Catalogue entry

T03431 JAMES BELCHER, BARE-KNUCKLE CHAMPION OF ENGLAND ? 1803

Oil on canvas 35 5/8 × 27 5/8 (906 × 702)
Bequeathed by Mrs F. Ambrose Clark from the collection of the late F. Ambrose Clark through the British Sporting Art Trust 1982
Prov: Commissioned by Charles Slingsby Duncombe; by descent to Richard Slingsby Peirse Duncombe, by whom sold Christie's 18 December 1953 (37), bt Agnew, from whom purchased by E.J. Rousuck of Wildenstein, New York; F. Ambrose Clark by 1958; his widow Mrs F. Ambrose Clark
Exh: Tate Gallery, August–September 1982, and York City Art Gallery, March–September 1984, with other paintings from Mrs F. Ambrose Clark's Bequest (no catalogue)
Lit: [E.J. Rousuck], The F. Ambrose Clark Collection of Sporting Paintings, privately printed, New York 1958, p.162, repr. pp.6 (in col.) and 163; Aubrey Noakes, Ben Marshall, Leigh-on-Sea 1978, p.35, no.59.

James (‘Jem’) Belcher, bare-knuckle champion of England from 1800 to 1803, was ‘as well-known to his own generation as Pitt or Wellington’ (anon., quoted in DNB, Supplement, XXII, 1909, p.165). He was born in Bristol on 15 April 1781; his maternal grandfather was the noted pugilist Jack Slack (d.1778). Apparently self-taught as a boxer, Belcher came to London in 1798 and sparred with Bill Warr of Covent Garden, a veteran boxer. Belcher's first important prize-fight was on 12 April 1799, a few days before his eighteenth birthday, when he beat Tom Jones of Paddington at Wormwood Scrubs; the following year he beat Jack Batholomew on Finchley Common. There were in this period no permanent or officially-controlled prize rings. Fights were staged wherever their backers could arrange them, and were fought with bare knuckles; since a round ended when one or other pugilist fell to the ground, fights sometimes went into seventy or eighty rounds. The first acknowledged bare-knuckle champion was John Figg, in 1719, the succession thereafter going to the next successful contender for the title.

On 22 December 1800, near Abershaw's gibbet on Wimbledon Common, Belcher won the championship by defeating Andrew Gamble in five rounds. He defended it successfully over the next three years. In July 1803 Belcher lost an eye in an accident when playing at rackets, and went into semi-retirement keeping the Jolly Brewers tavern in Wardour Street, the championship being assumed by his pupil Hen Pearce (‘the Bristol game-chicken’). Despite Belcher's handicap, he continued to fight, displaying all his old courage, but not his old skill or form. He challenged Hen Pearce for the championship on Barnby Moor, on 16 December 1805, but was defeated after eighteen rounds. The championship passed on Pearce's death to John Gully, and then to Tom Cribb, whom Belcher twice unsuccessfully challenged, in two heroic fights, the first of forty-one rounds on 8 April 1807, and the second - Belcher's last fight - of thirty-one rounds on 1 February 1807.

According to Pierce Egan, his contemporary, Belcher was about five feet eleven and a half inches in height; he weighed just under twelve stone. Marshall's portrait bears out Egan's description of Belcher as having ‘a prepossessing appearance, genteel, and remarkably placid in his behaviour. There was nothing about his person that indicated bodily strength; yet, when stripped, his form was muscular and elegant’. His style in the ring was ‘completely intuitive’, his manner ‘good natured in the extreme, and modest and unassuming to a degree bordering upon bashfulness’. Egan concludes that ‘Belcher's bottom, judgment and activity have never been surpassed’ (Boxiana, I, 1812, pp.120–2, with a head and shoulders portrait facing p.120).

After his last fight, however, Belcher became morose, and was deserted by his old backers. In the words of the Gentleman's Magazine (1811, ii, p.194), he ‘fell a martyr to his indiscretions’, presumably drink. By this time he owned the Coach and Horses tavern in Frith Street, Soho; he died there on 30 July 1811, in his thirty-first year. He is commemorated in the English language by the word ‘belcher’, used to denote a neckerchief such as he wears in Marshall's portrait, with large white spots on a blue ground and a dark blue spot or eye in the centre (OED, sometimes applied to any particoloured handkerchief worn round the neck).

Several facts suggest a date between July and September 1803 for this portrait. According to Christie's 1953 sale catalogue, the portrait was commissioned ‘when the Artist lived in Beaumont Street’; as Honorary Exhibitor to the RA, Marshall gave his address as Beaumont Street between 1801 and 1810. Since Belcher's left eye appears to be sightless, the portrait was probably painted after the loss of his eye in July 1803; Charles Slingsby Duncombe who commissioned it died on 11 September 1803. Finally, the dog portrayed with Belcher is almost certainly Trusty, a celebrated bull-terrier given to Belcher by his patron Thomas Pitt, 2nd Lord Camelford, before the latter's death in March 1804, Camelford having reputedly observed that ‘two conquerors ought to reside together’.

Marshall painted ‘gentlemanly’ portraits of at least two other famous pugilists, John Gully and John Jackson; both portraits were engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner (repr. W. Shaw Sparrow, George Stubbs and Ben Marshall, 1929, following p.64).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986