Catalogue entry

N06130 The Bridges Family 1804

Oil on canvas, 53 1/2×72 3/8 (135.9×183.8); the original canvas is made up of two pieces, the join running horizontally across the centre of the picture.
Prov: commissioned by Mr and Mrs George Bridges; their son John William Bridges 1863; his son John George Bridges 1866; his son Lionel Bridges 1898 and sold by him to his uncle, Rear-Admiral Walter Bogue Bridges (younger son of John William) 1910; presented to the Tate Gallery by Mrs Walter Bogue Bridges 1952. Accession No. 6130.
Exh: Leeds 1913 (23); Art Treasures of the West Country, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol 1937 (136).

Lit: D.S. MacColl, ‘Constable as a Portrait-Painter’, The Burlington Magazine, XX, 1912, pp.267–73; Shirley 1937, pp.lxxvi, 26, 34; Anon, ‘John Constable at Lawford Place’, Xylonite Magazine, 106, Sept. 1953, p.9; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Miscellaneous VII(5) No.7; Hoozee 1979, No.27.

George Bridges (1764–1835) of Lawford Place, Essex, is shown with his wife Mary, née Wilson (1767–1863) and their eight children: George Wilson (1788–1863), standing at the left; John William (1795–1866), seated below him; Mary Ann (1790-?) and Jane Monck (1793–1871), seated respectively left and right at the harpsichord or piano; Elizabeth Ann (1799–1858), showing a book to Frances Maria Yale (1800–15); Sarah Ann (1797–1820), reaching out to the baby, Ann (1803–31). The group is depicted in what was probably the drawing-room of Lawford Place, which Bridges had built about 1790.1 Lawford church is seen through the window.

George Bridges was a banker and merchant of some standing in Essex and Suffolk.2 In 1790 he and John Marratt of Dedham founded the Manningtree and Mistley Bank, and in 1799 the Hadleigh Bank in Suffolk.3 From 1812 to 1815 Bridges also had an interest in Cox's Harwich Bank.4 His father, George Bridges the elder, lent his name to these ventures until his death in 1800 but his main occupation was as a merchant at Mistley, the port on the Stour estuary from which Constable's father and other local merchants shipped their cargoes to and from London. By 1800 Bridges the elder and his son had built up an extensive business in ‘buying & Selling all sorts of Corn & Grain Deals & Iron’, according to the draft articles of the co-partnership to which they admitted George Elmer5 that year. Further articles drawn up in 1804 between George Bridges the younger and Elmer mention in addition the manufacture of malt, salt and lime, and indicate that their activities had spread as far as Sudbury. The firm of Bridges and Elmer must have prospered because in 1811 it took a twenty-one year lease at £1,400 per annum on the whole port of Mistley.6 One of the ‘tenants at will’ who was taken over in this transaction was Golding Constable, the artist's father, who rented granaries and a coalyard at Mistley. The younger Bridges' banking and mercantile concerns, however, appear to have suffered a considerable set-back in the depression that followed the end of the war with France. The Bridges, Elmer and Howlett partnership (as it had by then become) was dissolved on Christmas day 1815 and the Manningtree and Mistley Bank was taken over by Alexander & Co. of Ipswich the same year.

The identification of the sitters in No.1 is made in family papers now in the possession of Mrs E.F. Gundry. These also supply information about the date of the painting. Wishing to document the authorship of the picture, John G. Bridges obtained in 1867 the following declaration from his aunts Mary Ann Bridges (Mrs Evans) and Jane Monck Bridges (Mrs Bliss), who figure in the painting as the two girls at the keyboard: ‘We can well testify, that the Picture representing the Family of our Father the late George Bridges Esqr of Lawford Essex now in your possession was painted there by the late John Constable Esqr, R.A. about the year 1804’. This is the date one would expect, since Ann Bridges, born in 1803, looks about a year old in the picture. With their joint declaration the two aunts also sent J.G.Bridges their individual recollections of the period, from which it is clear that ‘about the year 1804’ was an agreed compromise. Mrs Evans wrote: ‘I think it was the winter of 1805 - & 6, that Mr. Constable painted the picture, in the dining room of our dear old home at Lawford he was staying with us the whole time - your aunt Ellicombe [Ann Bridges, later Mrs Ellacombe] was the baby of about a year old’. Mrs Evans was obviously under the impression that Ann was born later than 1803. Her sister, Mrs Bliss, remembered Ann's birth-date more accurately, telling J.G.Bridges that the sittings ‘mighthave been in 1803-as Ann was born in Apl-and she is the baby but MrC. was in our house for weeks doing it- I rememberthat he had done not long before a full length portrait of a Mrs Gubbins a handsome woman if any one knows anything about that the same memorandums in any journal of MrC.'s might also note our picture’.7

Mrs Evans thought the portrait was painted in the dining-room at Lawford, but J.G.Bridges was probably more accurate when, in a letter to F.M.Nichols in 1891, he said it was done in the drawingroom. In the same letter Bridges wrote: ‘John Constable was a great Friend of the Family at that time & as I have often heard my Father [the younger of the two boys in the picture] say spent much time at Lawford Place’. D.S.MacColl, who in 1912 first published the portrait and some of the documents quoted above, reported a family tradition that ‘Constable showed an admiration for one of his sitters, the lady at the spinet or early pianoforte, and that his visits were in consequence discouraged’. A similar story, communicated by a more recent member of the family, appeared in Xylonite Magazine in 1953, Lawford Place being at that time the British Xylonite Plastics Research Station.

As fellow merchants at Mistley, Golding Constable and George Bridges the younger would have come into frequent contact with each other, and Golding's son was no doubt the obvious choice of artist when Bridges decided to celebrate his flourishing family in a group portrait. Whether or not Constable's visits to Lawford were subsequently discontinued for the reason given by MacColl, relations between the two families were probably never very close, the Bridges aspiring to an altogether more fashionable life than the Constables. Only two references to the Bridges family have been found in the Constable correspondence and both point up the social difference. On 18 January 1811 Constable's mother told her son of ‘a Grand dance at Mr Bridges Lawford on Monday last - upwards of an Hundred invitations - every body in short - but this family - Miss Godfrey and young George opened the Ball -’ (JCC I,p.57). On 31 January 1813 the artist heard from his mother of a call received by his uncle D.P. Watts in London: ‘a Carriage had drawn up to his door with - loud raps - 3 Cards - left - Viz. Mr Bridges - Mrs Bridges-Revd G Bridges-33 Corram Street-which He had- returnd - in the same fashionably friendly Way !!! - These are - Customs & Usages - Unpracticed - in [?Humble] Villages’ (JCC I, p.89). The ‘young George’ who opened the ball and the Revd G.Bridges were one and the same, i.e. George Wilson Bridges, the eldest son. He went to Jamaica in 1815 as Rector of the Parish of Manchester and was the author of The Annals of Jamaica as well as several pamphlets on the anti-slavery issue.8.

Of the many figure drawings which Constable made during the first decade of the century, only two can be definitely associated with ‘The Bridges Family’: one in the collection of Denys Oppé (Fig. 1, tg 1976 No.42)9 and the other formerly in the Gregory Collection (Fig.2).10 Although it includes a view of a church through a window, a similar drawing in the British Museum (1908-2-29-1) is probably not related to No.1 since the girls shown in it appear rather older and the harpsichord or piano is different in design.

As well as being one of Constable's earliest portraits, ‘The Bridges Family’ is probably the largest he ever undertook (copies apart) and also one of the few group portraits by him. On 1 June 1804 he told Farington that he had been painting portraits of Suffolk farmers and their families for two or three guineas, according to size, but there appears to be no record of his presumably larger fee for ‘The Bridges Family’.

1. An inscription by one of George Bridges' grandsons on a vestment chest in Lawford church reads: ‘This chest was made from planks sawn out of an enormous oak felled during the building of Lawford Place...about the year 1790’ (information from Lt. Col. C.Attfield Brooks).

2. Unless otherwise indicated, the details of Bridges' banking and mercantile activities given in this entry are drawn from Essex Record Office d/dhw bio, a collection of fourteen documents which are not separately numbered, and from d/dhw bioa, an annotated synopsis of these documents made by Barclays Bank in 1963. In 1896 Barclays took over Alexander & Co. of Ipswich, which had earlier taken over the Bridges' banks.

3. The Ipswich Journal of 21 December 1799 carried an announcement of the opening of the bank.

4. According to the synopsis mentioned in note 2. From Barclays Bank archives at 54 Lombard Street it appears that a partnership was formed on 18 April 1812 between George Bridges, Peter Godfrey of East Bergholt and Anthony Cox of Harwich (Manningtree Deeds,‘Abstract of Title of George Bridges...’ drawn up by Ambrose of Manningtree 1816, folio 12). The Godfreys of Old Hall, East Bergholt were valuable supporters of John Constable.

5. Constable painted a portrait of ‘Old Mr Elmer’, who died in March 1811: see JCC I, p.60. Presumably he was George Elmer's father. The portrait is now in a private collection.

6. Essex Record Office T/P 64/9.

7. No portrait by Constable of his aunt Mary Gubbins is known today, and his half-length portrait of his cousin Miss Ann Gubbins (Hoozee 1979, No.64) can hardly be the one Mrs Bliss had in mind.

8. The Revd. George Wilson Bridges also wrote a curious manuscript account of himself entitled ‘1833–1862. Outlines and Notes of 29 years.’ (Coll. Mrs E.F.Gundry). Reading at times like a novel by Wilkie Collins, this document describes the mysterious disappearance of Bridges' wife in 1834 and his gradual unravelling of what he claims was a conspiracy by her aunt and others to separate them. After another misfortune in 1836, the death by drowning of his four daughters, the Revd Bridges left Jamaica and lived in various countries before finally setting in England in 1852.

9. Pencil, 9×7 3/8 (22.9×18.8).

10. Pencil, 9 1/4×5 3/4 (23.5×14.6); sold Sotheby's 20 July 1949 (69, as ‘Jesse Harden and her children at the piano’).

Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981