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Your questions answered

With our panel of experts Jayne Shrimpton, David Frost, Mary Evans, Emma Jolly, Mike Sharpe and Tim Lovering


Seeking a Georgian ancestor

Q I wonder whether someone can help in finding the elusive John Partridge Purnell. He was born and baptised in Bristol in 1806 to John Purnell and Susanna née Leman. John Purnell was an insurer of slave ships but died in 1811 when falling from a window of the top floor of the Georgian crescent that he had been building. The only other record I have of JPP is this picture. He was one of six children; one of his sisters died in infancy; of the other four, two emigrated to Canada: Catherine (1804-99) who married Agnew Patrick Farrell, and Charles David (1810-91), who lived in Cayuga near Lake Erie. Two remained in the UK: Anne Leman Purnell (1798-1867) never married and lived in Shirehampton, Bristol; Elizabeth (1800-85) married a naval man, William Summers, and lived in Tenby. I have found no relevant record in the censuses and parish records so far. Does the portrait help in determining John Partridge Purnell’s age, status and location? David Fear

A It is wonderful to have this pictorial heirloom of one of your ancestors, even though he is otherwise proving elusive and hard to find among the written records. This portrait is an original artwork created before the popular medium of photography became established and it appears to be a competent watercolour painting on paper. There seems no reason to query your assertion that the subject is John Partridge Purnell, b1806, who would have been a young man when this likeness originated.

What does the clothing tell us?

The evidence of dress suggests a date between the mid-1820s and late-1830s, or thereabouts. His attire comprises a smart coat – either a tail coat or frock coat, fashionably double-breasted, and the collar worn high at the back of the neck. His starched shirt collar is also raised, the points resting on his jaw in typical early-19th century style. Men’s wear could still be bold at this date and his necktie is probably of bright-coloured silk, while his hair is tousled, in keeping with the Romantic aesthetic of the time.

Who was the artist?

While this could possibly be a professional portrait commissioned specially by JPP from a commercial artist, considering its unframed state and also the watercolour medium – sketchier and quicker to execute than formal oil portraits on canvas – it seems more likely to be the work of a keen amateur artist. Unfortunately, most portrait artists failed to sign their work and there is no indication of who painted this likeness, but conceivably they were a close friend or family member.

Middle- and upper-class girls and some boys took lessons from the drawing master, learning to sketch and paint as part of a genteel education, often continuing with their art as a hobby. Typically they honed their skills by portraying those around them, so perhaps it was one of JPP’s sisters who sketched this attractive watercolour portrait; alternatively, if he was skilled with a paintbrush, it could even be a self-portrait. Another possibility is that your ancestor carried out work (whatever his profession was) for a client who was an artist and who recompensed JPP for his services, by arrangement, in the form of a painting.

Clues to his standing in life

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Soon the Last Post will sound as we commemorate the Armistice of 1918, a century ago. If you'd like to find out, or discover more, about your ancestor's time during the First World War - look no further. Our November issue is a First World War centenary commemorative issue, packed with information and advice about the records and the medals of First World War people. Have a read, do some research, and then, this year on Remembrance Sunday you'll be able to say that you truly have remembered them.