Portraits of 'Dr. Burton's Commoners' at Winchester College: one signed and dated (1737) by Isaac Whood (1689-1752).

Author:Rowell, Christopher


In the Master in College's first-floor dining room in Chamber Court, at the heart of the late-14th-century buildings at Winchester College (P1 1, P1 2), hangs a cycle of portraits that has never been published except in Wykehamical literature, one of which is signed by an artist who has--until now--never inspired a publication. This article with its appendices aims to shed some light both upon the Winchester pictures and upon Isaac Whood (1689-1752), whose portrait of Brownlow Cecil, Lord Burghley, future 9th Earl of Exeter (1725-93) is signed and dated 1737 (P13, P14; and see Cat. 12). Burghley's twelve fellow Wykehamists were painted in 1731 and 1732. The portraits, commissioned under the Head Mastership (1724-66) of John Burton DD (1690-1774), have traditionally been ascribed to Whood because of his 1737 signature and have sometimes been assumed to be leaving portraits, like the portraits of boys at Eton. According to Kirby's Annals of Winchester College (1892), 'It was Dr. Burton's practice to accept the portraits of his more distinguished pupils when they quitted the school, in lieu of leaving money'. (1)

In fact, all the sitters--aged from eight to sixteen--were portrayed while they were boys in the school. Just as King Henry VI founded Eton College in 1440 on the model of William of Wykeham's earlier foundation at Winchester in 1382--the two Colleges signed an amicabilis concordia or treaty of friendship in 1444--so the Winchester portraits anticipate (by 25 years) the much more famous and prolific Eton tradition of schoolboy portraiture.

The Etonian practice of boys presenting their portraits to the Head Master on leaving the College was begun in 1756, (2) when the future Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire gave his portrait to Dr Edward Barnard (Head Master, 1756-65). (3) At Eton, such portraits became de rigueur for noble, rich or eminent boys, and there are now more than two hundred. In 1951, the Tate staged 'Eton Leaving Portraits' and in 1991 a second exhibition took place at Dulwich Picture Gallery: 'Leaving Portraits from Eton College'. (4) One of the Winchester portraits (Cat. 6, P1 16) was loaned to the Dulwich exhibition:

48 Isaac Whood (1688-1752), Lord Ossulston, Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 ins. One of the set of eight portraits painted for the Head Master of Winchester in 1731. In contrast to the Eton Leaving Portraits, these were painted on the boys' arrival at the school. (5) [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]



It was also stated that:

In 1731, John Burton, Head Master of Winchester, had the portraits of his nine new boys, Commoners, whose fees made a considerable difference to his income, painted as a set, by Isaac Whood (see cat. no. 48). The youngest child was eight. (6) There are in fact twelve portraits still in situ and at least one other which was originally part of the set. Nor were they painted 'on arrival at the school'. The portraits are catalogued below, with brief biographies both of the sitters and of Isaac Whood. It is unclear who commissioned the series: was it the boys or was it their Head Master, John Burton? The latter probably wished to compile a set, but his young gentlemen presumably paid for the privilege as did the Etonians.

There was also a subsequent portrait tradition at Harrow. Thus in 1759 Allan Ramsay painted a small full-length of Lord Mount Stuart (later 1st Marquess of Bute; 1744-1814) in Silver Arrow archery costume (Marquess of Bute). A leaving portrait (1770) by George Romney, John Sayer, who was Head of School in 1770, is believed to have been given to the Head Master, Robert Sumner. It was certainly at Harrow by 1831, the year of Sayer's death. Sayer is wearing the School Archery Dress of pink satin with a blue sash (the Silver Arrow archery competition was abolished in 1772 owing to 'riotous behaviour'). (7) In Harrovian portraiture, as in Henry Walton's William and John Mason playing Cricket at Harrow, c1771, the boys look about ten. (8)

Sadly, there are no documents which cover payments or which provide any other information about the Winchester portraits, but Whood may already have been in the Wykehamical sphere, given that a portrait attributed to him of the son of Warden Nicholas (c1639-1712; Warden 1679-1712) was auctioned in 1998. (9) The carved armorial picture frames are of pine, grained to look like mahogany, with the inscriptions in black and gold upon what appears to be the second coat of graining, and so the numbers and letters have presumably been refreshed too (P1 4, P1 5). The frames have corner lugs, gilt slips and broken pediments: eight straight and four curved. Between the pediments and a central cartouche bearing the arms of the sitters there are carved garlands of oak leaves and acorns. All remain intact except Cat. 3, The Hon. John Bulkeley Coventry, where the cartouche is a replacement and the Coventry arms have not been repainted.

Fortunately, the names and ages of the sitters and often the dates of the portraits are inscribed on the frames. Of the twelve portraits still hanging together at Winchester College, nine were painted in 1731, two in 1732, and one in 1737. An escapee, the portrait of The Hon. George Coventry, future 6th Earl of Coventry, in 'blue and gold robes over a rose pink costume', was painted in 1731 when he was ten, and was last seen on the art market in 1963 (P1 6). (10) For some reason, it must have been returned either by Burton or by the College to Coventry or his family. When sold in 1963, its frame--of the curved pediment variety--was gilded and had shells in the lugged corners, unlike any of the others.

Despite his longevity and munificence as Head Master, the College possesses no portrait of Dr Burton, but Whood painted at least one other Head Master: Benjamin Morland, High Master of St Paul's (signed and dated 1722; St Paul's School). (11) Dr Button's private papers have disappeared and his forty-year Head Mastership has not been fully studied. (12) However, two articles on the Winchester series of portraits were published in The Wykehamist in 1895. (13) The first by CW Holgate, appeared under the intriguing title, 'Commoners go Hunting, on a "Leave-Out" Day, in 1731'. Holgate's notice was prompted by a recently published compendium of letters by Sarah Osborn (1693-1755), only surviving daughter of Admiral Sir George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington (cr 1721; 1663-1733), who married in 1710, Sir John Osborn, 2nd Bt (1683-1719), of Chicksands Priory, Bedfordshire. (14) On 21 October 1731, Sarah wrote a letter to Robert Byng, one of her six brothers--the fifth was Rear-Admiral John Byng, court-martialled and executed in 1757, 'pour encourager les autres' [to encourage the others] as Voltaire famously declared--describing 'the pleasure of the ffeild', fox-hunting around Chilbolton, five miles south-east of Andover and about eight miles north-west of Winchester:

... last Monday we were particularly well pleased, for by invitation we had Dr. Burton, the master of Winchester School and his ten young noblemen's sons that live with him, for which he has 200 [pounds sterling] a year for each, and is as a private Governour to them, and they also have the advantage of a publick school at the same time, which must surely be a fine way of educating them. These, with four other young gentlemen of the school, met us in the ffield a Hunting; they and their attendance and ours made in all 40 people, and after very good sport all came home to dine here. Indeed I have not seen a finer sight than these boys and their master together. Ld. Deerhurst, and his two Brothers Coventrys, Ld. Ossulston, Lord Brook, Master Duncomb and Sir Robert Burdet, Master Greville, Master Wallop (Ld. Lymington's son), Master Tryon, also Lord Drumlannich [Drumlanrig] the Duke of Queensbury's son, who is under his peculiar care tho' not in the house because he would not exceed his fixd number. (15) All those mentioned by name on the hunting expedition had their portraits painted, apart from 'Master Duncomb' or Duncombe (as his name appears in Long Rolls, so called because the school lists were printed annually on oblong paper which was rolled up in a small papier-mache tube). Duncombe was indeed listed as one of the Commoners resident in College in 1731, but it has proved impossible to locate his portrait, if it ever existed. (16)



Dr Button's concern not to 'exceed his fixd number' of Commoners resident in College, derived from the statutes of Winchester College, which opened its doors in 1394. The statutes--drawn up by the founder, William of Wykeham (c1324-1404), Bishop of Winchester and twice Chancellor of England--limited to ten the number of filii nobilium el valentium personarum [sons of noblemen and persons of consequence] who were permitted to live in College in addition to the seventy poor scholars. From the beginning, the Warden, Fellows or Head Master had taken such fee-paying pupils as lodgers, thus augmenting their own stipends. The statutes also allowed for others, commensales ex Collegium [commoners outside the College], who lodged in the town like the Oppidans at Eton. This seems to have been relevant to those 'four other young gentlemen' mentioned by Sarah Osborn, but--contrary to her record--Drumlanrig's name is listed with the others in the 1731 school list under the heading 'Nomina Commen. In Colleg' [The Names of Commoners in College]. Drumlanrig was resident contrary to the Statutes' limit of ten. Indeed the number of Commoners resident in College rose to thirteen in 1732, with the arrival of Alderson and Wynne, both represented in the portrait series. (17)

Dr Burton's Commoners served not only to raise the tone of the College but also considerably augmented his income. Sarah Osborn's note that he was paid '200 [pounds sterling] a year for each' is the sole record of such a payment, given that these arrangements were...

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