The ‘half seas over’ portrait
The painting reproduced here is actually three quarter life-size and shows Williamson posing formally (is that a tunnel in the background on the right?). This painting was given by Williamson to his godson, whose daughter, in turn, gave it to the Liverpool Museum. It is now in the possession of the Walker Art Gallery. On the back of the portrait Williamson has written in his own handwriting that the portrait is ‘a good likeness of me when I was half-seas over’. The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘half-seas over’ as a colloquialism for ‘drunk’. This would have been a strange comment and we wonder if the expression had a different meaning in those days – perhaps something to do with half a century as the portrait was reputedly painted for his fiftieth birthday.
2. The Henderson portrait
This portrait has an inscription on its back saying “Joseph Williamson, Esquire. Painted by Cornelius Henderson. August 1828. Liverpool.” Again, the owl-like features are visible in the face.
Henderson was a good friend of Williamson and took up residence in a house Williamson built for him on the opposite side of Mason Street. One of the many anecdotes about Williamson has it that when he showed Henderson the new house, the artist complained that the huge windows let in light which was at all the wrong angles for a painter. This apparently incurred Williamson’s wrath, but it was no doubt short-lived. One wonders whether the portrait above was painted there.
3. The last portrait
The painting of Williamson reproduced here (in black and white, unfortunately) is from 1838. At the bottom left-hand corner of the original one can see the words “J.W. pinxt, 15 Decr. 1838”. When comparing it with the ‘half-seas over’ portrait, one can clearly see the same facial features – the eyebrows and nose, for example, are exactly the same. This leaves little doubt that the painting is genuinely of Williamson, just two years before his death.
4. The photo – a red herring?
The photograph reproduced above is held by many to be a photo of Williamson. It was found, along with another old photograph of a lady, under floorboards in Williamson’s house by Samuel Jones when he took over the house in the early 1900s. During his investigation of the Williamson story for the Lancashire & Cheshire Historic Society, Charles Hand borrowed the photos and claimed that the photograph was definitely of Williamson, that it was taken by Williamson’s wife, Elizabeth, and that following her death an emotional Williamson stored the photos in a secret chamber under one of the floors of his house.
However, any photo of Williamson obviously needed to be taken before 1840, the year he died. Pre-1840, photography was a novelty practised by pioneers such as Daguerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard who considered the new invention to be a discovery of nature’s capacity to record itself. Therefore, most early photographs were of carefully composed natural scenes – trees, cottages in the countryside and so on. The very first photographs called for exposure times of 30 minutes or more and so were very inconvenient for portrait sitters. It was only in the early 1840s that portraits became more common and even then, they tended to be only of the most eminent citizens: the nobility, military leaders and the like. Hand addresses this issue in his writings but his counter-defence, to maintain his claim that the photo is of Williamson, is very weak.
As for the appearance of the sitter in this photograph, a friend at the costume department at Manchester University examined the image and told us that the pipe and coat are both correct for the 1830s, but that the hat would normally have been worn by a labourer and not a rich man. Also, we learned that a gentleman of the time would have worn knee-height boots with breeches, rather than the short, roughly-laced boots in the photograph. The attire is clearly not a gentleman’s but then Williamson is reported to have dressed quite scruffily, certainly not as well as he could have afforded to, so we cannot dismiss the Williamson connection on this factor alone.
Perhaps the most telling technique is to look closely at the faces in the known or reputed pictures of Williamson. If the facial close-up above is compared with the equivalent view from the ‘half-seas over’ portrait, they appear not to show the same man. The colour painting shows an owlish face with a rather pinched mouth with thin upper lip and wide eyes. The subject above has eyes which are narrower and closer together; the lips are thicker and the chin shorter.
As ever, it is difficult to prove one way or the other, but we are not wholly convinced that the photo is of Williamson. However, it does portray an image which suits the written descriptions of a large, portly man who often dressed scruffily and, with its provenance, will probably always be associated with him.