Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Member of the Towneley Family, traditionally identified as John Towneley c1620

Attributed to John Souch 1593-1645

Portrait of a Member of the Towneley Family, traditionally identified as John Towneley, Attributed to John Souch
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Oil on Panel
37 x 28 ¾ inches, 94 x 73 cm
 
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This portrait, painted c.1620, was formerly in the possession of the Towneley family at Towneley Hall in Burnley. The sitter has been traditionally identified as a member of that family, John Towneley, and is probably therefore the younger son of John Towneley of Gray’s Inn. This younger John Towneley was born in 1567 and died in 1632.

The Towneleys were a prominent Lancashire family, but thanks to their firm adherence to Catholicism were excluded from local politics and affairs. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Catholics in England were subjected to increasing persecution, and if they refused to attend Anglican services were subject to large recusancy fines. John Towneley senior, who gave shelter to Catholic priests at Towneley Hall, and was imprisoned on numerous occasions, had by 1601 been fined over £5000. It is likely that his children were also Catholics, for the whole family can be seen in praying together in a group portrait of 1601 in front of a crucifix [Towneley Hall Art Gallery, Burnley].

This portrait can be dated by both the sitter’s fashion and the artist’s choice of composition to c.1620. Although long unattributed, it is clearly a work by a distinctive hand of considerable quality, and for that reason an attribution may be made to John Souch, probably the most talented provincial artist working in the Northwest at the time. Only a handful of works by Souch are known, but all share distinct signals of attribution. All his portraits, for example, show a naïve drawing style, and present their sitters in a flat, somewhat two-dimensional form, as can be seen here with the cramped positioning of the sitter against the table at his right. But despite these technical shortcomings all Souch’s works show that he was certainly very comfortable in handling paint, for the intricate features of likeness and costume are always finely handled, and his depiction of drapery conveys depth and texture comparable to work by contemporaries such as Cornelius Jonson. The present portrait is very close to Souch’s signed ‘George Puleston’ in the Tate, not only in the marbleised oval background, but particularly in the formation of the face and the drawing of the sitters’ expressive eyes. Both pictures reveal the extent to which Souch remained an essentially Elizabethan painter well into the seventeenth century.

Souch was apprenticed in Chester to the heraldic painter Randall Holme in 1607, but was practicing independently as early as 1617, when he was released from his training. In 1620 he was paid thirty shillings for a portrait of Francis Clifford, fourth Earl of Cumberland, so it seems that from an early age he could command significant sums from prominent local patrons. Although based in Chester, Souch seems to have traveled to his patron’s estates for sittings. The Towneleys, in Lancashire, may have been known to him, for Souch was himself a Lancastrian, born in Ormskirk.

Although we have little biographical detail for Souch, it seems that a further connection can be made between the Towneleys and the artist’s other known sitters, in that many were either Catholics or prominent Royalists. Sir Cecil Trafford, who features in a double portrait attributed to Souch (collection of Edric van Vredenburgh), was a prominent Catholic. Sir Thomas Aston, who commissioned Souch’s masterpiece ‘Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife’ (Manchester City Art Gallery), fought for Charles I, and died from wounds received at the Battle of Bridgnorth. Colonel Legh of Adlington, painted by Souch in 1632 (Private Collection) fought for the King, as did Pelham Corbet of Albright, painted by Souch in 1634 (Private Collection. Another of Souch’s patrons, the Davies family, also supported the Royalist cause. Finally, the Towneleys, as prominent Catholics, were also later staunch supporters of Charles I, and one of the Towneley children, Charles, was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor. Is it possible, therefore, that Souch’s circle of patronage was almost entirely made up of Catholic or religious and socially conservative families, and that this included the Towneleys?
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