Letters from the Past

“William Yellowlees, 1838
a very practical portrait painter.”

            This month’s letter is a surprise.  It was addressed to George Barker Esq.,  Springfield, Birmingham, who was apparently  the leading solicitor in Birmingham at that time.  He lived from 1776-1845, and was a benefactor to Birmingham. The Springfield in the address was the name of his house, and the district beyond it was later named after it.  I found an image of his house, ‘Springfield’, which is now a guest house. (Fig.1)

image of house


            The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography for George Barker notes that:-  “As well as his duties as a solicitor, he devoted a large portion of his time both to scientific pursuits and to benevolent and social enterprises. He exerted himself with great energy to extend the advantages of the General Hospital, where a marble statue stands in recognition of his work. He was one of the chief promoters of the Birmingham musical festivals. He was also the founder of the Birmingham Philosophical Society. From the first he took a special interest in the inventions of Watt and Boulton; and it was chiefly owing to his exertions that an act was obtained for that ‘gigantic absurdity,’ as it was called, ‘the Birmingham railway.’ In recognition of his scientific acquirements he was in 1839 elected a member of the Royal Society.  He was also a coin collector.”
            I have a friend who comes from Birmingham, and she knows about George Barker, and has seen his statue in the hospital. She told me that he apparently wrote letters about the Priestley Riots which took place in Birmingham in 1791 when rioters ran amok and burned several homes of well known Dissenters and members of the Lunar Society.  
            There are only the two postal markings, (Fig.2)

front of letter


first the London evening duty type, which in this case has the code letters  EX at the top,  the day  at both sides of the month 7 AU 7  and the year, 1838, at the bottom of the circle. These evening duty postmarks were applied in the Inland section of the GPO on the outgoing mails. It was a very busy time as from as early as 1756 there were daily mails, (except Sundays) to all parts of the Kingdom and, at the height of the coaching era, 28 coaches left London each night carrying the mails. In 1828, Allen's History of London reported that the business of the evening mails was transacted from 5 to 8 pm, and on a certain day, fortyfour thousand letters were sorted and charged, checked and despatched by 105 persons in 45 minutes. The office had as many divisions as there were distinct Mails. The junior clerks sorted the letters and handed them to their chief clerk, who would check to see if it was single, double, franked, or properly charged if prepaid, and then marked the postage rate to be collected. The letters were then made up into bags, for the respective postmasters, with a list of the total amount charged, sealed, and handed to the guard on the appropriate mail coaches.
            Obviously there was a great variety of these evening duty date stamps during the years 1796 to 1857, and I have a good selection of the different types. This particular type was in use from 1830 to 1840.
            Secondly, the cost of sending the letter, shown by the charge mark, was ‘9’ pence for a distance between 80 and 120 miles -  London to Birmingham was 109 miles - and the cost would have been paid by the addressee.  The letter was sealed in red wax with the writer’s signet ring with the initials W.Y.

            So, now to the very interesting letter about organising some portrait sittings.It would seem that Mr Barker wanted to immortalise himself and his family. I am really surprised at how organised this painter was, as the general perception of artists is one of living in a world apart from the mundane practicalities of life.  (Fig.3)


click here for larger image


“20 Berners Street London,
 7th August 1838

Sir, I feel much obliged and flattered by your letter. On considering the matter, I think I could make it answer to come to Birmingham if only Four Portraits were required, the price of your own portrait was 7 guineas, and I have 8 guineas when I paint from home in London, so that to follow the best plan, that of altogether bearing my own expenses, the Price of the Portraits would necessarily be 10 guineas each – paid in the usual regular way, half price at the commencement – also part of my arrangement would be to come to Birmingham on the first Monday in September, remain only 5 days, and return to London for a week to forward whatever might be going on, return to Birmingham the week after that, when I could at least finish all the sitting part -  take all the pictures to London with me, and after finishing them all within another fortnight, send them back to Birmingham in small deal boxes, as your own was sent.
            For myself, I would merely take a sleeping room at some Inn, to take a lodging fit to paint in would not pay, so that as I have often done, I would paint them all at their own houses, if not too far apart, or some of them might meet me at your own, or each others houses, or any way that you could arrange so that as little time as possible should be lost.” 

            He then gave a personal recommendation for his previous work. (Fig.4)

signature click here for larger image

“So that as little time as possible could be lost, if yourself or any of your friends who happen to know Mr Dawes of Leveretts, near Birmingham, were to call on him, you would see two of my portraits there -  usually, I require 5 or 6 sittings, or if any of your friends that are likely to sit are Ladies, I might for them require 7 sittings – but if the sittings can be made pretty long, two hours or so, then the fewer of course will be required -  I remain
Your most obliged Servt
Wm Yellowlees.”

            William Yellowlees was a portrait painter. He was known during his lifetime as the “little Raeburn”, as he painted in a similar style, but only on small canvases. I could find only one image of him.  This is a small self-portrait which is held under copyright by the National Gallery of Scotland. Born in Scotland in 1796, Yellowlees studied under William Shiels, the animal painter, before moving to London in 1831 where he was appointed cabinet portrait painter to the King’s brother, the Duke of Sussex. Surprisingly, there is no entry for Yellowlees in the Dictionary of National Biography, only a one-line comment that he painted an unsatisfactory portrait of Charlotte Waldie in 1824, and this picture was at Hendersyde Park, Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1859. He died in 1855.
            I wonder if any of the four portraits mentioned in this letter are still in existence.

This article was first published in Stamp News the Australian monthly magazine.

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