at least seven children together. By 1830 he had moved around quite a bit, as a notice of that year in the London Gazette  (never a good sign) demonstrates:
Newenham, Frederick, formerly of Foley-Place, then of No. 131, New Bond-Street and Vauxhall-Bridge-Road, all in Middlesex, then of Stonegate, in the City of York, then of Vauxhall-Bridge-Road aforesaid, then of Sloane-Terrace, Chelsea, Middlesex aforesaid, then of No. 76, Dame-Street, in the City of Dublin, then of No. 20, Dame-Street aforesaid, then of No. 79, Newman-Street, Oxford-Street, and late of No. 5, Villiers-Street, Strand, both in Middlesex aforesaid, Portrait-Painter, Modeller, and Dealer in Pictures.
Strickland doesn't make any mention of his artistic training, but tells us that he became a fashionable painter of  ladies'  portraits. The names of his  male subjects are, however rather easier to trace. They included several people connected with the railways: Francis Pratt Barlow, Thomas Brassey, William Chaplin, and and an engineer called Ross, possibly  Stephenson's assistant Alexander Mackenzie Ross, or his brother Hugh. The portraits of Chaplin and Brassey were both published as mezzotints.

Thomas Brassey
In the early 1840s  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sat for him when he painted their portraits for the Junior United Services club.  Some paintings of  long-haired pubescent boys, representing historical subjects -  Dick Whittington, the young Milton and the young Newton, all with a rather similar look -  seem to have achieved some popularity as engravings.
Engraving after Newenham's Dick Whittington
  He also published a print of his eldest son George Sandford Wesley Newenham, under the title of "The Infant  Wesley". There were some  narrative historical subjects, often on a large scale, but if   Cromwell Dictating to Milton (1850) is anything to go by, rather simply composed.

Cromwell dictating to Milton (1850)

His career seems a fairly solid one, producing accomplished, if rather limited works, but things were less stable beneath the surface. He filed for bankruptcy in 1844. He was fined £5 for an assault on a bus conductor in 1849.  He was imprisoned for debt in 1855. And then one day in  1856 he went into the shop of a Mr Graves and  acted in a way so odd and  threatening that he ended up at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court,  facing proceedings for commital to a lunatic asylum. Here's a contemporary report:
A day or two ago Mr. Newenham went into Mr. Graves shop, and used such threats as led Mr. Graves to believe that some mischief would result in Mr. Newenham being at large. An application, it was understood, was made to Bethlehem Hospital, but there were difficulties in the way which prevented the authorities from receiving him. The asylum at Peckham was then applied to, and arrangements were made for sending him there. The delusion under which Mr. Newenham labours appears to be of a very singular character. One of his mania is, that he conceives himself to be the first historical painter in the world; another, that he has discovered the way to pay off the national debt; and a third that he is the Prince Imperial of Austria. The following letter among other epistles to high personages, was directed to Lord Palmerston:
72, Newman-street, the 16th day of April.
Beloved and most respected Lord, - I believe I possess the means of clearing off the national debt at one fell swoop. I know not as yet of the means I may possess of doing so, but will convey the precise position I am in in a week froun this, when I will communicate with you through the Emperor of Austria.
My dear and most respected Lord, your truly humble servant,
Prince Imperial of Austria.
The Viscount Palmerston.
When brought to this court Mr. Balderston and Mr. Tucker, the late and present district surgeons, were called on to pronounce upon the state of his mind. Mr. Newenham, who appeared with a smiling countenance, and conversed freely and with seeming rationality, expressed his desire to make his plan for paying off the national debt publicly known, as that would serve to convince the world that he was in possession of his rational faculties. Mr. Newenham having been encouraged to explain himself said - Belonging as he did to the House of Hapsburg, and born as his registry would prove in the year ten thousand and two, his hereditary revenues as Prince of Prussia amounted to a million a year, or thereabouts -- he could not speak as to a pound or two more or less. This revenue lie proposed to allow to accumulate for 100 years at compound interest, and this, according to his calculation, would produce such a sum as would enable him to pay off the national debt slap, and leave him a trifle or so of a few hundred millions to devote to other patriotic purposes. He hoped the explanation he had now given would sufficiently show the state of his intellects. The medical gentlemen having given their certificates, Mr. Bingham made the usual order, and Mr. Newenham was removed in the company of two lunatic asylum keepers. 
Newenham did eventually make it to the Royal Bethlehem Hospital -"Bedlam" - where he died on 21 March 1859.

There are only two paintings by identified as by Newenham in British  public collections: Cromwell dictating his letter in Stockport, and a painting of the 17th-century speaker of the Commons Francis Rous, in the Houses of Parliament,  copied from Rous' portrait at Eton College. According to the ONDB his "Princes  in the Tower" was at Salford until  destroyed  as irrepairable in the 1950s.

Francis Rous, after an original at Eton


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