Thomas Frye's portrait of Henry Crispe is distinguished by the artist's fascination with the play of light on the sitter's clothing, the varied textures of his brown coat, white ruffles and richly embroidered waistcoat. In stylistic terms the principal influence upon Frye's portrait was undoubtedly William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose vibrant use of colour, innovative approach to composition, and acute observation of the nuances of gesture and expression are echoed here. The sitter's alert posture and the way in which his left hand caresses the carved leopard head on the arm of the chair are especially reminiscent of Hogarth's 1740 portrait of the mathematician, William Jones (National Portrait Gallery, London), where the artist conveys a sense of the sitter's public status and his sympathy for him as a private individual.

Henry Crispe was born in 1787, the eldest son of the Reverend Henry Crispe, rector of Catton, near York. Sometime after 1698 the family moved south, possibly to London, or to Kent where the Crispes had family connections. At the time of the present portrait he was employed as Registrar of Certificates and Examiner of Debentures at the Custom House, London. Crispe died in 1747, and was buried at Birchington, Kent, where his monument was erected in the Quex chapel. His epitaph records that 'in him was shewn that polite literature and ev'n a poetical genius best form the man of business', attributes which are indicated in this portrait by the presence of the quill and the writing materials on the table.

The full extent of Crispe's poetic ambition is unknown. His only recorded published poem concerns the economic success of Custom House, and is unpromisingly entitled 'On the Honourable Board of Commissioners of Her Majesty's Custom-House London; in the Year of Peace, 1713'. Among those singled out for special mention by Crispe is the poet Matthew Prior (1664-1721) who in 1711 was made a commissioner of customs. It is, therefore, tempting to speculate whether Prior's dual career as poet and emissary for British trade may have inspired Crispe's own more modest poetic excursions.

The picture is in its original frame, which is in turn surmounted by a cartouche containing Crispe's coat-of-arms. According to the College of Arms the cartouche displays the quartered arms of Henry Crispe, impaling those of his wife Mary, daughter of James Rawlinson of Hereford. It may also be significant that the leopard head that appears in the fourth quarter of Crispe's coat-of-arms, also appears on the carved arm of the chair in Frye's painting.

Further reading:

Michael Wynne, 'Thomas Frye Reviewed', Burlington Magazine, October 1982, p.627, Appendix, no. 6
Brian P. Kennedy, Irish Painting, Dublin 1993, p.12, pp.50-51, reproduced in colour

Martin Postle
October 2000