William Frederick Yeames Lost Masterpiece ‘Lady Jane Grey in The Tower ‘

Introduction

Between 1794 and 1877, a total of twenty-six paintings depicting scenes from the life of Lady Jane Grey were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.  When looking at the various titles of each painting exhibited, there appears to be a pattern of four significant events in Jane’s life which were prominent themes chosen by artists who opted to promote her story.  Some of these events are, in fact, based on contemporary descriptions from her time, whilst others are steeped in the air of myth which began to surround Jane from the moment of her death. 

The first common scene often depicted is a promotion of Jane’s virtues as an exemplary pupil and her passion for learning. Many of the artists of the paintings based on this scene used the account published by Roger Ascham in 1570 as a source of inspiration.  In this account, Ascham recalls the day on which he encountered Jane alone at Bradgate Park, engrossed in Plato whilst the rest of her family were out hunting. The Victorian myth that both Jane and King Edward VI were educated together and were in fact childhood sweethearts is also depicted within this group of paintings. 

The second common theme is Jane’s initial refusal of the crown. Again, this is based on true events that took place at Syon House and were described by Jane herself in a letter to Queen Mary written during her imprisonment, after she lost her crown in 1553.  The final two common events are a promotion of Jane’s role as a martyr and innocent victim, either when imprisoned in the Tower of London or her final moments on the scaffold.

Of the twenty- six paintings exhibited, a total of nine depicted scenes were from Lady Jane Grey’s imprisonment in The Tower of London between 19th July 1553 and 12th February 1554.

In this article I intend to look at one of the more famous of these paintings, exhibited at the Royal Academy by William Frederick Yeames in 1868.  Until recently, the original painting was thought to have been lost to the sands of time, however as discussed later in this article, an interesting email from a viewer of this website brought some fascinating news to my attention.

When first exhibited, the painting entitled ‘Lady Jane Grey in the Tower’ received excellent reviews from observer’s who had visited the exhibition, with some reporting that

‘Mr. Yeames “Lady Jane Grey in the Tower,” is perhaps the best picture this young and hard-working artist has yet elaborated.’[1]

‘In 1868 was exhibited the picture which I should rank as the painter’s masterpiece thus far, ‘Lady Jane Grey in the Tower,’ wearily but gently listening to the exhortations of Feckenham, Abbot of Westminster. Of all the Lady Jane English painting’s, I know of none at once so touching and so true to historical character at this of Mr Yeames.’[2]

‘The little Jane is thoroughly well conceived and better executed by Mr Yeames than by Queen Mary’s executioner’[3]

William Frederick Yeames circa 1884
Joseph Parkin Mayall
© Public Domain

William Frederick Yeames was born in Russia on 18th December 1835, fourth son of William Yeames, a British consul in Taganrog and his wife Eliza Mary Henley.  On his father’s death in 1842, he attended a school in Dresden, and he began to study painting. By 1848, Yeames had moved to England where he studied anatomy and composition under George Scharf. He also visited Florence and Rome to continue his development in life studies, landscapes, and the old masters, eventually returning to England in 1858 and setting up his studio in Park Place, London.   In 1859, Yeames exhibited his first painting into the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and he was eventually made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1866.  Yeames continued to exhibit paintings within the annual exhibition and themed most of his subjects around historical events from British history. He along with other artists formed an artistic circle known today as the ‘St John’s Wood Clique.’ All enjoyed visiting historic houses, including Hever Castle in Kent and would often spend time sketching and painting interiors which would eventually appear as backdrops for their historically themed paintings.  Yeames died on 3rd May 1918, leaving behind a large portfolio of work inspired by some of the most prominent characters in English History. [4]

Setting The scene

The original painting displayed in the 1868 exhibition has not been seen or studied by any art or history academic.  Today, it is only known through the original exhibition catalogue entry and the small preparatory painting produced by Yeames which is now in the collection of Weston Park Museum, Sheffield.  Images of his preparatory painting have appeared in numerous publications over the years and this smaller version was initially in the collection of businessman and collector John Newton Mappin (1800-1883).  On his death, Mappin bequeathed a total of one hundred and fifty-four paintings representing many of the leading artists of the day to the Weston Park Museum. He also left the huge sum of fifteen thousand pounds for a Gallery to be built so that his collection of paintings could be viewed by the public. The Mappin Gallery eventually opened to the public on 27th July 1887 and Yeames preparatory painting for ‘Lady Jane Grey in the Tower’ as well as the rest of his collection could be viewed and admired for generations. [5]

Lady Jane Grey in The Tower Preparatory Painting
William Frederick Yeames
1867
Oil on Canvas
11×17 inches
© Sheffield Museums

The preparatory painting (above) produced by Yeames does provide some clues as to the exact scene depicted in the completed painting exhibited in 1868.  This version is signed and dated by the artist to 1867 and shows Yeames workings of the composition.  The exact event which he opted to depict is when Lady Jane Grey was visited by John Feckenham, Queen Mary’s personal chaplain, on 8th February 1554.  By this point in her story, Jane had faced trial and had been convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor for accepting the crown and signing herself as queen. Mary was prevented from issuing Jane with a pardon because the Spanish demanded that Jane die as a condition of the marriage between Mary and Philip of Spain. 

Mary was unable to save Jane’s life, however she did attempt to save her immortal soul, and she sent Feckenham to see Jane with that specific task, to try and convert her to Catholicism prior to her death. Jane’s execution was postponed for three days, and a debate was held between Feckenham and Jane which resulted in Jane staying strong to the Protestant faith rather than relinquishing it.  This famous debate was apparently recorded and signed by Jane’s own hand, however unfortunately the original document no-longer survives today.  The original documentation does appear to have been smuggled out of the Tower of London as within months of Jane’s death, it began to appear in printed format and was used to promote Jane’s strong belief in the Protestant faith.

The popular tradition of Queen Mary offering Jane a pardon if she was willing to convert to Roman Catholicism began to emerge shortly after Jane’s death.  In 1615, a pamphlet entitled ‘The Life, Death and Actions of The Most Chaste, Learned and Religious Lady, The Lady Jane Grey’ was published in London. This pamphlet again contained a copy of the earlier printed debate, and it was noted in the introduction that:

Even those which were of the best fame and reputation, were sent unto her to dissuade her from that true profession of the gospel, which from her cradle she had held. Each striving by art, by flattery, by threatening’s, by the promise of life, or what else might move most in the bosom of a weak woman.

There is no surviving contemporary evidence to prove that Jane was ever offered an actual pardon if she would convert, but as discussed above there was indeed an effort made to encourage her to convert to what Mary thought was the true religion and save her soul.

The preparatory painting also informs us that Yeames appears to have made every effort to try and keep his composition as accurate as possible.  In this version of the painting, his image of Jane is heavily based on the Wrest Park portrait which was once thought to be a contemporary portrait and was widely reproduced to illustrate Jane during the nineteenth century. Yeames does appear to have altered the facial composition slightly from the original portrait in an attempt to make the sitter in his version look closer to Jane’s actual age at the time of her death. 

The Wrest Park Portrait
Previously Identified as Lady Jane Grey
© Private Collection

The preparatory painting depicts Jane placed within a furnished room with a fire along with her books and writing paper which were objects often associated with her iconography. The myth that Jane was imprisoned in an empty prison cell was often portrayed by other artists of the nineteenth century. Although we have very little in terms of historical documentation to inform us what Jane’s life was like during her imprisonment.  The author of the sixteenth century manuscript ‘Chronicles of Queen Jane’ does provide us some signs as to her circumstances when in the Tower of London.  The writer informs us that Jane was imprisoned on the top floor of the house of Nathaniel Partridge, she was allowed at least three of her gentlewomen and a man servant. As a cousin of the Queen and a prisoner of high status, Jane would certainly have had some level of comfort during her imprisonment and Yeames has certainly captured this well in his image.

Yeames does appear to have followed the myth that Feckenham was an aged man at the time he met Jane.  John Howman or John Feckenham as he is better known was born in Feckenham, Worcestershire.  Though his exact date of birth is unrecorded it is traditionally thought to have been around 1515.  Initially educated by the parish priests he eventually received an education as a Benediction student at Gloucester Hall, Oxford.  Feckenham spent a lifetime in and out of imprisonment for his religious beliefs, however, he was described by a peer of the day as a ‘gentle person’. He was eventually freed from the Tower of London by Queen Mary in 1553, and he became personal chaplain and confessor to the Queen, and eventually Abbot of Westminster.  Feckenham died, once again in captivity in 1584.[6] 

If Feckenham had been born around 1515 as traditionally thought, then he would have been in his early forties at the time of meeting Jane rather than the man of a mature age who is portrayed in the preparatory painting and is so often depicted by other artists in visual depictions of Jane’s story.

Conclusion

In early 2020, I began to publish images alongside basic information on this website concerning the many paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy inspired by the life of Lady Jane Grey. One of the main reasons for doing this was firstly, to have a platform to record all the information currently known regarding each painting.  And to secondly, create awareness of these paintings, in the hope of some of the lost paintings finally resurfacing so they can be studied and seen.  

In 2021, I received an email from a follower of this site, asking several questions regarding the preparatory painting produced by Yeames and the dimensions of the painting listed under his name on my website.  I immediately responded, informing them that, unfortunately, the dimensions listed are for the preparatory painting as Yeames completed work had not been seen since the 1868 exhibition. The response I received greatly interested me and on opening the attachment I was surprised to see the long-lost completed painting of ‘Lady Jane Grey in The Tower’ by William Frederick Yeames staring right back at me. During several further emails, the current owner reported that he was unfortunately unable to give much information regarding the provenance of the painting, however, he did report that he had inherited the painting from his parents, who had purchased it from a gallery in Blakedown, Worcestershire in the 1970’s.  He also recalled a story in which his parents took the painting along to the BBC Antiques Roadshow in the 1980’s, however, the subject of the painting was deemed too depressing to be seen on television.[7]

Lady Jane Grey in The Tower
1868
William Frederick Yeames
Oil on Canvas
35×61 inches
© Private Collection

Unfortunately, for the moment we do appear to be missing that smoking gun to be able to determine if indeed the above painting was the final painting exhibited by Yeames in 1868 or another preparatory work.  No dimensions of the final version were listed in the exhibition catalogue, and unfortunately the only reference to its actual size is a comment from 1903, noting that the completed image was ‘bigger than the preparatory painting’[8].  The artists signature and date of 1868 can clearly be seen in the bottom right-hand corner of the above image provided and this second version is considerably larger than the preparatory painting, which certainly suggests that this was indeed the final version exhibited at the Royal Academy. 

Detail Image showing Yeames signature and date

There does appear to be some major adjustments made to the background and figure of Jane, when compared to the preparatory painting. However, Yeames certainly spent a lot of time and effort in working out the composition of his final image and this is to be expected when comparing preliminary drawings to final compositions.

During a search of the auction records, I was able to track one previous owner of either this version or the preparatory painting. On 9th July 1875, an auction took place at Christie, Manson and Woods, London.  The sale lasted two days and consisted of 280 lots belonging to the recently deceased W.E.J Roffey, Esq of Bloomsbury Square, London. Roffey was an avid picture collector, acquiring a large collection of paintings produced by modern artists of the day, particularly those who had exhibited within the Royal Academy exhibition. Listed among the 280 lots are four works by William Frederick Yeames, including

‘Item 237 W. F. Yeames, ARA, 1867 – Lady Jane Grey in the Tower – Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1868’[9]

Item 237, sold for twenty-seven pounds, however, once again the important factor of measurements is missing from the catalogue.  The catalogue does state that this was the version exhibited in the 1868 exhibition, however the date of 1867 printed next to the artists name does raise the question as to whether this could possibly be the preparatory painting which we do know was indeed dated to 1867. 

Further research does need to take place to locate more information regarding the provenance of this newly surfaced version of Lady Jane Grey in The Tower.  And, to try and establish if indeed the painting sold in 1875 was the final version or the preparatory painting, possibly purchased by John Newton Mappin for his collection.  I would like to convey my thanks to the current owner of this painting for giving me the opportunity to see his version and publish it in this article on the missing Yeames painting so it can be seen by others with an interest in Jane.  This second version is truly beautiful, and I for one, can now see why Yeames received so much praise for this work when it was exhibited.  

I do hope to be able to fill some of these missing gaps and unanswered questions during future trips to the archives so please keep an eye out for further updates on this work.  


[1] Burk. Emily, The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home & Abroad for The Year 1868, page 317

[2] Hamerton. Philip, The Portfolio an Artistic Periodical, 1871, page 83

[3] Thomas. Alfred & Lewis. Leopold, The Mask, Volume I, 1868, page 133

[4] Meynell. Wilfred, The Modern School of Art, W.R Howell & Company, 1886, vol I, page 206- 215

[5]City of Sheffield, Mappin Art Gallery Catalogue of the Permanent Collection and Other Works of Art, 1903, Page vi-viii

[6] Fuller. Thomas, The History of the Worthies of England, 1840, vol 3, page 375-376

[7] Email communication between author and owner, 2021-2022

[8] City of Sheffield, Mappin Art Gallery Catalogue of the Permanent Collection and Other Works of Art, 1903, Page 15

[9]Christie, Manson & Woods, Modern Pictures, 9th July 1875, page 24

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