Catalogue entry

T00052 Thomas Nuthall and his Friend Hambleton Custańce c. 1748

Oil on canvas 710×915 (28×36)
Bequeathed by Ernest E. Cook through the National Art-Collections Fund 1955
PROVENANCE By family descent from the sitter to Miss Ida Nuthall;...; Ernest E. Cook by 1955
EXHIBITED Francis Hayman, Kenwood 1987 (18, repr.)
LITERATURE DNB 1908, XIV (for Nuthall); Bearsted Collection, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1955 (5); The Bearsted Collection: Pictures, National Trust 1964, p.16, no.38; J.H. Plumb, Georgian Delights, 1980, repr. p.125; Allen 1984, no.170; Allen 1987, pp.43, 97–8, repr.

Two labels in an old hand, formerly on the back of the painting and now in the Tate Gallery Conservation Department, give the sitters as ‘Thomas Nuthall Esq. of New Lodge Enfield Middlesex Solicitor to the Treasury Age 33 Died 1775’ and ‘His friend Hambleton Custon [sic] Esq. Weston House near Norwich Age 33 Died 1757’. If the ages given are correct, this would date the picture to 1748, a date well in keeping both with the appearance of the sitters and with Hayman's style at that period.

Hambleton Custance (1715–57) was a native of Weston, Norfolk, and became High Sheriff of the county in 1753. According to the Bearsted Catalogue (1964) a portrait of him, attributed to Ramsay and formerly at Weston House, agrees in appearance with the man on the left. In April 1748 (Gentleman's Magazine, XVIII, p.187) he married the local heiress Susannah Press (d. 1761), and one is tempted to see in his festive dress and ‘bird-in-hand’ pose the stance of a successful suitor. Their son was the ‘Squire Custance’ of Parson Woodforde's Diary.

On the right (perhaps depicted on this occasion as the unsuccessful suitor, comforted by his dog?) is Thomas Nuthall (1715–75), who in fact remained single until he married his friend's widow in 1757. Solicitor to the East India Company and the Treasury, legal adviser to William Pitt the Elder, he ultimately overreached himself in amassing lucrative official posts and fell from favour in 1772. Walpole maintained that he embezzled £19,000. He was also Ranger of Enfield Chase, which, passionate sportsman that he was, he vainly sought to preserve from disafforestation in the late 1760s. A full-length portrait of him with gun, hound and slain deer, by Nathaniel Dance, of c. 1770, is in the Tate Gallery (T00053, also from the collection of Miss Ida Nuthall) and clearly represents the same man at a more advanced age. On 7 March 1775 Nuthall was attacked on Hounslow Heath by a highwayman whom he put to flight after an exchange of shots. Unharmed, he wrote a description of the robber to Sir John Fielding immediately on arriving at the inn at Hounslow, ‘but had scarce closed his letter, when he suddenly expired’ (Gentleman's Magazine, XLV, 1775, p.148).

Among Hayman's generally fanciful studio settings, this painting is notable for its loving portrayal of a modest country interior, possibly a hunting-box, with its casual assemblage of rush chairs, sturdy table, guns, calendar or map and hunting apparel hanging on the wall, and a tobacco jar on the window-sill - all, whether taken from life or not, combining to evoke a country squire's idyll of a day out shooting with friends.

A similar double portrait by Hayman in the Bearsted Collection is no longer thought to represent the same sitters.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988