National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 20, 1972

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Portraits of a Young Hero: 
Two Versions of Robert Field's 
"Portrait of Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis"

by Barry Lord  

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  


1 Henry Piers, Robert Field: Portrait Painter in Oils, Miniature and Water-Colours and Engraver (New York: Frederic Fairchild Sherman, 1927), pp. 128, 129, cat. no. xxv. We are told that the portrait was "bought as one of' Admiral Harper' at a sale in England in 1917, with a box marked 'Commander Geo. Harper, R.N.' It was therefore supposed that George Harper was the sitter's name; but he was of later generation and never rose to flag-rank." It was equally an assumption that the sitter's name should be Harper at all. Nonetheless, Piers proposes that the sitter must be Commander John Harper, who was of flag-rank in 1813, and concludes by remarking that "George Harper was doubtless his son."

2 R. H. Hubbard, The National Gallery of Canada Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), vol. III, Canadian School, p. 82 (5057). Here Piers's shaky hypothesis is formalized as "ex coll: Commander George Harper (sale, 1917)."

3 Piers, loc. cit. Piers admits that the painting "portrays a very handsome young officer in frock or undress uniform, with fall-down collar and blue labels. Only one epaulette is shown, although a commander then wore two." Field was hardly a painter to flatter a sitter by dropping twenty-odd years from his age, as inspection of the rest of his cool, analytical oeuvre bears out; nor is it likely that the Commander himself tore off one of his lapels before sitting for Field.

As for Harper's whereabouts in 1813, the National Gallery's catalogue (loc. cit., n. 2) says "at Halifax," repeating Harper's itinerary according to Piers. Piers had referred for authority to the obituary for Harper (7 July 1855) in The Times (London) and William Richard O'Byrne's Naval Biographical Dictionary (London: John Murray, 1849), pp. 465, 466. Yet O'Byrne, after describing a notable engagement in the English Channel on 23 September 1812, in which Harper participated, continues: "He next, in the early part of 1813, proceeded to the Adriatic "Piers had followed O'Byrne to this point, but then proceeds to say, instead, "He must have been at Halifax on a special mission when the portrait was painted." Nothing in O'Byrne - or in The Times, for that matter - corroborates such an assumption.

I am indebted to Mr E. C. Russell, Executive Officer of the Directorate of History of the Department of National Defence (Canada) for calling my attention to John George Marshall's Royal Navy Biography (Supplement No.3; London: Longman, 1823-1830), pp. 326, 345, ill which there is a detailed account of Harper's service in the period 1812-1813, based on Harper's own letters. According to this account, Harper had been appointed to the command of H. M. S. Saracen in August 1812. On 23 September he led it into the encounter on the English Channel. By February 1813 (pp. 332, 333), Harper and the Saracen were in the Adriatic Sea, and continued in action there, without respite, until 1814 (pp. 333, 343, passim). Any "special mission" to Halifax would have had to take place in January 1813 when Harper must have been provisioning in England for Mediterranean service. Such a mission would have had to involve the Saracen and its company or Harper or both; but there is no record of Harper's being replaced temporarily on the Saracen, or of the Saracen's sailing across the Atlantic in January 1813. Mr Russell, in a letter to me dated 25 January 1966, said that he had confidence in Marshall's facts and that "in this work there is no reference to Harper being at Halifax before 1816."

4 J. G. Brighton, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis, A Memoir (London: Hutchinson and Company, 1892), p. 96. 

5 Barry Lord, "The Finding of the 'Father of the Royal Navy'," The Atlantic Advocate, vol. 58, no.5 (January 1968), pp. 54-56.

6 J. C. Webster, Catalogue of the john Clarence Webster Canadiana Collection (Pictorial Section) New Brunswick Museum (Saint John: The New Brunswick Museum, 1939), cat. no. 1, p. 320 (1776). No date is given for the copy, but Mr Richard Lindo, formerly Curator of Canadian History at the New Brunswick Museum, was kind enough to send me photocopies of four letters to Dr Webster: one from Admiral Phipps-Hornby, Lordington House, Emsworth, Hampshire (dated 15 September 1927); and three from the Reverend A. H. C. Edlin, The Vicarage, Bodicote, Banbury, Oxfordshire (dated 16 September 1927; 26 December 1927; and 5 February 1928). All four letters would indicate that Miss Messer's copying was done in 1928. These letters were not discovered, unfortunately, until after my trip to England. They would certainly have expedited my search for
the missing "original."

7 Piers, op. cit., pp. 141, 142, cat. no. LI11. Here Piers, basing his guess on the proportions of the wood-engraving, even estimates the size of the unknown painting as "30 x 25 or 24 x 20 ins." Both the National Gallery's portrait and the Reverend Edlin's portrait are, in fact, 30 x 25 inches.

8 Brighton, op. cit., pp. 230, 231.

9 A letter to the Admiralty from Viscount Howe, dated 16 September 1776, appoints "Provo Wallis" master shipwright in the Naval Yard at New York. A later request for confirmation of the appointment is dated 9 June 1779, while a note on the back of a later letter, dated 20 June 1779, indicates that there had been a further letter from Lord Howe to the Admiralty dated 13 February 1777 - A certification that "Provo Wallis" had not yet received any salary for his position as master shipwright is dated 30 September 1780, and there is a request by "Provo Wallis" for pay dated 13 October 1780. (MSS ADM / B. P. / 1, 1780, Library, National
Maritime Museum, Greenwich.)

10 The kind cooperation of the Reverend P. A. M. Edlin has been of immeasurable help in only research. His letters to me (dated 19 April 1969 and 6 September 1969) include details of provenance.

Probate of the Will and Codicils of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo William Parry Wallis, G. C. B., dated 26 April 1892 (extracted by Raper, Freeland and Tyacke, Solicitors, Chichester) gives "all my pictures prints...etc." to Dame Jemima Mary Gwyn Wallis, the Admiral's second wife. In case of her death, it reserves annuities in trust to her nephew, the Reverend George Montgon Lery Norris, South Cove, Wang ford, Suffolk.

Dame Wallis died on 28 February 1894, and a letter from her solicitor Sir R. G. Raper (of the firm Raper, Freeland and Tyacke, Solicitors, Chichester), dated 17 August 1894, advises the Reverend Norris of the sale of real estate and "the residue of his [Admiral Wallis'] personal estate," - the rest to be held in trust for the Reverend Norris. There is no specific reference to any of the three paintings in question in any of the legal documents or correspondence concerning bequests.

II Details of the will affecting the National Gallery's portrait as well as the two portraits now in the possession of the Reverend Edlin are given in the previous note. Dame Wallis, the Admiral's second wife, appears to have left an unspecified part of her personal effects to the family of her brother, Sir Belford Hinton Wilson. One of Wilson's sons, Belford Randolph, acted on 13 April 1894 as Dame Wallis' executor. Another of his sons, Robert Belford Wallis, kept the name very much in his family: he called one son Robert Provo Wallis, and he included "Wallis" alone in the names of three others. 

Various living descendants of the Wilson family still own memorabilia connected with the Admiral - for example, a snuff-box which has engraved upon it "Johns to Wallis I Boston Bay I June 1, 1813." Mr Eric Gill, of Sparks and Son at Arundel, recalls that his warehouse once held "a great many paintings" for one of Robert Belford Wallis Wilson's sons, Alleyne Wallis, who sold them all to unspecified dealers about 1920. Descendants of the Wilson family recall, too, that another of Robert Belford Wallis' sons, Belford Alexander Wallis, had a painting sold in London while he was fighting in France from 1916 to 1918. The painting is said to have brought about £ 1300 - but it is thought to have been a portrait of Simon Bolivar. Further research must be done on these paintings, and on material relating to the provenance of the National Gallery's portrait between 1892 (when Brighton saw it in Wallis' home) and its sale in 1917. No reference other than Piers has yet been found for the latter sale.

12 Piers, op. cit., p. 129.

13 J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), p. 100.

14 Harper, op. cit., p. III.

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