Joseph Sutton (1762-1843)
Background and Education
Joseph Sutton was a successful portrait painter whose work was in great demand among Cumberland’s aristocracy and gentry. He was born on 28 December 1762 in Cockermouth. His father Benjamin Sutton (1734-1786), a Quaker from Tarraby, near Carlisle, was a skinner and shoemaker. His mother Mary (b.1835) was a sister of Joseph Faulder (1730-1816), a painter, teacher and mathematician, who was also a Quaker and a mentor to the young Sutton. Sutton remained a Quaker all his life even though art making and art collecting were frowned upon in Quaker society in his time. It was Faulder who encouraged Joseph Sutton to enrol at the Royal Academy Schools at the mature age of 36.
Sutton had the good fortune of studying at the Royal Academy from 1798 to 1801, towards the latter part of the golden age of portrait painting in England and during the rise of Thomas (later Sir Thomas) Lawrence (1769-1830). Mentions of Sutton’s work during his time at the RA can be found in the catalogues of three annual exhibitions. In 1798, he exhibited Portrait of An Artist and two works titled Portrait of a Young Lady in the Society of Quakers, both of unidentified sitters. In the following two years he exhibited a Portrait of a gentleman and a Portrait of Miss Hoskins.
Life and Work at Rogerscale
Joseph Sutton’s standing as a painter would have been much enhanced by his training at the Royal Academy. A few years after his return from London, in 1803 Sutton married Ann Winder (1763-1835), a woman of independent means, in a Quaker ceremony at Cockermouth. She was the daughter of Judah Winder (1706-1776), yeoman of Rogerscale and his wife Elizabeth Dickinson (1734-1781). Joseph and Ann then settled at Rogerscale near Cockermouth for the rest of their lives. In 1822, he extended the farm dwelling on his property by building an adjoining painting house for himself and his apprentices. Their only child William died in infancy in 1805 and Ann Sutton predeceased her husband in 1836.
Portrait painting was a flourishing genre in the Georgian era. The new wealth flowing from the profits of the East India Company, the slave trade and labour on the plantations in the West Indies financed more luxurious ways of life. It was a matter of prestige for the prosperous members of society to display works of art and family portraits in their homes. The most celebrated artists could command very high fees. In the later part of the 18th century a portrait commission could cost between 30 and 100 guineas depending on the standing of the artist and the size of the painting. These figures were far above Joseph Sutton’s fees in Cumberland. In a letter to Lord Muncaster in 1812, Sutton stated that he had only rated his labour at about the wages of a clerk of the middling class. In an account he submitted the following year he charged three guineas per portrait.
Notable patrons, portraits and other paintings
Sutton had many commissions from the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle beginning with Lord Muncaster (1740-1813). His portrait by Sutton shows a man of substance and dignity. He holds a manuscript in his hand which alludes to his authorship of Historical sketches of the slave trade, and of its effects in Africa. Addressed to the people of Great Britain (1792), a book which was a recognised source for the abolitionists. An open sky and a view of his land and the fells beyond provides added interest in the background.
The Great Picture, a very large painting on display in the library in the castle, is a portrait of Lord Muncaster and his two daughters. It shows a much older man standing with his right hand raised in a dramatic pose. His wife Penelope Compton, Lady Muncaster (1744-1806) had died, but his elder daughter Ann Jane Penelope Pennington (b.c.1780) is standing next to him. Their younger daughter Maria Margaret Frances Pennington (1783-1850), who married James Lindsay (1783-1869), sits to his right holding a miniature of her brother, who died in infancy. The painting conveys a sense of dramatic grandeur but its characters look frozen in time. Lord Muncaster’s black dress indicates that he is in mourning after his wife’s accidental death in 1806, while canvassing for him in the general elections. His declamatory gesture may be drawing attention to his achievement in rebuilding the castle or to hint at his involvement in political discourse. The picture was completed posthumously in 1813.
A later portrait dated 1823 depicts the Revd Lancaster Dodgson MA (1763/4-1828), a curate of Embleton and Loweswater and later vicar of Brough, Westmorland, was sold at Christie’s auction in 1992. It depicts him seated at a table in a black coat and a white cravat holding an open book; it clearly conveys that he was a man of learning.
Joseph Sutton was mainly known as a portrait painter, but he worked in other genres. His accounts for Lord Muncaster mention sea battle scenes that cost him 218 days of labour. The copies of portraits of historical personages by Anthony van Dyck that Sutton painted for the Muncaster family included the popular portrait of Charles I in Three Positions. A number of paintings of horses, dogs and cattle in local country settings in the collection at Mirehouse, the seat of the Speddings, are attributed to Sutton. They show that he was also fluent in that genre.
Very few landscapes are mentioned in the sources. The view entitled Armathwaite Hall and Bassenthwaite Lake is at Hutton-in-the Forest. The owners, the Vane family of Hutton also commissioned from Sutton copies of the portraits of their ancestors. The remains of a mural in a house at Rogerscale reportedly depicted scenes of Loweswater and the Scale Force waterfall.
Further fine portraits of the prominent Bell family are in a private collection. These include portrits of Eliza Bell (1783-1839), the wife of John Bell (1774-1849), a founder of the Pharmaceutical Society, and another canvas of her daughters, Eliza and Ann Bell. A portrait of Jeremiah Spencer of South Lodge, Cockermouth (1789-1865) in the same collection is dated 1832. A map of the world spread on the sitter’s knees hints at his wife’s birth in the West Indies. She was Lydia Yeates (1798-1837) and was born in Antigua, almost certainly of mixed heritage. Their daughter Mary Ann married James Bell (1818-1872), later James Spencer-Bell MP, who commissioned Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) to design Fawe Park on Derwentwater in 1856. The sources also mention a remarkable portrait of Betty Fletcher, the landlady of the King’s Arms, Cockermouth, painted when Sutton was in his 80th year.
Exhibitions in Carlisle and Whitehaven
Sutton’s output was considerable but only a limited number of his paintings have been traced. Some of them can be located in the reviews of the exhibitions in Carlisle and in Whitehaven which confirm how much Sutton’s work was appreciated by his Cumberland contemporaries.
A report in the Westmorland Gazette about the first exhibition in October 1823 at the Carlisle Academy of Fine Art in Finkle Street mentions two Sutton paintings: A Bacchante and The Sisters. ‘The first (is) after Sir Joshua Reynolds, the face of the celebrated Lady Hamilton; the second is an original production, we believe, and both have merit. Mr Sutton, indeed, may be called the father of Cumberland Art: to him many artists of eminence are indebted for that taste which originally attached them to the pursuit.’
The report of the 1826 Exhibition at the Carlisle Academy mentions some other works by Sutton: A Portrait of Miss Walker, A Portrait of Mrs Sutton, Tarraby and A Portrait of Mr Sutton, Workington. The Exhibition at Whitehaven in the same year included Sutton’s painting after Joshua Reynolds’, Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, a classic allegory which shows the actor David Garrick (1717-1779; ODNB) having to choose between the two muses. The reviewer in the Cumberland Pacquet wrote: ‘An excellent portrait of Garrick, so at least we have been told by those who have seen him - we alas! had never that felicity.’ Though copies and copyists may often be disparaged by critics, this is a good example of the value of both, since via this copy, Sutton was giving access to a prominent London painting in his native West Cumberland.
Sutton’s Will and Estate
Joseph Sutton died at Rogerscale on 17 February 1843 at the age of 81. A brief notice in the Cumberland Pacquet of 28 February 1843 summed-up his life: ‘The deceased obtained much celebrity as an artist, and was deservedly respected by a numerous circle of friends.’ In his will, Sutton left his estate to his surviving nephews and nieces in equal shares. Sutton’s executors were his niece Mary and her husband John Jackson and the residuary account of his estate shows the value of his assets as £1,361.
Sutton was a prolific and successful painter during his long life. His studies at the Royal Academy developed both his artistic skills and his knowledge of European and British art. His portraits, animal paintings and copies of old masters were much in demand in Cumberland among the local aristocracy, gentry and others who could afford them. Sutton’s work inevitably reflected the taste of his patrons. The paintings in Sutton’s possession at his death were put up for auction in Carlisle. They were his own copies of works by famous artists he admired: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Adriaen Van Ostade (1610-1685), David Teniers (1610-1690), Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), George Morland (1763-1804) and his near contemporary David Wilkie (1785-1841).
Towards the end of his life Joseph Sutton was considered the ‘father of Cumberland Art’ by his contemporaries. Among his apprentices was George Sheffield (1800-1852) who became an accomplished artist. Another notable painter Samuel Crosthwaite (1791-1868), was not his apprentice but was influenced by Sutton’s teaching. Among the lesser known of Sutton’s apprentices were T or J Askew (fl. 1789-1848), Robert Hird (late 18th/early 19th c), John Lewthwaite (1806-1866), Robert Taylor (1807- c.1870) and Thomas Scarrow (1810-1848). They later became known collectively as members of the Cockermouth School of Painting.
- Lena Stanley-Clamp, Joseph Sutton: A Quaker Artist in the Lorton Valley, 1762-1843, Lorton & Derwent Fells Local History Society, Wanderer, November 2022
- Mary E. Burkett, Sutton and His Circle, the Cockermouth School of Painting, 1750-1880, 2001
- John Askew, A Guide to Cockermouth with an Account of its Remarkable Men and Local Traditions, 1866
- England & Wales, Quaker Births, Marriages and Deaths Registers
- Catalogues of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions 1798, 1799, 1800, https://chronicle250.com
- Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive, London
- Westmorland Gazette, 18 October 1823
- Carlisle Patriot, 11 November 1826; 1 July 1843
- Cumberland Pacquet, 16 September 1826; 7 March 1843
- Extracts from letters written by Edmund Robinson, late of Whinfell Hall to J.G. Brooker, 1931-1943
- UK register of apprenticeship deeds 1710-1811: Benjamin Sutton in 1764 apprenticed John Sutton as a shoemaker (via Sutton pedigree on ancestry.com)
- Cumbria Archives Service Whitehaven CASW/DWM/764/2/1