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Octavia Hill

1 of 2 portraits of Octavia Hill

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Octavia Hill

possibly by a member of the Barton family
Pencil on pale blue paper, circa 1864
4 7/8 in. x 4 3/4 in. (124 mm x 120 mm) overall
NPG 3804

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This portraitback to top

In the summer of 1951, J.H. Money wrote to the National Portrait Gallery regarding this pencil drawing of Hill: ‘In a collection of mid Victorian drawings, which I acquired the other day, I discovered a sketch of Octavia Hill, dated 1864 and to judge from the collection as a whole, by a contemporary member of the Barton family (of “The Waterford [sic], Letter, Co. Fermanagh”). I am wondering if the National Portrait Gallery would be interested to acquire it – and, if so, could call in at some convenient time.’ [1]

Money subsequently brought the portrait in to the NPG for inspection and director Charles Kingsley Adams wrote to him a month later, offering to purchase the work for £2: ‘We should like to have the drawing of Octavia Hill which you brought here on the 11th July for our reference portfolios.’ [2] Although Adams’s note suggests that NPG 3804 was not intended for the Primary Collection, the portrait was in fact included in the Primary Collection Accession Register with a date of 11 July 1951.

In 1914 another profile sketch showing Hill in 1877, when she was 39, had been offered to the Gallery along with the oil by John Singer Sargent (NPG 1746) but was not accepted by the Trustees. [3] This flattering pencil drawing by Edward Clifford has been widely reproduced and is generally regarded as a successful likeness, capturing the long nose and distinctive arched brows evident in contemporary photographs of the sitter (See ‘All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1877’). NPG 3804 depicts a younger Octavia, who is still girlish in appearance, her face fuller and her features not yet defined by maturity. It is particularly interesting, being one of only two identified images of Hill from this stage in her life. The other is a group photograph taken in 1864, which shows the sitter with her four sisters (see ‘All known portraits, Photographs’). Comparison between the drawing and the youthful photographic image reveals NPG 3804 to be accurate.

Hill can be associated with the Barton family in terms of her friendship with Frederick Denison Maurice, whom she first met in 1852 through her work with the Ladies Guild. Maurice’s first wife Anna Barton (1810–1845) came from an army family and had six siblings. [4] Both her parents hailed from County Fermanagh, now Northern Ireland. In 1799 her father, Lieutenant-General Charles Barton (1760–1819), had married Susanna Johnston, whose place of birth is listed as ‘The Waterfoot’. [5] Although Anna Barton died of tuberculosis as early as 1845, it is possible that members of the Barton family continued to visit Maurice in London into the 1860s. This is made more plausible by the fact that the third Barton son, Charles Barton (1805-1856), went to Cambridge with Maurice and his friend John Sterling, and remained an acquaintance of the pair. [6] Another close contemporary with Maurice was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh William Barton (1800–1870), the eldest son. In 1862 his occupation was recorded as ‘Magistrate’ and his address ‘The Waterfoot, County Fermanagh’. [7] This makes him, as well as Charles Barton, a candidate for authorship of the portrait; it is likely that the collection of drawings from which the Hill sketch comes was stored in some sort of album, inscribed on the cover with the artist’s address, which was mistranscribed by Money in his letter to the NPG.

Unfortunately there is no evidence through which this early profile sketch can be attributed to a particular Barton sibling. Neither is there a record of Hill providing sittings for the portrait. However, the careful representation of the face suggests that it was taken from life. Delicate cross-hatching across the forehead and around the eyes and nose indicates close observation on the part of the artist. Certainly the relationship with Maurice – and potentially with members of the Barton family – continued after the early 1850s. In 1856, as head of the Working Men’s College, Maurice offered Hill a job as secretary to the women’s classes and in 1872 Octavia’s younger sister Emily married Maurice’s second son, Charles Edmund Maurice (1843–1927).

If the attributed date is correct, NPG 3804 shows Hill in her mid-twenties. She turned 26 in December 1864, which was a pivotal year for her schemes for housing management. The date cannot be firmly established, however. After the acquisition of the portrait, C.K. Adams wrote to J.H. Money, enquiring about it: ‘This is about the drawing of Octavia Hill … I see that in the letter in which you first brought it to our attention you said that it was dated 1864, and probably by a contemporary member of the Barton family. I would be most grateful if you put down for our records anything you may know of its past history. I am also baffled by the date, of which there is no trace on the drawing.’ [8] No response from Money has been documented.

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter from J.H. Money to NPG, 21 June 1951, NPG RP 3804. The method by which this collection was acquired is not known. In another letter to Money dated 25 June 1951, C.K. Adams writes, ‘I shall be very interested to see the sketch of Octavia Hill which you have inherited’; however, there is no documentary evidence to confirm that this was the case.
2) Letter from C.K. Adams to J.H. Money, 20 July 1951, NPG RP 3804.
3) See letters from Emily S. Maurice to C.J. Holmes, 7 Dec. 1914, 8 and 13 Feb. 1915 and 2 Mar. 1915, NPG RP 1746.
4) With thanks to Peter Clayton, Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum, Wisbech, Cambs., for assistance with this connection, Mar. 2012.
5) See Barton Database
6) Higham 1947, p.25: ‘[Sterling] took him round sometimes to see the Bartons, Army people, one of whose sons had been at Cambridge with them, but whose chief attraction was the possession of two pretty daughters. Susannah, languishing and elegant, had a vast admiration for John Sterling [whom she later married]; with her Maurice was tongue-tied, but forgot to be shy and forgot too his metaphysical problems when the schoolgirl sister Annie, with her gay beauty and teasing ways, appeared on the scene and smiled at him.’
7) See Barton Database. Even closer in age to Maurice was the second son Colonel Nathaniel Dunbar Barton (c.1803–1885). He is recorded in the 1861 census as living with his family in Paddington, London (before moving to Torquay and then Brighton). It is possible that he visited his late sister’s husband, although it seems less likely that a collection of drawings by Nathaniel would be held at the family home in Ireland (which does not appear to have been his residence at any point).
8) Letter from C.K. Adams to J.H. Money, 17 June 1952, NPG RP 3804.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, three-quarter profile to left.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1985.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased by the National Portrait Gallery from J.H. Money, 1951.

View all known portraits for Octavia Hill