4. Attitudes to portraiture

To Portrait's study should thy choice incline,

Ev'n there to aim at excellence be thine;

And strive to reach the point that few can gain,

Preserve the likeness, yet the spirit retain. (1)

To take stock for a moment, the purpose thus far has been to introduce the subject of Quaker attitudes to portraiture, and to consider their context in aesthetics, and the centrality of truthfulness in the Quaker world view. To develop the argument, it will be necessary to consider the degree to which attitudes changed, the manner of the change, and the extent to which the change is attributable to the rise of photography.

Early Friends avoided being painted, seeing it as a temptation to pride and akin to idolatry. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, specifically wrote against it, in his Doctrinals:


And therefore, all Friends and people, pluck down your images, your likenesses, your pictures, and your representations of things in heaven, &c. I say pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship; anything I say that is in heaven &c., for mind while man was in the image of God and his likeness, and the woman, they did not make any likenesses, but when man lost the image of God, then they did begin to make such things as the Stock of Nimrod in Ninus's time; then they began to make images of their children, and indulge them that would worship them. At last they worshipped fourfooted beasts, as in Romans i. 23, so in the restoration of Jesus Christ there is no image or likeness, &c. (2)

William Penn's well-known No Cross, No Crown recorded with approval that 'Agesilaus, King of the Lacedaemonians, would not suffer his picture to be taken, "For (saith he) the fairest picture of men is their own actions"'. (3) The handful of early Quaker portraits that do exist are predominantly by non-Quakers, and are in any case probably not authentic or contemporary likenesses. (4)

From the eighteenth century and the immediately pre-photographic era there is evidence (independent of Clarkson) of continuing Quaker opposition to portraiture. The Quaker grammarian Lindley Murray was often pressed to have his portrait painted, but always declined. (5) The physician John Fothergill was similarly pressed, and as often refused; the portrait by Gilbert Stuart was made from memory, after Fothergill's death. (6) The young Elizabeth Gurney, choosing to adopt a hard-line Quaker plainness, in conservative reaction to her parents, even refused to look at a picture John Opie was painting of her father, though she pained him by doing so. (7)

However, John Nickalls asserts that there are 'many' portraits of Friends drawn or painted, engraved, and published in the first half of the nineteenth century, 'about which there are no mysteries or puzzles, though there may have been objections' (8) (for more on this, see the Appendix on known Quaker portraits). This clearly implies that change was under way, and demands further investigation.

To begin with evidence of Quaker appreciation of portraiture in general terms, a figure who appears repeatedly in this connection is Amelia Opie. This is perhaps not altogether surprising, given her husband's profession (9). Amelia herself revelled in the portraits she had displayed on her walls, including those of Joseph John Gurney and his brother, Elizabeth Fry and Lucy Aggs, as well as fine portraits by her husband. These she illuminated, at night, by wax lights in branch lamps; and they have been appropriately described as her Lares. (10) As a display of artworks, they were explicitly described by her contemporary Caroline Fox as 'her gallery.' (11)

Amelia Opie herself is known to have taken pleasure in drawing her friends and relatives, and a series of about 104 original portraits by her, mounted in two morocco-bound albums, was sold at Sotheby's in 1953, their present whereabouts now being unknown. (12)

Caroline Fox recorded admiring Laurence's sketch of her aunt Hannah Backhouse, which, she said, 'looks hewn out of granite.' (13) William Lucas recorded his enjoyment of portraits by Grant and Linnell, at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1842. (14) Thomas Pumphrey, Superintendent of Ackworth School included, in a verse written in 1848, the lines 'Or a picture I'll paint which with Wilkie might vie, / So faithful its portraits, so graphic and true . . .' (15)

The 'convinced Friend' (i.e. convert to Quakerism) John Walker, the early vaccinator (1759-1830), wrote interestingly on the display of portraits, objecting merely to their use as decoration, not to portraiture per se:


Were I to preserve portraits of those I loved, I should abhor the vulgar practice of decorating parlours, or other ordinary apartments, with them. I should not wish to ever stare on them with a vacant mind. I have felt uneasy on seeing such an exhibition of a deceased friend while we sat at table. What could be conceived more harassing than to see him, as it were, looking at us, and he did not speak, and he could not hear, and I knew that his remains were decayed in the silent grave; that those eyes and those features were mingled with their native dust. No; I would like a separate and retired apartment for them, where I might repair, when in a serious mood, out of the hearing of every body, and fasten the door and look at them, and think of the days when we used to converse together, and when I remembered that they were past, and that my friends were removed, I might weep, but I should not fall into distraction or despair, for I would endeavour to feel after the consolation which is afforded by the hopes of immortality. (16)


The educationalist Joseph Lancaster was painted by John Hazlitt in late 1817, but some years later is on record as having objected to having his picture placed in a museum for public exhibition: 'He thought it an abominable vanity--and in any case did not care to hang in the same gallery as Tom Paine.' (17)

Of the experience of sitting for a portrait there is a handful of accounts. Richard Reynolds, the Bristol philanthropist (1753-1816), sat to Hobday against a library backdrop, in which are conspicuous the works of Barclay, Fox, Penn, Clarkson and others; at Reynolds' particular request, he was shown with the Bible open at a verse from Romans, 'Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ'. (18) Richard Shackleton, Quaker boarding school keeper in Ireland (1726-92), was prevailed upon to sit for his portrait by the school's distinguished former pupil Edmund Burke; knowing this was against Friends' principles, it is said that 'an expression of uneasiness appears on the portrait'. Burke did not even dare to ask his former master, Abraham Shackleton (Richard's father), to sit. (19) Caroline Fox admired the other portraits in Samuel Laurence's studio, as she had her own sitting, a process she described laconically as 'interesting'. (20) Bernard Barton had humorous passages from Dickens read to him during his sitting for Samuel Laurence; a friend noted that 'Barton pretends he dreads having his portrait done, which is 'my eye.'' (21) The portraitist C.R. Leslie—who had painted Joseph and Elizabeth Gurney, as well as William Dillwyn (22) (grandfather to the early photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn)—recorded in his autobiography the following characteristic conversation with Sir Walter Scott, in 1824:


During one of Sir Walter's sittings to me, the conversation turned to Quakers, and he was surprised to hear that I had painted the portraits of several, for he thought they objected to pictures, as well as to music. He said, "They must have been what are called wet Quakers." I assured him they were not, but he would have it that "at least, they were damp Quakers." (23)

Sometimes Quakers were persuaded to sit for a portrait for sentimental, family, reasons. (24) Robert Goodbody recorded in 1834, of his grandmother, that he was 'hard set to persuade her to do so, she having an objection to it, until I reminded her that she ought to do it for the satisfaction of her children.' (25) Joseph Pease (1737-1808), similarly, submitted 'to gratify his sons.' (26) Just how gratified a son could be is shown by Bernard Barton, on discovering a portrait of his father, thirty years after his death, painted before his father's conversion to Quakerism. He described the experience in a letter of 1824:

photo of portrait of William Dillwyn
William Dillwyn, by C.R. Leslie
(courtesy of Friends House Library)

My head and heart are full even to overflowing; my eyes are almost dim with gazing at one object, yet are still unsatisfied. I keep thinking of one thing all day, stealing to feast my eyes on it when I can, and lie down to dream of it o'nights. In one sentence, my good cousins at Carlisle have sent me my dear, dear father's picture. . . .

It has put me all but beside myself; I go and look at it, then stand a little further off, then nearer, then try it in a new light--then go to the street door to see if any body be in sight who can at all value its beauties, and enter into my feelings--if so, I lug them in, incontinently. My good mother-in-law, I mean my wife's mother, a plain, excellent Quaker lady, who, I dare say, never went anywhere to look at a picture before, has been to see it . . . (27)

Barton, incidentally, displayed portraits and other paintings quite prominently about his house, for which he was taken to task by a correspondent. His response draws on the Quaker testimony to the beauties of creation:


And now for thy dressing about my pictures . . . Thy objections to hanging up such things may be as much a matter of conscience with thee as the use of them is with me the result of considerable thought, which gave me, to my own conscience, to regard such use as an allowable liberty. If I looked on such works of art as mere ornaments hung up to gratify the vanity of the possessor, I should cordially join in thy objection to them; but I regard them in a very different light. My limited leisure and my failing bodily strength do not allow of my being the pedestrian I was. I often do not walk out of the streets for weeks together; but my love of nature, of earth, and sky, and water; of trees, fields, and lanes; and my still deeper love of the human face divine, is as intense as ever. As a poet, the use of these is as needful to me as my food. I can seldom get out to see the actual and the real; but a vivid transcript of these, combined with some little effort of memory and fancy, makes my little study full of life, peoples its silent walls with nature's cherished charms, and lights up human faces round me--dumb, yet eloquent in their human semblance. (28)

Sarah (Stickney) Ellis (1799-1872) sat to a Mr Keyworth for a marble bust, in 1837; he had persuaded her that this was preferable to a medallion, as she had proposed. (29)

One aspect of the Quaker press not yet touched on, as offering evidence for the researcher, is that of advertising. Both The Friend and The British Friend, as commercial publications, carried advertising from the outset, indeed often including advertising supplements of up to eight pages. As might be expected, the advertisements make a fascinating study of the social history of the era, and of Quaker consumer activity in particular. As well as predictable advertisements for Fry's chocolate, or the Friends' Provident Institution, there are always plenty of notices from Friends' seeking situations, or offering vacancies. Additionally, there are oddities, such as large-scale advertising for gutta-percha products, and a long-running series of advertisements from one Clara Forster, 'artist in hair'; (30) possibly the latter was acceptable as relating to mementoes of deceased loved ones, rather than as costume jewellery per se. The 1849 advertisements for Robert Horne's 'Novelty in Paperhanging', promoting as 'just received direct from Paris, his extensive and well-selected stock of French Decorations, Flock, Gold, and Damask Papers for the present season', seems more surprising, but Horne was a Quaker, and advertising copy from members of the Society always seemed more acceptable than it would have been from a non-member. (31)

In the present context we find advertising in the December 1845 issue of The Friend for portraits of Elizabeth Fry, who had died in October. (32) In 1848 Joseph Smith advertises his range of old books and tracts, with a further listing of 'Portraits and Prints'. These include: George Birkbeck, John Fothergill, George Fox, John Coakley Lettsom, Richard Reynolds, John Scott, Benjamin West, Elizabeth Fry, Bernard Barton, Samuel Gurney, Amelia Opie, and the inevitable 'Penn's Treaty with the Indians', as well as views of Ackworth School and a few meeting houses. (33)

The British Friend included an advertisement for Smith's range of products in 1847, but without the full listing of the subjects available. It did, however, advertise Elizabeth Fry's Memoirs, 'with a beautiful Portrait', in its January issue; by the time the 2nd edition of that work was advertised in July, there was no mention of the portrait. (34) In March 1847 appeared an advertisement for Hogg's Weekly Instructor, which announced that


In order to render the Instructor still more attractive, there will in future be continued Monthly a series of beautiful line drawings of eminent persons.

These will be given separately from the work, on plate paper, thus presenting a totally different feature from any of the cheap periodicals of the day. (35)

In 1849 an advertisement for The Christian Times mentioned specifically The Christian Times Portrait Gallery, consisting of twelve portraits of eminent living divines; though none of these were Quakers. (36)

In the text of the Quaker publications themselves, the ideological differences between the two publications must be borne in mind. In relation to non-photographic portraiture The Friend has nothing to say throughout the period under review, and it is safe to say that its silence means consent. Perhaps this very silence provoked its rival to the rather strident attitude it took, by contrast. The public attitude adopted towards portraiture, in The British Friend, has often been referred to in the literature, and it is necessary to expound this in some detail here.

In September 1846 The British Friend took a stand, in no uncertain terms, in response to the recent publication of a portrait of George Fox. Though published by non-Friends, it was clearly targeted at the sect. The British Friend's editor, Robert Smeal, wrote in the following terms:


We consider it to be our place . . . to issue a word of caution in the matter, that Friends should not allow themselves to be allured into any practices inconsistent with their profession; notwithstanding, it may appear but a trifling thing, and may promise an apparently harmless gratification; as we may be assured that at the expense of consistency, whatever we purchase must far exceed its value.

We do not conceive it to be at all necessary to enter into any argument on this topic. Those who may unhappily be in ignorance of their profession, we would earnestly advise to inform themselves from the abundant sources open to them; while such as do know what may be said to be their Lord's will in the matter, are affectionately counselled to consistency.

We feel inclined to add, that we will yield to none in just regard for the character and attainments of this "our worthy elder;" at the same time, we think that regard may be manifested in a much more sensible way than by possessing a portrait of the man! Nay, it would not at all surprise us to find ourselves accused, notwithstanding the preference which we have here indicated, of something akin to mysticism, by such as see no harm in countenancing portrait-taking; nay, it might even be affirmed that those who are anxious to possess the shell, as such we fear there will be, would be among the foremost to despise the kernel; and to disown George Fox himself, were he again, in propria persona, to appear upon earth for the purpose of revising primitive Quakerism. (37)

Whilst saying that he would regret any loss sustained by the publishers, Smeal's position is that Quakers should refuse to purchase the portrait, and that the publisher has only himself to blame, as he should have researched Friends' principles more thoroughly before going into print.

Possibly Smeal's onslaught was less successful than he wished, for the following March The British Friend printed a lengthy contribution from a correspondent using the name 'Vigil'. The latter begins by saying that in recent years there has been observed 'an increasing desire among Friends, to possess portraits and miniatures of eminent individuals, a practice which, in a people professing as we do, to be redeemed from the spirit of the world, has appeared to me too much like imitating its vain customs.' Accordingly, 'Vigil'submits for publication a number of extracts drawn from the writings of Quaker worthies. Among these is what is only described as a 'Manuscript of a deceased minister.' The latter argues that biblical injunctions against idolatry applied not merely to the worship but to the making of images. The 'deceased minister' continued:


I often wonder to myself, how people who profess to be redeemed from idolatry, can reconcile so much imagery and picture making as is to be found in this country. For though people may not worship them in the sense generally understood by that term, or in the manner the idolators of old did; or as the heathen of ancient or the present time; nor yet as the papists do; still, if there was not some great love or value for, or attachment to these things, is it likely that they would incur the great expense which is often done to procure them?

And now, to resume the argument as to the use of these things, I see little or none that is really good; but on the other hand, has there not been much hurt done by them? in a waste of time, study and expense which might have been better employed in promoting more useful arts and knowledge and the benefit of mankind. They are also hurtful in drawing the affection from the invisible object, the Creator, and his works, to the works of man.

I think the conduct of many is little short of idolatry, though of a different class to that which is positive; and this fondness for representations is too apt to creep even into the houses of Friends, some of whom will have some chaste as it may be esteemed, or family picture or profile. (38)

Importantly, the May issue of The British Friend carried a detailed report of contributions from Friends delivered at London Yearly Meeting, the central overarching body for British Quakerism. According to the reporter,


After the opening Minute was read, several Friends were engaged in religious communication; and a large portion of the sitting was taken up by a number of others, expressing their concern in regard to sundry deficiencies reported in the Answers to the Queries; such as . . . the defection from consistency, in relation to plainness of Speech and Behaviour;  . . . and the increasing desire there seemed to be for the possession of Portraits, and Pictures; things utterly at variance with the well-known principles of the body. These matters were adverted to in terms at once weighty, pertinent, and instructive; much valuable counsel being impressively imparted to Friends, and a close and serious examination was pressed upon those who were unfaithful, that they might, in the light of Truth, be favoured to see that our Testimony in the foregoing particulars, was that which it was our indispensable duty, as a Religious Society, to uphold before the world. (42)

This seems to have been the last occasion on which portraiture, per se, received any form of condemnation from within the Quaker official hierarchy. The British Friend, however, was not done with the subject. With the first hint of a new influence at work, a published letter from 'S.W.', in March 1848, ostensibly on the subject of 'Biographies,' reproduced the text of an article recently published in a Philadelphia Quaker publication (also called The Friend, but not connected with the British publication). Again, it is necessary to quote at length:


Another feature of departure is the prefixing to the biography a portrait of the individual; one of the first examples of which among Friends, it is believed, occurred in a memoir of the life of a minister in our Society, published a few years ago . . . The work alluded to was ornamented with more than one picture of the deceased; and since its appearance, the practice appears to have gained ground among some under our name.

This whole matter of portrait-taking among Friends, is one which demands more serious attention than many of us are, apparently, willing to bestow. Sorrowful it is, that even some in conspicuous and influential stations, have actually "sat" for their portraits; and this, not for the hasty moment of the Daguerreotype, (questionable as even this prevalent indulgence is,) but patiently awaiting the slow process of the limner.

Shallow indeed must be the religion of him who knows not that in himself, as a man, dwelleth no good thing, and who has never been brought by the power of the Holy Ghost to abhor himself and repent in dust and ashes before the awful majesty of Heaven. Can he who has thus been reduced into nothingness of self, and who feels that his every hour is in the presence, and at the will of his Maker . . . ; can such a one as this be willing to sit for his portrait? We cannot suppose that our primitive Friends would for a moment have sanctioned so vain and weak an indulgence. It is sad indeed to reflect on these symptoms of degeneracy of modern times; but we must not shut our eyes to the reality of our condition, lest they more and more prevail. May we therefore be willing to lay these things to heart, and endeavour faithfully and watchfully to preserve the good old paths, and to keep our feet within their holy limitations. (43)

S.W. returned to the fray in November 1848, under the heading 'Portraits-conscientious conduct'. (44) The writer felt it appropriate to draw to readers' attention the example of the late Rachel C. Bartram, of Philadelphia. Bartram had had her portrait made, and then, realizing the error of her judgement, had set about its systematic destruction, even to the extent of cutting up its frame and burning it. To the 21st century reader Bartram's behaviour comes across as unhealthy and obsessive, and not at all a suitable exemplar even for conscientious Quakers. The British Friend, however, printed it without comment, and surely the editor's tacit approval.


1. Scott (1786): 283.

2. quoted in The British Friend, V:81 (March 1847).

3. loc. cit.

4. Sandman (1992): 1, Nickalls (1958): passim.

5. Preface by Elizabeth Frank to Murray (1826): xii; Beck, Wells & Chalkley (1888): 458; Boyce (1889): 148.

6. Beck, Wells & Chalkley (1888): 241.

7. Hare (1895): 102-3. In later life, however, she allowed her own portrait to be painted by C.R. Leslie, RA (Nicholson 1968: 55).

8. Nickalls (1958): 3.

9. Her husband was John Opie, the portrait and historical painter (not himself a Quaker).

10. Brightwell (1854): 405, 333-4.

11. Pym, ed. (1882): 185.

12. Dupuis (1973): passim; Brightwell (1854): 298.

13. Harris (1944): 304.

14. Bryant & Baker, eds. (1934): I.276.

15. Ford (1864): 342.

16. Epps (1831): 201-2.

17. Dickson (n.d.): 180.

18. Beck, Wells & Chalkley (1888): 365.

19. ibid.: 604.

20. Pym, ed. (1882): 205, 210, 213.

21. Lucas (1893): 139-40.

22. Nickalls (1958): 1.

23. Leslie (1860): I.92.

24. But Marcia Pointon has rightly pointed out that, given the degree to which Quakers travelled throughout the 18th century, they 'might, in these circumstances, reasonably have been expected to have countenanced portraiture as a necessary record of absent Friends', yet portraiture had remained 'highly problematic' for Quakers; Pointon (1997): 412.

25. Goodbody (2000).

26. Boyce (1889): 78-9.

27. Barton (1849): 2-3. Eliza Ellis, too, recorded in 1863 the effect on her mother of seeing the portrait of her (Eliza's) father—Ellis (1883): 249-50.

28. Barton (1849): 37-9.

29. Ellis (n.d.): 73-4, 217.

30. The Friend, 1849-57, The British Friend, 1849.

31. The Friend, May-June 1849.

32. The Friend III:36, March 1845.

33. The Friend VI, advertisements sheet 8, January 1848.

34. The British Friend Advertiser 30 Jan & 31 July 1847.

35. The British Friend Advertiser 31 Mar 1847. The Hogg's Weekly Instructor portraits certainly included Quaker subjects: a portrait of Bernard Barton from this series can be seen at Friends House (Gibson Vol. II).

36. The British Friend Advertiser Apr 1849.

437. The British Friend IV:235-6, Sept 1846.

38. The British Friend V:81-2, March 1847. 'Profile' almost certainly refers to the form of shadow portrait usually known as the silhouette. Silhouettes of Friends survive in appreciable numbers, and if numbers alone are a guide suggest strongly that the acceptance of silhouettes may have formed a transitional stage towards the acceptance of portraiture. This is certainly the explicit view of Anna Cox Brinton (39)

39. Brinton (1964): 2.—' '—(40)

40. Sandman (1999). ' ' (41)

41. Wedmore (1908); Jackson (1938): 136.—'' ' '

42. The British Friend V:128, May 1847.

43. The British Friend VI: 77-8, Mar 1848.

44. ibid. VI:300-1, Nov 1848.


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