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Algernon Charles Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford

1 of 2 portraits of John Nichol

Algernon Charles Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford, by Hills & Saunders, circa 1859-1860 -NPG P416 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Algernon Charles Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford

by Hills & Saunders
Albumen print, circa 1859-1860
7 1/2 in. x 9 7/8 in. (189 mm x 251 mm) overall
NPG P416

This portraitback to top

Harold Nicolson, researching his book on Algernon Swinburne, was struck by a reproduction of NPG P416 showing the poet ‘surrounded by his friends’ at Oxford. [1] That ‘faded photograph’, he wrote, made an ‘overpowering impression … upon me’. [2] In it, ten members of the ‘Old Mortality Society’ pose to an unidentified photographer, ranged around the seated figures of Swinburne and John Nichol. The society, founded at Balliol College in 1856 and active for the next ten years, was so named in ironic reference to the ‘physical infirmity of all its original members’. [3] It met weekly to debate literature, current affairs and philosophy; in politics it was radical.

Nichol, its founder and intellectual leader, matriculated at Balliol in 1855, a year before Swinburne’s arrival; he graduated in 1859, and remained in Oxford as a tutor (‘the most successful coach for Greats of his day’ [4]) until 1862. In the photograph he is seated at Swinburne’s left and is wearing a gown, indicating that the sitting took place during the months between Nichol’s graduation, summer 1859, and Swinburne’s departure from Oxford (without a degree) in June 1860.

Nichol’s biographer W.A. Knight also knew the photograph – ‘a very interesting photograph of the original group of the “Old Mortality” exists’ – and reproduced it in 1896. He noted the group’s brilliant later careers: ‘The society, on the whole, justified itself by the subsequent career [sic] of its members. By those who were either original members, or were elected during its earlier years, at least seven Professorships, one place in the Cabinet, one Judgeship, and two headships of Colleges have been filled.’ [5]

A University College law student, Aeneas Mackay, standing second from right in the photograph, wrote of that period:

I came to know [Nichol] better in the ‘Old Mortality’ Society, of which he was, I believe, the founder; though Luke, T.H. Green the philosopher, Swinburne the poet, and A.V. Dicey, were amongst the original members. They were all at Balliol, but the society was disposed to welcome recruits from other Colleges, of whom I remember best James Bryce of Trinity, T.H. Holland, and J. Payne of Magdalen, Walter Pater (afterwards Fellow of Brasenose), and Hoole, a student of Christ Church. The ‘Old Mortality’ … did not swear allegiance to any master dead or living, although most of the Balliol men, and indeed all the others also, had felt the influence of Jowett, who was then the chief intellectual power in Oxford. … But if the ‘Old Mortality’ had any special distinction from other societies, it was the absence of cliquishness and the admission of complete freedom of discussion. [6]

In June 1988 the photograph, already in poor condition, was offered to the Gallery by Philip Mould of Historical Portraits Ltd, for purchase at £1,100, and declined. The following year it appeared at Sotheby’s, 20 July 1989 (144) with an estimate of £400–500. This time it was bid for by Leggatt Brothers on behalf of the Gallery, and acquired for £669.00. The photograph was conserved and remounted in 1990. [7]

Ten figures
From left to right:
Joseph Frank Payne (1840–1910)
George Rankine Luke (1836–1862)
John Warneford Hoole (1837–1902)
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)
Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882)
John Nichol (1833–1894)
James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce (1838–1922)
Albert Venn Dicey (1835–1922)
Aeneas James George Mackay (1839–1911)
Sir Thomas Erskine Holland (1835–1926)

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Nicolson 1926, p.39.
2) Nicolson 1926, p.43 (here wrongly dated 1857). The photograph is reproduced as a half-tone plate in Wise 1919, facing p.18.
3) For an account of the society’s early days see Knight 1896, pp.137–52.
4) Knight 1896, p.148.
5) Knight 1896, p.147.
6) A.J.G. Mackay, cited in Knight 1896, pp.150–51.
7) The photograph was acquired on an old mount with inscriptions identifying the sitters: ‘Frank Payne W. Hoole Thomas Hill Green James Bryce Aeneas James George Mackay / George R. Luke Algernon Charles Swinburne John Nichol Albert Venn Dicey Thomas Erskine Holland’. For a photocopy of the old mount see NPG RP P416.

Referenceback to top

Compton-Rickett 1933
Compton-Rickett, A., I Look Back: Memories of Fifty Years, London, 1933.

Knight 1896
Knight, W.A., Memoir of John Nichol, Professor of English Literature in the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, 1896.

Lafourcade 1928
Lafourcade, G., La Jeunesse de Swinburne (1837–67), tome 1: la vie, Strasbourg, 1928.

Nicolson 1926
Nicolson, H., Swinburne, London, 1926.

Wintle c.1911
Wintle, C.J., The Story of Florence Nightingale: The Heroine of the Crimea, 11th ed., London, c.1911.

Wise 1919
Wise T.J., A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vol.1, privately printed, London, 1919.

Physical descriptionback to top

Whole length, standing and looking to right, his left arm resting on chairback, slight beard and moustache, wearing narrow bow tie; at left of group of ten men.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1990.

Provenanceback to top

Historical Portraits Ltd, 1988; Sotheby’s, 20 July 1989 (144), purchased by Leggatt Brothers on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery.

Reproductionsback to top

Knight 1896, facing p.144.

Wise 1919, facing p.18

Lafourcade 1928, pl.3

Compton-Rickett 1933, facing p.154

View all known portraits for Joseph Frank Payne


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