Ann Meadows & John Massey Wright

Edwin Lewis Meadows’ record of his family history, written towards the end of the 19th century, mentions clearly that the three daughters of William Meadows all appeared as actresses during William’s second stay in Dublin. Edwin also gave a number of details of the later lives of his aunts, and of their children. Whilst he confirms the success and short career of the aunt he never knew, Margaret Meadows, he devotes more attention to his well-known artist uncle, John Massey Wright, the husband of Ann Meadows.

Apart from certain brief biographical details, little is known about Ann Meadows. She was born in about 1785, when her father was launching his London stage career. Ann almost certainly appeared on the Dublin stages with her parents, and back in London in 1800, she was mentioned in a cast list for her father's benefit at The Royal Circus in St George's Fields (later known as The Surrey Theatre) in October of that year. She may also have been the same Miss Meadows who appeared at the Royal Circus in 1806 and 1807 (when her sister Margaret was launching her career at Covent Garden).

Ann appears to have had a lengthy engagement, for in a letter from her brother-in-law, Richard Johnson, dated 13th July, 1808, announcing a forthcoming visit to Johnson's family home in Essex, he commented, "Mrs J. or her sister shall go down on Saturday by the coach, and they will be attended by Mr Wright, who is going to marry Miss Ann Meadows. He of course will sleep at the inn." On the 30th May, 1809, Ann Meadows married John Massey Wright at her parish church, St Mary at Lambeth, beside Lambeth Palace, which appears to confirm the whereabouts of both her own family, and the biographical details of her husband. According to Edwin, Ann and John had a total of eight children, but only six can be identified from baptismal registers and the census returns from 1841 to 1891. Presumably the others may have died in infancy, and were born prior to 1813 when the on-line baptismal records for London begin. Ann Wright née Meadows died aged 42, and her burial service took place on June 9th, 1827, at St John's Church, Clerkenwell.

Image: Lambeth wedding 1810

This illustration of a wedding at St Mary at Lambeth dates from c.1810, and is contemporary to the marriage of Ann Meadows and John Massey Wright.

John Massey Wright’s early life and training

John Massey Wright, (sometimes written Masey Wright), was born c.1777 in Pentonville, the area of between Islington and Clerkenwell which was home to James Meadows between from at least 1816 until c.1825. Several of John and Ann’s children were born in Rodney Street in Islington, and one was born in nearby Hermes Street, both of which were later known addresses of James Meadows. It is possible, therefore, that James Meadows and his brother-in-law John Massey Wright may have at least been neighbours, at at times probably shared the same house.

Wright’s father was an organ-builder, and he was intended for his father’s trade. However at the age of sixteen, Wright was introduced to the artist and illustrator Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), who was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1794. Stothard produced designs, never executed, for the decoration of Buckingham House (the future Palace), and decorated the grand staircase of Burghley House. However he is chiefly remembered as a prolific and sought-after illustrator for novels and poetry. The master evidently gave his pupil a firm training in portraiture and figure painting, but above all, he developed in John Massey Wright the gift of the illustrator which made his pupil’s reputation.

Wright’s life is thoroughly documented in the ‘History of the Old Water Colour Society’, published in 1891. His entry was written with the cooperation of his son and daughter, and includes fascinating detail of his lengthy career. It also sheds much light on both his relationship with his artistic master Stothard, and his artistic character and talent, which included a love and knowledge of literature, including Shakespeare, the graphic arts, but also music. The following extracts from the ‘History of the Old Watercolour Society’ describe these various facets of his character:

“ .. there was so much akin in the minds and gentle natures of both [Stothard and Wright], that Wright may have followed in the track of the great illustrator rather from natural impulse and similarity of taste than from any want of original powers of his own. Like Stothard, he was a great reader, and an ardent lover of our imaginative literature, and hence for his subjects drew largely from the poets. His earliest and latest designs were alike derived from his favourite authors. Of compositions from Shakespeare he never wearied; so constantly did his thoughts dwell on the beauties of the great dramatist, that it is related by his son, who watched him through a severe illness, that he was repeatedly startled by his father reciting in a loud voice in his sleep long passages from Shakespeare. … When a boy he showed a remarkable ear for music; and it is related that when very young, being set down before an organ at Bagnigge Wells Tea Gardens, he astonished a crowd of listeners by performing extempore upon it.”

1800 – 1820: Musical career, marriage, Lambeth life and the influence on James Meadows.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Wright was known to have been living at 102, St Martin’s Lane in 1808, and later in Great Pulteney Street in Soho in 1812, in the heart of what is still London’s theatre-land. From 1803 until 1805, according to F.H.W.Sheppard's, 'Survey of London' (1966), John Massey Wright lived at Number 50, Leicester Square, on the west side of the square subsequently redeveloped to creat New Coventry Street. This may explain his acquaintance with another mutual friend of the Meadows family, Charles Dibdin (c.1745-1814). Writing about his uncle at the end of the 19th century, Edwin’s comments on his uncle’s talent as a musician, which he passed on to his children: “As to his musical ability, of course, I could not judge, he being an old man when I knew him and I quite a lad, but he had travelled with Charles Dibdin as accompanist, when that great writer had sung his own songs. I have heard him play the piano, generally extempore, and he would on great occasions sing “The anchor smiths”. All his daughters played; some of them, Mary, for instance, very well. Charlotte sang very well, and no doubt would have come out as a public singer, had she not had the misfortune to be – well, the very plainest of the family.”

It may just have been coincidence that John Massey Wright was a friend of the renowned actor, playwright, novelist and composer Dibdin. But if it was just coincidence, it was also ironic, as Dibdin, who had appeared at Covent Garden, was the author of ‘The Quaker’ and ‘The Waterman’, in which William Meadows, Wright’s future father-in-law, appeared in both London and Dublin. Dibden started his highly popular one-man-shows in Covent Garden, complete with stirring patriotic songs praising British sailors in the Napoleonic Wars, and toured the country from 1788 until 1803, when Prime Minister Pitt offered him a steady salary to stay in London and encourage the war effort by his performances. Charles Dibdin was the joint manager of the Royal Circus in Lambeth in the early 1780s, but amongst his later enterprises was his own personal theatre just off Leicester Square, the ‘Sans Souci’ theatre. This was a short-lived adventure, but the adjoining site had a longer-lasting impact and a definite connection with both John Massey Wright and James Meadows.

If John Massey Wright is now principally remembered as an illustrator, it was not the source of his earlier artistic success and reputation. The ‘History of the Old Watercolour Society once again describes the next step in his career, and also his personal life. At the same time, the History throws an interesting light on the Meadows family in Lambeth, and particularly on John’s new young brother-in-law, James Meadows:

“Nothing further has transpired as to his career until at the age of thirty three he married Miss Meadows, and went to live in the Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth. The place formerly so named lay between the Archbishop’s garden and the river, and now forms part of Lambeth Palace Road, the medical schools of St Thomas’ Hospital occupying the site of the old houses of that day. It was at the time a theatrical quarter. In the same house with the Wrights resided John H.Wilson, Scottish landscape and marine painter and later RSA, but better known then as Jock Wilson, scene painter at Astley’s, who had been in London for about eight years. The two brothers of the brush naturally became intimate, and the scenic artist induced his acquaintance to try his hand at the same branch of art; wherein, as we have seen in the case of David Cox in Birmingham, a figure man may on occasion make himself especially useful. It was not exactly on stage scenery that Wright’s talent was employed, but in the painting of panoramas. There was in Bishop’s Walk, aforesaid, an old wooden public-house, kept by a man of the name of Bent, where actors and scene painters were wont to congregate, and ‘Jock’ Wilson was one of the regular habitués. At a later time it was the resort of Stanfield and Roberts, and our sometime member George Chambers. Here his friend introduced Wright to Thomas Edward Barker, eldest son of Robert Barker, the founder of panoramic exhibitions.”

Image: Bishop's Walk Lambeth

This watercolour by an unidentified artist of Bishop's Walk Road, Lambeth, in c.1800, shows the road and Westminster Bridge as the Meadows family and John Massey Wright would have known them. This image is reproduced from the excellent website www. ideal-homes.org.uk, which charts the history of the London suburbs south of the River Thames, and is coordinated by the University of Greenwich.

Wright’s biographical entry in the Watercolour Society History was largely inspired by an obituary written by his son, James. Together with other details of the Meadows family history, and local historical research, it is possible to determine reasonably accurately where John Wright and his Meadows relatives were most probably living on London’s South Bank, on the site now occupied by St Thomas’ Hospital.

Astley’s Theatre (which stood on the site of the Hospital) was the venue of one of the greatest financial successes in c.1812 of Charles Dibdin's dramatist son, Thomas Dibdin (1771-1841), who wrote one of the pantomimes performed by Margaret Meadows at Covent Garden in 1808 (see the Margaret Meadows page). The ‘old wooden public house’ frequented by John Massey Wright, Jock Wilson, and probably also by the young James Meadows (and perhaps his father also) was ‘The Mitre Inn’, run by Edward ‘Independent' Bent. A contemporary description of a trip down the Thames from 1826 notes mockingly of the boisterous establishment, “Then he directs his attention to the Mitre at Stangate, kept by ‘independent Bent’, a house celebrated for authors who “flourish” there, for “actors of all work”, and artists of less prudence then powers”. The Victoria County Histories of Lambeth noted that The Mitre Inn stood at Stangate Stairs on the river bank, at the end of Stangate (now a truncated remnant of a longer earlier street, opposite the hospital), and that in the 18th century Stangate was also applied to the northern part of Bishop’s Walk, running parallel to the river and closest to Westminster Bridge. Another early 19th century description of Astley's Theatre mentions that the stage door at the rear of the theatre was in Stangate, close to 'The Mitre Inn'.

Image:

'Children making a foliate bower' by John Massey Wright.
(Reproduced from a private family collection by kind permission of the owner).

The fact that the young Meadows-Wright couple made their home in the artistic and theatrical community south of the river suggests strongly that William Meadows was a member of the same community, especially as his daughter, Ann Meadows, was noted as a parishioner at the time of her marriage in 1809. What is certain is that Wright’s marriage into the Meadows family was to have a significant impact on his young brother-in-law, James Meadows, who was drawn into Wright’s new panoramic venture which began at The Mitre Inn.

In 1817, 'The Annals of the Fine Arts' included in its register of artists, both a mention of James Meadows, a landscape artist of Hermes Street in Pentonville (where he lived with the Wrights), but also the presence of John 'Jock' Wilson at 55 Stangate Street, and the Scottish landscape artist Patrick Nasmyth (1787-1831), living at 13 Stangate Street (which also belonged to 'Independent Bent', the landlord of The Mitre Inn). Wilson was a distinguished marine artist, who had first come to public attention with a depiction of the battle of Trafalgar. One 19th century biographer wrote of Wilson, "As a marine painter, in his palmy days, he had no rival", and his son John Wilson Junior also became a landscape and marine painter, exhibitng later in London at the same time as James Meadows. One of Jock Wilson's early tutors in Edinburgh was Alexander Nasmyth, a leading Scottish landscape painter and also the artist of the most well-known portrait of Robbie Burns. The Nasmyths were a distinguished family of Scottish landscape artists, and Alexander's son Patrick lived in London from 1810 (the year after the marriage of John Wright and Ann Meadows) until his death. According to Art Encyclopedia, Patrick, "lived the rather erratic life of a bachelor artist, mixing chiefly with other Scottish artists such as David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, and David Wilkie. ... He was always careless in his financial dealings, and nver profited from his art." It is therefore unsurprising to find the two painters Nasmyth and Wilson close by one and other in Lambeth. It seems a strong coincidence that John Massey Wright, his Scottish artist house-mate John Wilson (1774-1855), the Scotish artist Patrick Nasmyth, and the young James Meadows, all found themselves living in close proximity to The Mitre Inn. The friendship and instruction of Jock Wilson, John Massey Wright, and Patrick Nasmyth whether formal or informal, would have made for a heady mix for the young James Meadows. It is interesting to note also that Clarkson Stanfield, the scenic and marine painter who began scene painting at The Royal Coburg Theatre in Lambeth (which in turn became The Old Vic) and who was a scene painter contemporary of James Meadows, also became a member of this same Lambeth circle which the young James Meadows had frequented. Stanfield, accompanied by David Roberts, also worked on the second-generation of Panoramas from the 1820s onwards, succeeding John Massey Wright amongst others.

Painting the Panoramas, and scenic painting at Covent Garden

In 1792, the painter Robert Barker (1739-1806) invented not only a new artistic genre but also a new word to describe it. On a visit to Edinburgh, he invented the Panorama, with the first of his huge canvases depicting the view of the city. By 1793, he had moved to London, and built a display centre for the new canvases he produced, many of which later displayed the British victories over the belligerent French revolutionary forces. The London Panorama adjacent to the Sans Souci Theatre caused a sensation, attracting royal attention, and a 19th century phenomenon was born. (The site of the original panorama is currently occupied by the French church in London, Notre Dame de France, and retains the original dimensions of the first panorama.) The new fashion was rapidly exported including both France (where a circular theatre on the Champs-Elysées recalls the early panorama), and the United States.

Barker’s sons, Thomas and Henry, initially went into business with their father at the Leicester Square panorama, of which Henry the artist became the director. However, Thomas decided to set up his own panorama a short walk away just off the Strand, close to the church of St Mary-le-Strand and Somerset House. Thomas, who was not an artist, went into partnership with the artist Ramsay Richard Reingale (a portrait, animal and landscape painter), and together they employed a group of young artists, including John Massey Wright (who had already established a reputation as a figure painter) and James Meadows, to supply fresh scenes and sensations to the avid London public. Once again the ‘History of the Old Watercolour Society picks up the story:

“Here it was that Wright began his work of this kind, by putting in some figures in a panorama then preparing for exhibition. He painted for Thomas Barker for some time, and afterwards entered into an engagement with his brother Henry, to assist of representations of the battles of the Peninsula, which were exhibited in Leicester Square with great success. In subjects such as these, the figures were obviously of the first importance, and much of the success was owing to their execution, which was in life size, and to the skill with which they were put together in groups by Masey Wright. He gave life (and death too) to those battles of Vittoria, Corunna, and finally Waterloo, and also assisted in a view of Corfu.”

Massey Wright became a successful painter, notably with his contemporary twin canvases depicting the British victories in the Napoleonic wars, the Battle of the Pyrenees and the Battle of Vittoria, both in 1813, when he also exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy showing Napoleon retreating from Beresina. He also produced a fine portrait of the Duke of Wellington at about this period (see the links below). Appropriately it was the Waterloo Panorama, painted by Henry Barker who had bought out his brother Thomas Barker, which crowned the success of the London Panorama, made the fortune of Henry Barker and also set the young James Meadows on a course for a far-distant land. For amongst the countries where the fashion for panoramas had taken off was the British colony of India, where Barker’s Waterloo Panorama duly arrived in 1819, escorted by Massey Wright’s brother-in-law, James Meadows. In the same year, back in London, Massey Wright painted the British victory in India, ‘The Battle of Kirki’ (fought in 1817), from original sketches taken at the battle. This painting is currently in the Print Room collections of the British Library.

The end of the Napoleonic wars did not signify the end of panoramic paintings. From the earliest days of the panoramas, amongst the most popular views were the ‘giant picture postcards’ of Naples, Gibraltar and Malta, as well as Corfu. However, Massey Wright’s talent as a figure painter was called upon for theatrical themes such as the ‘Procession of the claiming of the Fitch’, which Massey Wright also produced in 1817. (This painting is now displayed at the Williamson Art Gallery in Liverpool). The 'New Monthly Magazine' commented of this painting, "This is a very pleasing picture ... The colours and forms are evidently painted after Stothard; the costume is well-sustained". The comparison with Stothard is understandable. Stothard had prepared a study for a painting of the same subject, but it was Massey Wright who finally painted the topic, and the similarity in style between Stothard's earlier famous painting, 'The Canterbury Pilgrims' and Wright's 'The Procession of the Flitch', is noticeable.

'The Procession of the Flitch' by John Massey Wright

'The Pilgrimage to Canterbury', by Thomas Stothard

The ‘History of the Old Watercolour Society’ mentions that in 1820, Massey Wright was earning 8 a week at the Panoramas, and 6 a week at ‘His Majesty’s Theatre’. The story of Wright’s career as a scenic artist at Covent Garden, is related in the History: “He also at one time was employed on scenery for the stage; for he used when a very old man to recount, ‘with a playful smile of satisfaction’, an interview with Zara, principal scene painter at the Opera House, to whom he applied for work. ‘What can you do?’ asked Zara. ‘Figures’, answered Wright. ‘How much do you require?’ ‘Five guineas a week’ ‘It is too much. I will give you three’, was the reply. Wright was engaged on these terms and set to paint some cupids. He acquitted himself so well in the trial that when Zara came and looked at his work, he exclaimed in the same laconic style, “They are good; you are clever. I will give you the five guineas.”

A final vignette of John Massey Wright from this period also shows that he had not entirely forsaken the business for which his father had intended him. From 1812 until 1817, under the patronage of the Prince Regent, the London firm of organ builders Flight & Robson built a gigantic entertainment organ, the Apollinicon, at their workshop and showroom at 101, St Martin's Lane in London. The instrument had five consoles, and remained in use until 1881 when it was sold. A contemporary description of the new wonder mentioned, "The front is divided into three compartments by pilasters of the Grecian Doric, surmounted by others of the Ionic order. Between the upper pilasters are three paintings, that in the centre representing Apollo [Music], and those of the sides the Muses: Clio [Poetry] and Erato [History], somewhat larger than life, which do much credit to the artist (Mr John Masey Wright)."

1820 – 1840: The Old Watercolour Society, and the art school in Pentonville

John Massey Wright began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1808, but in 1820 he joined the Old Watercolour Society, of which he remained a member up until his death on 1866. His artist nephew Edwin Meadows wrote of his work, “his drawings are always delicate in colour, very correct drawing and his female figures are graceful, but have rather an old-fashioned look about them.” Although quickly dismissed after his death as repetitive, old-fashioned and mediocre, Massey Wright was admired in his lifetime for his talent and his creations. Massey Wright’s nephew, and Edwin’s cousin, Edward Killingworth Johnson, also became an esteemed and regular contributor to the Old Watercolour Society in the latter half of the 19th century.

The 1830s was a decade when John Massey Wright experienced popularity amongst contemporary critics. Although Leigh Hunt (who admired Wright’s sister-in-law Margaret as an actress, and whose daughter was later a friend of Wright’s niece), was reserved in his praise, writing in ‘The Examiner’ in 1825, “while many of his designs have much truth of character, [they] want both vigour and refinement “, other critics extolled the virtues of the worthy successor of Stothard, who was twice referred to as the new Hogarth.

Image:

'Street-seller and children' by John Massey Wright.
(Reproduced from a private family collection by kind permission of the owner.)

In 1823, ‘The European Magazine and London Review’ described his contribution to the British Institution exhibition as “truly humorous”. ‘The Literary Gazette: a weekly journal of literature, science, and the fine arts’, in its critique of the Exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1832, noted of Massey Wright’s contribution : “Jenny Jones before Mrs Deborah Wilkins – Why where the deuce did Mr Wright obtain his model for the vixenish fury of Mrs Wilkins? We are unwilling to credit so foul an aspersion on the features of the beau sexe; and rather imagine that the idea has been generated in the mind of the artist, as that of the Olympic Jupiter was in the mind of Phidias. “

Massey Wright’s contributions to the Watercolours Exhibition of 1837 drew unanimous praise. ‘The Literary Gazette’ noted: “Village chorister rehearsing, J.M.Wright – We are here presented with a picture of past days, although not sufficiently remote to be out of the memory of some. The abstracted and absorbed attention of the performers in the principal group, and the varied character of expression, would not discredit the pencil of Hogarth, or fail to call up the powers of a comic lecturer .. Character without caricature, and expression without extravagance, happily united with grace and elegance where called for, will invariable be found in the works of this able artist “; whilst The New London Magazine of the Society of Literary Gentlemen wrote, “J.M.Wright possess great comic powers. He is the Hogarth of the society. How we were delighted with his picture of the Burning Shame! Would he always do his best, what might he not be? ‘Village Choristers rehearsing’ is full of genuine humour.” In 1839, 'The Art Journal' review of the exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolour noted of Wright's 'Guardian Angels': "there are few better works than this in the exhibition: the composition is delicious; often as the subject has been selected, it has never, we think, received such ample justice."

Massey Wright’s entries in the Royal Academy catalogue in 1817 and 1820 both mention his address as 17, Rodney Street in Pentonville. He was known to be a well-connected teacher of art, and there is no doubt that his young brother-in-law James joined him in the Pentonville venture when he returned from India. According to the ‘History of the Old Watercolour Society’, “Like most his contemporaries, Wright was also employed in teaching amateurs. Among those to whom he gave lessons were Lady Craven, and the daughters of Earl de Grey and the Marquess of Lansdowne, at whose country houses he used to stay by invitation.”

Image: Pentonville in the 1820s

This contemporary map above show Pentonville in the 1820s, as John Massey Wright and James Meadows knew it. Working from the bottom upwards: on the left of the map you will find Southampton Street, which was the last home of Joe Grimaldi the clown, contemporary of William and Margaret Meadows, who is buried in the churchyard of the former Pentonville Chapel (illustrated at the bottom right of the map). The chapel, where John and Ann's children were baptised, was situated on the site of the crescent, on the corner of Rodney Street, where James Meadows lived at No.17 and John Massey Wright and Anne Meadows lived at No.19. Hermes Street, where John and Ann lived in 1815, and where James Meadows lived in 1816 and 1819, is two streets further up. Today only the third of Hermes Street closest to the Pentonville Road has survived. The Bagnigge Wells Tea Garden where the infant Massey Wright peformed is indicated just above the illustration of Pentonville Chapel.

John Massey Wright the book illustrator

If Massey Wright was recognised by some as a talent in the tradition of Hogarth for his watercolours, the influence of his training and his original master were recognised by others. Arnold’s Magazine of Fine Arts commented in 1834 (the year of Stothard’s death) in an article on ‘On the genius of Stothard’, ““ … the extent and celebrity of Mr Stothard’s designs must have given rise to some imitators; … Some of the works of J.M.Wright and W.H.Brooke, may be said to resemble those of our artist, but they cannot be called imitations, they have a character of their own, bearing the stamp of genius”. In the 1820s and 1830s, Massey Wright was one of a group of leading artists, or future leading artists, including Sir Thomas Lawrence, J.M.W.Turner (his contemporary in the Watercolour Society), Edwin Landseer, and his own artistic master, Stothard, who supplied illustrations for the popular annual ‘Keepsake’ volumes of poetry and literature. Contemporary journals described this group as “ the most distinguished group of artists of our day”, (The Literary gazette of 1827). Massey Wright’s contribution to a series of engravings in ‘The Gallery of modern British artists’ in 1834, including works by J.M.W.Turner, also drew the following comment: “Romeo & Juliet Act IV scene V – “From this great poet, Mr Wright, a talented artist of the present day, has chosen a well-known and highly interesting subject, in the design and execution of which he has shown great taste. The simplicity of the composition is quite in the Stothard school, and the merit of the design is enhanced by the correct drawing of the figures, and the rich depth of the colour in the draperies.”

Image: Illustration by John Massey Wright

A preparatory sketch for an untitled illustration by John Massey Wright, from the private collection of his nephew, Edward Killingworth Johnson.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

The following extract from ‘Shakespeare for all times’, by Stanley W.Wells (published in 2003, and available on Google Books), describes the context of Wright’s career as an illustrator: “During the early part of the [19th] century the development of the process of steel engraving, which permitted the reproduction of thousands of good copies from the same plate, rather than the few hundred that could be made for copper plates, made it possible to produce illustrated books in large quantities, and a demand grew up for drawings to adorn annual volumes for a polite, largely female, readership with titles such as ‘The Keepsake’, and ‘The Lady’s Polite Remembrancer’. Among those who helped to supply the demand was John Massey Wright (1773-1867), a prolific and accomplished, if minor, artist who must have drawn thousands of Shakespearian characters and scenes, many of them in more than one version.”

Amongst the authors whose works Wright illustrated were Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, but also Mary Shelley for her novel 'The Trial of Love', published in 'The Keepsake in 1835. This was not John Massey Wright's first or only brush with the famous circle of Shelley and Byron. John Massey Wright prepared a series of sketches (held in an archive in New York) to illustrate the First Canto of Byron's 'Don Juan', which appeared in 1819. The illustration below (from a private family collection) is believed to belong to this same series of sample sketches. However, another artist was finally chosen in preference to Wright. Another link to the same circle was William Hone (1780-1842), a Regency Radical, writer and bookseller whose successful defence against government censorship in 1817, supported by Leigh Hunt, was a major turning point for the freedom of the press in Britain. From the late 1820s, Hone had begun publishing less controversial material, including the 'Everyday Book', 'The Table Book', and 'The Year Book'. The letter from Wright to Hone in 1831, preserved in an archive in the United States, most probably concerns illustrations for one such book.

Image: John Massey Wright: sketch for 'Don Juan'

John Massey Wright is principally now remembered for his illustrations of Shakespeare, ‘Don Quixote’, and ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’, originally illustrated by Stothard. The illustrations below by John Massey Wright are taken from the 1903 edition of 'The Vicar of Wakefield', which includes the following introductory note: "It will be recognised that the pictorial artist, John Massey Wright, has caught and retained the real essence of the work ... How, or when, J.M.Wright was inspired to produce these happiest of illustrations is not established; but the happy coincidence of this series of choice and delicate aquarelles being in existence, with their old-world wealth of sentimental charm and suggestiveness, is a distinct trouvaille for all Goldsmith's admirers".

Image: J.M.Wrifght Vicar of Wakefield

Image: J.M.Wright Vicar of Wakefield

Wright's artistic master, Stothard, proved to be a vital link once again in his pupil's professional advancement in book illustration, for amongst Stothard's friends and regular collaborators was the engraver James Heath, whose engraver son, Charles Heath, became a regular collaborator of John Massey Wright. More details of the Heath dynasty of engravers can be found on the link below. The selection of illustrations also available via the links below proves Edwin Meadows’ opinion of his uncle, for John Massey Wright’s illustrations belong to the Romantic movement of the first half of the 19th century, and reflect a folkloric ‘Merrye England’.

Image:

'Edwin and Angelina', by John Massey Wright. The subject is taken from an old English poem which Goldsmith mentioned in his works.
(Reproduced from a private family collection by kind permission of the owner).

Later life

In later life Massey Wright, although still a sought-after illustrator, fell on hard times financially. His essential problem, recognised at the time of his death by one of his biographers, was that at his most prolific and successful period, artists were quite simply poorly paid. ‘The biographical and critical dictionary of recent and living painters’ of 1866 noted in their entry for John Massey Wright: “He is a devoted admirer of Stothart, and has kept his manner so constantly in his eye, as to be all but an imitator; indeed some of his early works in oil might be mistaken by an unpractised eye for those of his favourite master. … Mr Wright began his career, unfortunately, when art was barely remunerative, and his works, having become common before the scale of prices advanced, they have never yet reached the commercial estimation they deserve." The other problem that Wright faced was that his original works were remunerated only once in the days before copyright, by the engraver or the publisher who commissioned them, whilst the illustrations that were drawn from them went on to produce more substantial incomes for the publishers. At the sale in 1832 of the collection of Charles Heath, the engraver who popularised Wright’s illustrations for Sir Walter Scott’s novels, the principal lot was thirty seven paintings by John Massey Wright which fetched the handsome sum of 146.

Nonetheless, Wright’s peers recognised his merit and remembered his talent, when the Benevolent Fund of the Royal Academy, known as ‘Turner’s Bounty’ after Wright’s old contemporary in the Watercolour Society and fellow-illustrator, voted him an annuity to help him through his old age. John Massey Wright died in May 1866, aged eighty nine, financially impoverished after a rich artistic career. His funeral took place on 21st May, 1866, at Holy Trinity, Twickenham.

The children of Ann Meadows and John Massey Wright

Of the six children who can be identified in the census returns and baptismal registers of the Pentonville Chapel, four are mentioned in the notes of Edwin Meadows. In both 1841 and 1861, John Massey Wright was recorded living at the same address, with at least two of his children, at 29, Gloucester Place, St Pancras, Marylebone, and in 1851 John was living with three of his children at 3 Malcolm Place, on the border of North Clapham and Stockwell. The estimates of the ages of Ann and John’s children seem to vary from census to census, the baptismal registers allow us to clearly identify their real dates of birth.

Ann Wright, also known as Annie. According to the census returns, she was born c.1819 in Islington, but she was most probably born several years before and possibly in Lambeth. She is not mentioned in the Pentonville Chapel records. Ann was the eldest surviving child. In both 1881 and 1891, the spinster Anne was recorded living with her sister Mary, and she gave her profession as a needlewoman.

Mary Wright was born on June 20th, 1815, and her baptism took place at Pentonville Chapel in August of the same year. Her parents' address was recorded as Hermes Street, where her uncle James Meadows probably formed part of the household. On the 26th March, 1853, Mary married James Bracebridge, a watchmaker from Clerkenwell, at the church of St John the Evangelist, Clapham. James Bracebridge later became the Treasurer of The British Horological Society, the principal trade association for watchmakers. Following the death of Mary’s father at her home in Twickenham in 1866, at various dates the couple’s household included Mary’s surviving unmarried siblings. The Bracebridges mainly lived in Islington and Clerkenwell, except for a period in Twickenham. James Bracebridge died in 1892, and Mary died in 1897.

Charlotte Maria Wright was born on July 7th, 1817, in Rodney Street, opposite the Pentonville Chapel. According to her cousin Edwin Meadows, she was “the very plainest of the family”, but a gifted singer. She lived with her father up until the 1860s, and in 1871 was recorded living with her sister Mary.

James Peter Wright, born in Rodney Street on August 26th, 1819, and baptised in the chapel across the road five months later. James followed the family tradition, and became an artist. He followed exactly the same path as his sister Charlotte, living first with his father, and then with his elder sister, Mary. In 1881, he was recorded as a lodger and artist, living in St Pancras. James followed his father's example in both professional and personal life, and in 1876 he wrote in his own turn to the Benevolent Fund of the Watercolour Society to ask for financial support. The letter was sent from The Cambridge Coffee House on Camden Road, which runs from Camden Town to his child-hood haunt of Holloway. James probably died in the 1890s.

Thomas Wright was born in Rodney Street on the 24th May, 1821, and baptised at Pentonville Chapel in September of the same year. He appears to have died in infancy, and is mentioned neither in Edwin Meadows account of the family, nor in the later census records. He may have been named after his father's mentor, Thomas Stothard.

Frances 'Fanny' Wright, was born in Rodney Street on 20th December, 1823, and baptised in Pentonville Chapel in June of the following year. Fanny is only mentioned once thereafter, in the 1841 census return. Edwin does not mention her in his notes.

John Massey Wright on the web

The following links show John Massey Wright's contrasting styles, including an example of Wright's illustrations for Sir Walter Scott's novels. The subject of 'The Young Artist' bears a similarity to the young James Meadows as depicted in Meadows' earliest known self-portrait.

John Massey Wright in The V&A Collection

John Massey Wright in The Government Art Collection

'The Young Artist' by John Massey Wright

John Massey Wright's portrait of the Duke of Wellington

John Massey Wright illustration of 'Rob Roy'.

The link below allows you to view the on-line version of 'The History of the Old Watercolour Scoiety', including the detailed biography of John Massey Wright.

The biography of John Massey Wright, from 'The History of the Old Watercolour Society'

Edwin Meadows' notes on his family have been quoted by kind permission of Roger and Jeff Meadows. The original transcripts appear on their excellent website, 'The Meadows Story'.

The Meadows Story website

For further background reading, the link below takes you to the family website of the Heath family of engravers, who worked with John Massey Wright.

The Heath family of engravers


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