Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir William Fairfax of Steeton (1609 - 44) 1640s

Edward Bower 

Portrait of Sir William Fairfax of Steeton (1609 - 44), Edward Bower
Oil on canvas
17th Century
80 3/4 x 50 1/2 inches 205.1 x 128.3 cm
By descent through the Fairfax family at Steeton, Newton Kyme and Bilbrough to Thomas Ferdinand Fairfax (1839-85) of Steeton and Toulston, Yorkshire Purchased by the last owner''s father, whose family lived at Toulston, in the early 1950s
E.Hailstone, Yorkshire Worthies, 1869, LXXVII, illustrated, Clements R.Markham, A Life of the Great Lord Fairfax, London 1870, p.438-9. Clements R.Markham, Life of Robert Fairfax of Markham, London 1885, p.10 + 304.
South Kensington Museum, Exhibition of National Portraits, April 1866, No.686
Coming from a distinguished Yorkshire military family, the sitter was the second son of Sir Philip Fairfax of Steeton and Frances Sheffield. In 1629 he married Frances, daughter of Sir Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough in Cleveland, and sister of James and Thomas Chaloner, the regicides. He was knighted by Charles I at Whitehall on 1 June 1630 and in 1636 on the death of his elder brother Edmund, succeeded to the family estates at Steeton and Newton Kyme. It was not until 1640 that the Fairfaxes moved into the manor house at Steeton in Yorkshire where Sir William intended to devote himself to his estate and country pursuits. He wrote to his uncle, Lord Ferdinando Fairfax from Steeton on 25 July 1625, saying, Since I am resolved to settle myself in this county, I cannot but think it is my duty to do it in the best service I can, and, therefore, if your lordship think fit to get me put in commission fo.r the West Riding, I shall endeavour to perform what I am able.

However, in 1642 he took the side of Parliament against King Charles I and signed the Yorkshire petition of 12 May, beseeching the King to trust to Parliament and dismiss his guards. During the ensuing Civil War, Sir William Fairfax raised a regiment among his tenantry and commanded an infantry regiment under the Earl of Essex at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. He showed extraordinary gallantry in this indecisive battle and afterwards joined forces at Selby with his uncle, Ferdinando, 2nd Baron Fairfax and his cousin, Sir Thomas (1612-71). In 1643 he took part in the capture of Leeds (23 January) and of Wakefield (21 May). At the siege of Wakefield, the Fairfaxes with fifteen hundred men stormed a town held by twice that number, capturing General Goring himself, twenty-eight colours, and fourteen hundred prisoners. Looking back on it many years later Sir Thomas Fairfax described it as more a miracle than a victory. In a letter written to his wife just before the battle, Sir William says of himself and his cousin:

For Thomas's part and mine we rest neither night nor day nor will willingly till we have done God some good service against His and our enemies.(2)

In the victory at Nantwich (25 January 1644), Sir William Fairfax commanded a wing of the horse in which the Royalist army under Lord Byron was defeated. This victory was secured in the main part by an opportune and very gallant flanking charge led by Sir William. It is probable that this action is the one represented in the background of this portrait. A serious illness required a period of recuperation at Dunham Massey, the seat of Sir George Booth but he was sufficiently recovered to command a brigade of foot at the victory of Marston Moor in July 1644. During the battle Sir William and his three thousand men on the right of the Parliamentary line encountered heavy losses.

In August of the same year he was despatched into Lancashire with two thousand Yorkshire horse, and took part in the siege of Liverpool. In the relief of Montgomery Castle on 18 September 1644 Sir John Meldrum and Sir William Fairfax faced Lord Byron and the Royalist forces. Contemporary reports of the battle relate how Byron''s pikemen attacked the Parliamentarian lines with desperate bravery while Sir William Fairfax twice led his men into the charge. On the third occasion as his men wavered and fell back, Sir William heroically rushed alone into the enemy''s ranks. This encouraged the Yorkshire yeomen to charge furiously once again on the pikemen resulting in the Royalists breaking line and fleeing. How.ever, Sir William Fairfax had been wounded fifteen times and died the following day. On hearing the news of his death his widow replied that, She grieved not that he died in this cause, but that he died so soon to do no more for it. (3)
Little is known about the career of Edward Bower, but by 1637 he had a studio at Temple Bar in London, a fact he sometimes records in his signature. From 1629 he appears in the records of the Painter-Stainers Company, of which he became Upper Warden in 1656 and then Master in 1661. Most of his known work dates from the period of the Civil War and he received commissions for the most part from the supporters of the Parliamentary party.
Bower is known to have painted at least three members of the Fairfax family. A three-quarter length portrait of Ferdinando, 2nd Baron Fairfax which is signed and dated 1646, was formerly at Denton and then Bilbrough Hall, Yorkshire. A letter preserved at Leeds Castle, from the second Lord to his son, dated Bath, June 30, 1646 mentions the commissioning of his portrait:
...good leisure I have found in this place, and the ability of the workman who was servant to Anthony Vandike, made me and some others patient under his hand a few hours.(4)
Bower also painted his son, Lord Thomas Fairfax, which shows him three-quarter length in armour, of which three versions are recorded.

This portrait of Sir William Fairfax is mentioned in the will of his grandson, William Fairfax of Steeton in 1694. It was recorded by Markham as having formerly been at Newton Kyme and then at Bilbrough Hall. Two other portraits of Sir William have been recorded, one in the possession of Lord Lyttleton at Hagley Hall and the other a miniature by Samuel Cooper with the same provenance as our portrait.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.