Monday, 29 October 2007

At Her Majesty's Pleasure

Kenneth MacLeay John BrownKenneth MacLeay of the Royal Scottish Academy was a difficult artist to identify given the erroneously typed description. Queen Victoria commissioned a series of portraits of the Scottish clans and some of her retainers including John Brown. The work took four years and in 1870 Vincent Brooks received the command for lithographic reproductions to be executed. The copies were intended for subscription by visitors to the exhibition at Mitchell’s Royal Library, 33 Old Bond Street.

Despite his predicament, Rudofsky was able to carry out the work, including the portrait of John Brown noted by Frederick. What the lead portrait artist of the firm was able to produce in his confinement, has a curious claim to have assisted in MacLeay's success. The National Galleries of Scotland describe the series as his 'best known work'.

Frederick alludes to the conditions of Whitecross Street Prison for debtors. The location of this establishment is now partially covered by the present day Barbican. The author appears to be not far off the mark in his assessment of the place, the risk to the arrested as 'not very distressing as long as they were not totally without resources.' The opportunity for the better off to eat and sleep well and for 'Harpies' to fleece the vulnerable are supported by the following account:

Whitecross Street PrisonThe Receiving Ward was a long low room with windows secured by bars, at each end. There were two grates, but only one contained any fire. The place was remarkably clean - the floor, the deal tables, and the forms being as white as snow.
The following conversation forthwith took place between the new prisoner and the steward:-
"What is your name?"
"Arthur Chichester."
"Have you got your bread ?"
"Well - put it in that pigeon-hole. Do you choose to have sheets to-night on your bed?"
"Then that will be a shilling the first night, and sixpence every night after, as long as you remain here. You can, moreover, sleep in the inner room, and sit up till twelve o'clock. Those who can't afford to pay for sheets sleep in a room by themselves, and go to bed at a quarter to ten. You see we know how to separate the gentlemen from the riff-raff."
"And how long shall I be allowed to stay up in the Receiving Ward ?"
"That depends. Do you mean to live at my table? I charge six pence for tea, the same for breakfast, a shilling for dinner, and four-pence for supper."
"Well - I shall be most happy to live at your table."
"In that case, write a note to the governor to say you are certain to be able to settle your affairs in the course of a week, and I will take care he shall have it the very first thing to-morrow morning.''
"But I am sure of not being able to settle in a week."
"Do as you like. You won't be allowed to stay up here unless you do."
"Oh! in that case I will do so at once. Can you oblige me with a sheet of writing-paper ?"
"Certainly. Here is one. A penny, if you please."
Chichester paid for the paper, wrote the letter, and handed it to the Steward.
He then cast a glance round the room ; and saw three or four tolerably decent-looking persons warming themselves at the fire, while fifteen or sixteen wretched-looking men, dressed for the most part as labourers, were sitting on the forms round the walls, at a considerable distance from the blazing grate.
The Steward, perceiving that the new prisoner threw a look of inquiry towards him, said,- "Those gentlemen at the fire are Sheriff's Debtors, and live at my table: those chaps over there are Court of Requests' Men, and haven't a shilling to bless themselves with. So, of course, I can't allow them to associate with the others."

Source: Chapter XXXV. Whitecross-Street Prison

No comments: