John Opie Self-portrait

Research Project – John Opie Portraits

Amelia Opie Ann Farrant John Opie

Since the publication of my biography Amelia Opie: The Quaker Celebrity I have, almost by default, become involved in a new Opie project. I am working on tracing portraits of people from Norfolk, her home county, which her husband, the Royal Academician John Opie, was commissioned to paint, thanks to his marriage to the gregarious and well-connected Amelia.

Many Opie portraits are now in public art collections, but others are still privately owned. Research for the book led me to some of these private owners, whose willingness to give permission to publish reproductions of portraits was splendid. At this stage, of course, I required only a few of the most relevant portraits for the biography.

Just before publication I was contacted by a fellow researcher, who, knowing of my quest for Opie illustrations for the book, said he had found ‘somebody’ who might be helpful. It was too late for inclusion in the book, but nonetheless I was interested. The ‘somebody’ was related to a family descended from one of Amelia Opie’s cousins, who had been painted by Opie. My contact thought the family still owned the portrait. Indeed, they do. And they have been happy to show it to me.

Once the book came out I was approached by an art lover who had acquired an Opie portrait at a London auction and wondered if I would like to see it. Another happy meeting and the chance to see the lovely portrait of a woman who was a childhood friend of Amelia’s and regarded as a beauty in her day. I traced another Norfolk sitter, the son of one of Amelia’s father Dr.Alderson’s colleagues, when attending an auction myself.

After one of my talks on Amelia Opie I was approached by a member of the audience. She thought an Opie portrait was still owned by one of her husband’s relations and offered to pursue the matter. This was an interesting follow-up, as I was aware of the circumstances of this particular painting. The current owner was pleased to meet somebody who is as interested in his family history as he is.

Then a reader got in touch. She knew somebody ‘well connected’, as she described it, and understood the family might own an Opie or two. Again, my quest was greeted with interest and enthusiasm.

And so my research continues. It is pleasing to find that owners are happy to share their appreciation of the portraits and to exchange news and views about their provenance. Like me, they look forward to further sharing and possible publication.

Meanwhile, from the many portraits on my search list, I am particularly keen to locate the ‘likeness’, as Amelia would have termed it, of the Rev.John Bruckner. A cultured and scholarly man, he was invited to move from Holland to Norwich in 1753 to be the pastor of the city’s Walloon (French Protestants) Church. A few years later he also took charge of the city’s Dutch Protestant Church. Bruckner also gave lessons in French. His pupil Amelia Alderson became fluent in the language and retained great affection for her tutor. Soon after her marriage she persuaded John to paint for her a portrait of her old French master. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 and was one of her most treasured possessions.

She bequeathed the portrait to a friend and it was still in his family 50 years later. If the owners of the Bruckner portrait or the owners of any other Opie portraits wish to contact me they may do so from this website. Should my research into his Norfolk sitters result in publication, the correct procedures for reproduction permissions and credits would be sought and applied.

© Ann Farrant 2018


Amelia Opie and the National Trust

Amelia Opie National Trust

While doing research for my biography of Amelia Opie (1769-1853), the second wife of John Opie RA, I was intrigued to discover her associations with properties and gardens now owned by the National Trust.

Amelia had Hobart ancestors whom she could trace back to Sir Henry Hobart (c.1554-1625), Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and owner of Blickling Hall in Norfolk. He bought the Blickling estate – once owned by the Boleyn family and believed by some to have been the birthplace of Anne Boleyn – in 1616. He ordered the demolition of the medieval house and appointed Robert Lyminge, who had designed Hatfield House for Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, as his architect Blickling Hall, his fine Jacobean mansion, was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1940 by the then owner Lord Lothian.

The Hobarts owned many estates in Norfolk due to the enterprise of Sir James Hobart, who was Attorney General during the reign of Henry VII. He had taken up residence in Norfolk at Hales Hall in 1740, after which he acquired further estates in the county, where he installed his sons and their heirs. His great-grandson Sir Henry Hobart, was a leading figure in the county as MP for Great Yarmouth and then Norwich. In addition to Blickling, he bought other properties including a house at Chapel-in-the-Fields in Norwich.

Amelia was born in Norwich, the daughter of Dr.James Alderson and his wife Amelia (née Briggs). She was immensely proud of her Hobart and Briggs ancestors and enjoyed sharing information about them with her cousin, the Royal Academician Henry Perronet Briggs. Mrs.Alderson was the great-grandaughter of Hannah (née Hobart) and William Briggs, a son of Augustine Briggs (1617-84), who was MP for Norwich four times. William was physician to William III; Hannah was the only daughter of Edmund Hobart, Lord of the Manor of Holt in Norfolk.

Their son Dr. Henry Briggs, became Rector of St.Andrew’s Church, Holt, in 1722. A few years before his appointment a fire had destroyed much of the town and gutted the church. Briggs undertook to get the church rebuilt, enlisting the support of fellow Norfolk man the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole who gave £50 and George, Prince of Wales (later George II), to whom Briggs was chaplain, who gave a silver alms dish.

He installed a memorial to his parents in the church:

William Briggs, physician to William III, Fellow of College of Physicians in London and of Royal Society. Born in Norwich, son of Augustine Briggs, four times MP of that city, descended from an Antient Family of that name at Salle… Died September, 1704…Wife Hannah, daughter of Edmund Hobart, lord of this manor, grandson to Lord Chief Justice Hobart. She died July, 1715. Memorial placed by son Henry 1737.

Local history writers have named Edmund Hobart’s father as James, but his relationship to the Blickling Hall Hobart has been, in some cases, a matter of conjecture. However, it seems reasonable to assume that Henry’s naming of his mother’s ancestry was accurate, ie that Hannah’s great-grandfather was Sir Henry Hobart. Amelia certainly understood this to be so. Amelia’s husband John Opie painted a portrait of another member of the Blickling Hobart dynasty – Henry Hobart (1738-1799), MP for Norwich. His portrait is held in Norwich Castle Museum. This Henry was the youngest son of John, Lord Hobart, of Blickling, later First Earl of Buckinghamshire. With her interest in family history, Amelia would have appreciated this link with her forbears.

In her fifties Amelia Opie became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a decision much influenced by her close friendship with the Quaker banker and philanthropist Joseph John Gurney of Earlham Hall, Norwich, and his sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. Their aunt Rachel (née Gurney) was the wife of Robert Barclay, another banker, and two of her daughters had married into the Fox family of Falmouth. Maria married Robert Were Fox and Lucy his cousin George Croker Fox. Amelia had known both girls since their childhood.

The Foxes – also Quakers – were a significant family in the Falmouth area and Amelia had long been invited to stay with several of them, including the matriarch Elizabeth (née Tregelles). On a seven months’ visit (from September 1832 to April 1833) to her husband’s home county of Cornwall, she spent several weeks as guest of a succession of Foxes, staying first with Maria and Robert Were, who had business interests in mining and shipping. He and two of his brothers, Alfred and Charles owned estates outside Falmouth where they built or extended existing houses for country retreats. Robert owned Penjerrik, Charles took on Trebah and Alfred had Glendurgan. All three men created beautiful gardens on these sites and Amelia visited all of them, writing to a Norwich friend that they were ‘of the most picturesque beauty’.

Alfred acquired his site overlooking the Helford River in 1820. He built an unpretentious house and spent ten years laying out the garden over three valleys, much of it designed with his growing family in mind – he and Sarah his wife eventually had 12 children. He imported plants from all over the world and created a laurel maze. In a letter to Joseph John Gurney Amelia wrote of her ‘intimate communication with dear Sarah and Alfred’. After her last visit to Glendurgan before leaving Falmouth she wrote to her cousin Eliza Briggs, saying that Alfred was ‘a charming man’ and Sarah was ‘a Raphael in face and person’, whom she had learned to love dearly.

Alfred’s successors continued to care for the garden, which was donated to the National Trust in 1962 by Cuthbert & Philip Fox. It is open to the public for nine months of the year. Visitors can wander through the garden down to the hamlet of Durgan on the Helford River, where the National Trust owns three holiday cottages, One of the many highlights of Amelia’s visit to Cornwall was staying in the castle at St.Michael’s Mount, thanks to her friendship with Lord de Dunstanville, who was cousin to Sir John St.Aubyn, the fifth baronet. There is no record of how Amelia became friendly with Francis Bassett, the first Baron de Dunstanville, but she was a guest at his house in January 1833. He was the son of Francis Bassett and his wife Margaret (née St.Aubyn), daughter of Sir John St.Aubyn, the third baronet, whose ancestor Col. John St.Aubyn had purchased the mount as a family home in 1659.

John Opie had specialised in portraits and historical paintings; his known landscapes totalled only eight, of which three were of St.Michael’s Mount. Possibly her husband’s depictions – one of them a moonlight scene – were what inspired Amelia’s determination to visit the mount. Lord de Dunstanville wrote to his cousin’s housekeeper – Sir John himself being away from home at the time – asking her to prepare a room for Amelia in the castle whenever she chose to go. Amelia chose to go ‘at the next full moon’, as she told a friend..

Thus, in February, 1833, she spent two nights ‘alone’ at the castle, where the obliging housekeeper showed her ‘the prime of the house’ and she walked round the ramparts. The experience was all she had hoped for, as she wrote in a lengthy epistle to her solicitor and friend Thomas Brightwell. The housekeeper wished her to stay for a week:

but I thought she would, in her heart, be very glad to get rid of a crazy old
gentlewoman, who came to look at the moon from the ramparts of the castle, as if she
had no moon in her own country!

Then followed an account of her nocturnal wanderings, with dramatic descriptions of the wind, rain and rough seas, and occasional flashes of moonlight illuminating the dark turrets and walls of the castle. Fascinated by the history of the mount and its spectacular location, she also wrote six poetic Sketches of St.Michael’s Mount, which were published in her Lays for the Dead (1834) with the acknowledgement ‘Gratefully inscribed to the Lord de Dunstanville and Sir John St.Aubyn, Bart.’

St.Michael’s Mount continued in the ownership of the St.Aubyns until 1954, when it was given to the National Trust, the St.Aubyns retaining a 999-year lease for the family to live in the castle. The mount is managed by the National Trust and the St.Aubyn family working together and visitors are allowed access to the castle and its gardens..

There are also links between John Opie and the National Trust. Had the trust been in existence during their lifetimes, his supportive wife Amelia would have appreciated his portraits hanging on the walls of several National Trust properties across England. Trerice in Cornwall has one of his self-portraits, two portraits of Amelia and one of his first wife Mary Opie (née Bunn) playing cards with her brother and sister. Bradley Manor in Devon also owns a portrait of Mary Opie. Further John Opie portraits are held in Stourhead,Wiltshire; Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton; Hatchlands, Surrey; Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire; Sizergh Castle, Cumbria; Upton House, Warwickshire, and Petworth House, Sussex.

The National Trust for Scotland has three properties which have John Opie portraits. These are Brodie Castle, Moray; Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire and Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire. The latters holds a portrait of Lady Kerrison, whose husband Sir Roger Kerrison, a banker, was a leading light in Norwich society. Opie’s portrait of Sir Roger is still in private ownership. Who know his his wife’s portrait ended up in Fyvie Castle? The website for Art UK, which features art from the nation’s public collections, merely gives its provenance as ‘transferred’.

© Ann Farrant, 2015


Campaign to raise funds for Norwich Castle Museum

Amelia Opie

A campaign has been launched to raise funds to acquire for Norwich Castle Museum an exceptional portrait of Amelia Opie, which was painted by her husband the Royal Academician John Opie. The museum already owns several Opie portraits, most notably that of John Crome, one of the founders of the Norwich School of Artists.

When he married Amelia, John Opie, from Cornwall, was already one of the leading portraitists of the day. He had settled in London in 1781, where he had been launched at the age of 20 as ’the Cornish Wonder’. Marriage to the sociable and gregarious Amelia brought Opie many commissions for portraits from well-connected families in Norwich and Norfolk.

Ann Farrant says: “As Norwich Castle Museum owns the David d’Angers bust of Amelia Opie it seems that it would be absolutely right for it to have the double portrait of her as well. I believe the museum should own this exceptional painting of one of its most celebrated citizens, not just because of who she was, but also because of the artist himself. Both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain own Opie portraits and his work can be seen in galleries and libraries both in the UK and abroad.”

Opie did nine portraits of Amelia. The double portrait which the campaigners hope to acquire for Norwich shows Amelia full face and in profile. It was painted in the early months of their marriage – one of two by Opie, who routinely painted two versions of a portrait, according to Viv Hendra, author of The Cornish Wonder: A Portrait of John Opie. The second double portrait of Amelia, which is an a very poor condition, is owned by the National Trust at Trerice in Cornwall.

The portrait has been valued at £15,000, but the seller, who is keen for it to be acquired for Norwich Castle Museum, has offered it for a special price. The campaigners are hoping to raise £10,500 for its acquisition.

The Friends of the Norwich Museums have kindly agreed to handle donations made towards the funds needed to acquire the Opie double portrait.. Donors should make their cheques out to: The Friends of the Norwich Museums, with a covering note indicating that the sum is ‘a restricted donation’ to assist with the purchase of the double portrait of Amelia Opie.. Cheques should be sent to The Treasurer, The Friends of the Norwich Museums, c/o The Shirehall, Market Avenue. Norwich, NR1 2JQ. Donations can be gift aided if required.

For details of how you can also donate funds via electronic transfer, call the The Friends of the Norwich Museums on 01508 578353.

Double portrait of Amelia Opie by her husband John Opie.

As Amelia was an accomplished musician and had a fine singing voice, it is significant that Opie portrayed her holding a musical instrument. Opinions differ as to whether it is meant to be a guitar or lute. Twenty years after this portrait was painted Amelia acquired a harp lute and took lessons on playing it.



Martineau Society Conference

Amelia Opie Ann Farrant

I was invited to give the opening address at this year’s Martineau Society Conference (23-26 July, 2015), which took place in Norwich, the birthplace of both Harriet Martineau and Amelia Opie. My subject was ‘Amelia Opie and the Martineaus’.

The Society was founded in Norwich in 1993 and has grown steadily since then, attracting member s from Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. In the early days interest focused primarily on Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), a distinguished writer and journalist, and her brother James (1805-1900), a philosopher and theologian. However, the Martineaus from whom Harriet and James were descended and the Martineaus who came after them are also worthy of attention. Many were not only important figures in the fields of medicine, art, engineering, linguistics and industry, but associates and friends of important people in the academic, political and economic circles of their day.

Harriet Martineau

I had a particular interest in the birthplace of Harriet Martineau – Gurney Court in Magdalen Street – because the north wing of the house was let to my great-grandfather Walter Batterbee from 1896 to 1906. During research for my biography Amelia Opie: The Quaker Celebrity, I discovered that Amelia’s father Dr.James Alderson also had associations with Gurney Court, as he was the family doctor for the Gurneys who lived in the property in the 1770s and 1780s.

North wing Gurney Court

I also discovered that Amelia Opie had associations with many of the Martineaus. The oldest was Sarah Martineau (1725-1800), Harriet’s grandmother, whose portrait was painted by Amelia’s husband, the Royal Academician John Opie. Amelia’s father and Harriet’s uncle Dr. Philip Meadows Martineau were colleagues at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital which was founded in 1771 for ‘the deserving poor’. Amelia’s uncle Robert Alderson was for ten years a minister at the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, where both Amelia and Harriet were baptised. This was another connection for me – my maternal grandparents were married at the Octagon in 1905.


In London in the 1780s Amelia was often a guest at the house of Dr. Robert Batty, whose daughter Elizabeth grew up to marry into the Martineau family and was the mother of the artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau. Members of the Martineau family subscribed to Amelia’s Memoir of her husband which was published in 1809 as a preface to his Lectures on Painting..

One of Amelia’s particular friends in the literary world, the essayist and poet Anna Letitia Barbauld, was also known to the Martineaus. In her autobiography, Harriet recalled her as a ‘comely elderly lady’ visiting the household when she was a child. As an adult she wrote admiringly of Mrs.Barbauld’s writings, but was less approving of others, criticising what she called the ‘literary pretensions’ of the city of her birth.

When Amelia Opie died in December 1853, Harriet wrote an obituary for the London Daily News, describing the death as ‘the loss of another of that curious class of English people – the provincial literary lion.’ Later the piece was included in Biographical Sketches, a collection of Martineau obituaries from the newspaper, published in 1869.

Ann Farrant

Amelia Opie bust by David d'Angers

Bust of Amelia Opie by David d’Angers

Amelia Opie Ann Farrant

One of the most pleasing events during years of research for my biography Amelia Opie The Quaker Celebrity was when Norwich Castle Museum acquired the beautiful white marble bust of Amelia by the French sculptor David d’Angers in November 2008. It was purchased with generous grants from the Victoria & Albert Museum/MLA Purchase Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the Norwich Museums.

Amelia Opie bust by David d'Angers

Marble bust of Amelia Opie
by David d’Angers.
(Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The bust was not mentioned by Mrs.Opie’s first biographer Cecilia Lucy Brightwell (1854); later biographers in1933 and 1937 referred to it only briefly. When I started work on transcribing some of Amelia’s family letters, I was delighted to find her own account of the circumstances leading to the bust’s creation and its arrival at her home in Norwich. The relevant correspondence is in a collection of 364 Opie letters held in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Plaster bust of Amelia Opie

Plaster bust of Amelia Opie. (David d’Angers Gallery, Angers, France)

After I had completed my research at the Huntington Library, I made the acquaintance of the owner of the Opie bust, Christopher Woods, a descendant of Amelia’s cousin Margaret Thompson (née Alderson), sister of Dr.James Alderson, to whom the bust had been bequeathed. This cousin James had given away his sister Margaret’s daughter Amabel, when she married. When the unmarried James died a few years later, Amabel’s husband bought the bust at an auction of James’ effects and it had remained in the family ever since.

I felt privileged to view the bust at Christopher’s house and was delighted when he loaned it to Norwich Castle Museum for its 2007 exhibition marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade and featuring Amelia’s role in the anti-slavery movement. When he decided to sell it, he offered the bust to the museum. An appropriate ‘home-coming’ for one of Norwich’s most celebrated citizens.

Amelia Opie bust description
Footnote: In Angers, the sculptor’s birthplace, there is a Gallery of David d’Angers, which has on display a plaster bust, identified as ‘Amelia Opie. Femme de lettres anglaise (1769-1853). Buste offert au modèle, 1836’.

Copyright © Ann Farrant, 2014

Eastern Daily Press

Reviews from Amelia’s home city

Amelia Opie

On 27th December 2014, very soon after the book’s launch, Christopher Smith in the Eastern Daily Press wrote a very positive review which included these highlights…

“a detailed and meticulously researched biography of a woman whose story is well worth telling”

“beautifully illustrated with full colour portraits and smaller in-page sketches by Amelia herself that have genuine immediacy”


Launch Event

Amelia Opie Ann Farrant

The Octagon Chapel Norwich The Launch of  the definitive  biography “Amelia Opie” by Ann Farrant took place at The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, England on Thursday 4th December 2014.

Amelia was baptised at the Octagon on 6th December, 1769.

Amelia Opie Book Signing

Amelia Opie - Cover

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