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John Fleming Leicester, 1st Baron De Tabley

(1762-1827)

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John Fleming Leicester, 1st Baron De Tabley, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, and  James Northcote, and  John Simpson - NPG D35140

John Fleming Leicester, 1st Baron De Tabley

after Sir Joshua Reynolds, and James Northcote, and John Simpson
mezzotint, (1826)
NPG D35140

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Rita Lamb

19 December 2019, 18:04

Sir John Fleming Leicester, first Baron de Tabley (1762–1827), art patron, was born at Tabley near Knutsford, Cheshire, on 4 April 1762. He was the eldest surviving son of Sir Peter Leicester, fourth baronet (1732–1770) and his wife Catherine (nee Fleming). At the age of eight he succeeded his father to the Tabley estate and to an income which reached £12,000 per year.

Leicester was educated at home and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Interested in art, he was instructed in drawing (by Robert Marris, Thomas Vivares, and Paul Sandby) and from June 1784 to July 1786 toured Switzerland and Italy, sketching and visiting the galleries in Rome. Many of his sketches, together with some loosely finished pictures in oil, are still at Tabley House. He also executed a set of lithographic prints from his own drawings of landscapes, birds, fishes, and other wildlife. (His interest in natural history was lifelong: he was planning an elaborate 'British Ichthyology' with Scottish writer William Jerdan shortly before his death.)

Leicester became an art patron, concentrating on British painting, which he had begun buying by 1789. He also commissioned pictures, some of his then-mistress Emily St. Clare. His patronage of British art was highly public-spirited. In 1805 he acquired the lease of a house in Mayfair and immediately converted part into a gallery to which, from April 1818, the public was admitted; by 1808 he had also converted three rooms at Tabley into a second picture gallery; and he was a patron of J. M. W. Turner, who was commissioned to paint a pair of views of Tabley in 1808, one of which still hangs there. After he married in 1810 Leicester also commissioned portraits of his wife by Lawrence and William Owen both of which are still at Tabley House.

In 1823 Leicester attempted to raise public interest in the establishment of a British National Gallery, offering to sell his collection to the nation to form its nucleus; but this was refused by the Prime Minister. In the same year he gave two pictures to the Royal Irish Institution to encourage the creation of a national gallery in Dublin.

A personal friend of the Prince Regent, who had been godfather to Leicester’s young wife, in politics Leicester was a moderate Whig. He was MP for Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, from 1791 to 1796; for Heytesbury, Wiltshire, from 1796 to 1802; and for Stockbridge, Hampshire, in 1807. An excellent pistol shot, he raised and helped finance the formation of the regiment eventually called the King's Regiment of Cheshire Yeoman Cavalry. Handily placed on the edge of the restive industrial North it received the thanks of the prince regent and government for helping to disperse the ‘blanketeers’ in Lancashire in 1817.

Leicester was created Baron de Tabley in 1826 but died less than a year later on 18 June 1827. Despite his income, large debts due to his artistic and military expenditure made it necessary for his executor quickly to organise a sale of his London collection. The rest of his paintings descended largely intact through the family until 1975 when under the will of his descendant Colonel John Leicester Warren they became became the property of the University of Manchester.

Tabley House is open to the public and the remains of the collection are still to be seen there.

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