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Jesse Boot, 1st Baron Trent

Jesse Boot, 1st Baron Trent, by Noel Denholm Davis, 1909 -NPG L247 - © Alliance Boots; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

© Alliance Boots; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

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Jesse Boot, 1st Baron Trent

by Noel Denholm Davis
Oil on canvas, 1909
50 in. x 40 in. (1270 mm x 1015 mm)
NPG L247

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated in black paint lower left: ‘Denholm Davis [A]N[N]0 1909’.
On reverse, lower stretcher centre, small printed label: ‘Boots / Picture Framing / Department’.

This portraitback to top

Painted around the time of the sitter’s receipt of a knighthood in 1909, this portrait shows Sir Jesse in managerial mode, as founder and director of his company and active man of business. He is seated at his desk, pen in hand, apparently in the process of signing documents, having raised his gaze to meet those of the artist and the viewer. His head and features are illuminated from the left, by light suggested by the half-glimpsed edge of a window.

Despite Boot’s wealth and economic power at this date, this is a portrait signally lacking in pomp or pride. The personality conveyed is both shrewd and sympathetic. As if to indicate the sitter’s modest demeanour and perhaps also his modest social origins, his gabardine raincoat and trilby hat are shown informally draped over the foremost corner of the desk in what is surely a symbolic rather than literal manner. Together with a glass inkwell and a thick red-covered book resembling a trade directory, a few papers lie unfolded or clipped on the desk; one bears the letterhead ‘Boots Wholesale Department’. On the wall behind Boot a large rectangle suggests a blind or a map [1] and at the top right edge of the canvas is glimpsed the corner of a picture apparently representing a townscape.

An undated company circular headed ‘Employees [sic] Presentation to Mr Jesse Boot (Male Staff Only)’ states:

Some of the Employees of our Works have spoken of their desire to show Mr Jesse Boot how much they feel his unfailing kindness and generosity. The mere mention of this has immediately drawn out the fact that this desire is shared by the whole staff.

An eager wish to do something at once resulted in a committee being formed in order to discuss the best way of carrying out their wishes. At the first meeting it was decided to extend operations, so as to include all the warehouse and retail branches in every town.

Meanwhile, Mr Boot has been told of his men’s wish to show their good feeling towards him, and has been asked whether it would please him if their offering took the form of a portrait painting of himself. This would at once form a lasting memorial, and would also admit of reproduction so that each subscriber may receive a copy.

To this he is quite agreeable, and the execution of the portrait is now being arranged, together with an illuminated address bearing the names of all contributors. This address will express their united good wishes to Mr Boot, their heartfelt appreciation of him as an employer, and of his friendly sympathy for all.

To pay the cost of this a maximum subscription of 2/6 has been fixed – that is to say no more than 2/6 will be accepted from anyone. No one need hesitate to come forward because he can only afford a few pence, and boys will not be expected to give more. The support of a subscriber will be much more valued than the amount of his subscription. [2]

There follows a list of branches and employees to whom subscriptions could be paid, and the names of the organizing committee, chaired by general manager Albert Thompson, described as Boot’s earliest and most valued assistant. [3] The subscription treasurer was T.S. Ratcliffe, book-keeper and equally valued accounts manager.

The wording of the announcement (with its use of ‘Mr Boot’) indicates that this initiative, and the commission to Davis, took place before November 1909. It is possible that the scheme was prompted by Boot’s approaching 60th birthday in June 1910, and was then overtaken by the knighthood. According to Stanley Chapman, although by 1908 Boot was ‘confined’ to a wheelchair (which the portrait does not depict) the next five years were a period of great public activity, with generous support to the Liberal Party and extensive local philanthropy. [4]

Ill-health took Boot abroad in late spring–early summer 1909; [5] it is therefore likely that sittings for the portrait took place in the late summer or autumn, either in Nottingham or in London. The portrait was presented to Boot on 26 January 1910. A press report of the presentation describes the event:

The New Knight’s Ideal

Occasion was taken at the ninth annual dinner of Boots Nottingham and district managers at the Victoria Station Hotel, Nottingham on Wednesday night, to make a presentation to the head of the firm, Sir Jesse Boot. The gift took the form of a lifelike portrait of Sir Jesse, painted in oils by a Nottingham artist, Mr Denholm Davis; and of a magnificent edition of Ruskin’s works comprising 38 volumes. The male employees in all parts of the country have subscribed to it, and their autographs, written in an album, formed part of the presentation.

Wednesday night’s company, over whom Sir Jesse Boot presided, numbered 114.

Sir Jesse Boot, in acknowledging the presentation, expressed his gratitude to all who had contributed towards it. Their appreciation was very dear to him. His wife and friends said the portrait was a living likeness, and he certainly thought it did credit to Mr Denholm Davis. The album of signatures he would treasure as long as he lived, and of the other presents none could have given him more pleasure than this and the superb library edition of Ruskin.

That night, continued Sir Jesse, surrounded by those who had worked with him for years, took his mind back to early days. For years after the business was started no one seemed to understand their position. They were Ishmaelites, their hands against everyone and everyone’s hands against them. He remembered one day two ladies of some position were in the shop and though mutually acquainted each seemed rather ashamed to meet the other there. One of them remarked apologetically, ‘Well really you know, by coming here we can save a little and have a little more to give away in charity.’ In those days it took some courage for a qualified man to join the firm. So strong and bitter was the feeling of the trade against them in the past that it developed in them an equally strong fighting spirit. Looking back with the calm view that one attained after 20 years he felt that perhaps they rather overdid the fighting. And now, having achieved those things we go on working? Well, having made the branches light, airy and in every way healthy, now he wanted to see to the workers in the various works. In a number of departments they had started manufacturing quite as much from a determination to pay a fair wage and not to deal in sweated goods as from any aim of saving by manufacturing. As the business progressed and the profits allowed, he wished to improve first the workrooms and, in comparison with the conditions that generally obtained, to make them industrial palaces. For health, comfort and ease of working, every appliance that experience could suggest and mortal obtain would be used. [6]

Boot continued by saying he was not in business for personal profit but in order to carry out his ideals of how business should be run. He had been strongly tempted to retire through ill-health, but had a strong feeling it was his personal responsibility to put the business on a firm foundation that could not be altered, as testimony to what could be accomplished through ‘harmony of thought, capital and industry’. Moreover, when everything possible was done for the comfort of his employees, he wished to do something about housing conditions for unskilled labourers who currently could afford only poorly built cottages that were also liable to flooding and squalor, causing sickness and other evils. In his view, ‘things like this breed Socialism’. Society should attend to housing need; quoting the popular journalist Harold Begbie, he hoped that the time would come when ‘Men shall no more herd like cattle / They shall dwell like sons of God.’ [7]

Together with the album of subscribers’ signatures in place of the proposed ‘illuminated scroll’, the additional presentation of the works of John Ruskin suggests that total subscriptions for the portrait raised more than the artist’s fee and cost of framing.

At the same time or shortly after, a copy of the portrait was commissioned from the artist, in connection with Boot’s major philanthropic support for building a new Wesleyan mission in Nottingham. Known as the Albert Hall and Institute (now, as the Albert Hall, a conference centre and concert venue), this included a hall for urban evangelism and community entertainment, and an adjoining institute for other activities, both generously funded by Boot. The institute building was opened by Florence Boot on 15 November 1910, when the full-size replica of Davis’s portrait was formally unveiled; [8] the presumption is that members of the Wesleyan community contributed to the cost of this in a similar fashion to the Boots employees. At the ceremony Rev. J.E. Rattenbury, who had been the Methodist incumbent at the inception of the project, stated that the institute would be a permanent memorial to Boot’s generosity and care for his people. The replica is now (2015) with Walgreens Boots Alliance at its headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois. [9]

Nottingham-born artist Noel Denholm Davis trained at the city’s art school and the Royal Academy Schools under George Clausen and John Singer Sargent. [10] The former’s influence may be seen in the sobriety of Davis’s presentation while that of the latter is indirectly visible in the strong illumination on the sitter’s head and accessories. While maintaining a studio in London, in his home city Davis became a member of the Nottingham Society of Artists and a well-known portraitist, who was later commissioned to create murals in the Nottingham Council House depicting civic history and merchandise. Many of his commissioned portraits are notable for the lively rendering of their sitters’ expression within the prescribed formality of the format. His family connections with the Methodist church may have contributed to his being commissioned to paint Boot. [11] But it is also characteristic of the loyalty to Nottingham felt by Boot and his company that a local artist was chosen for his portrait. Later the present work acquired a companion piece by the same artist, portraying the sitter’s wife seated three-quarter-length, which is now (2015) in Lenton House, University of Nottingham. Florence Boot, also a shopkeeper’s child, was a generous benefactor to her husband’s and her own charitable causes.

This is the first of the artist’s two portraits of Boot; the second, executed a decade later, shows him seated in a wheelchair, crippled by arthritis (see ‘All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1918’). This was formally installed at University College Nottingham on 7 January 1937 in recognition of Boot’s role as donor to the university. [12]

In accordance with the presentation committee’s plans, the present portrait was reproduced as a privately engraved large photogravure, presumably presented as planned to each subscriber; a framed copy of this hangs (2015) in Lenton House.

The present portrait first hung in the sitter’s home; sometime near or after his death it was moved to the drawing room of Villa Millbrook in Jersey, where it remained when the island was occupied by Nazi Germany in June 1940 and the house was used as an officers’ mess. When the Boot family returned after the war, the portrait was found to have a hole right through the mouth. A visitor to the house recalls seeing it in May 1947, in the company of the sitter’s widow Lady Trent, and being told that ‘an officer had taken a pot shot at Sir Jesse and had accidentally hit him in the mouth’. The visitor added that the repair was poor, 'but remembers saying that a good London restorer would easily put that right’. [13]

In the early 1950s the portrait was returned to the Boots HQ in Nottingham, where an alternative account emerged to explain the charred hole in the canvas, when inquiries indicated that a Nazi officer had jokingly burnt the mouth area with a cigar and then inserted the cigar’s other end in the hole, to give the impression that Lord Trent was smoking in the manner of Winston Churchill. [14] No eyewitness account of the incident is known, so both explanations were inferred from the damage caused and either may be correct. From the slight surviving trace, the diameter of the hole appears to have been about half an inch (1.3cm). The damage was repaired by conservator James W. (Bill) Popple, the repainting being almost invisible in the dark area beneath the moustache, and after cleaning the portrait was displayed at Boots head office. [15] It was offered on long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery following the formation of Alliance Boots in 2006.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) On the fictive map some barely visible red lines are as yet unexplained.
2) Document supplied by Walgreens Boots Alliance archivist Sophie Clapp.
3) G.R. Elliott, quoted Chapman 1974, pp. 63–4.
4) Chapman 1974, pp.177–80.
5) According to his address to the company’s AGM in June 1910, reported in The Times, 8 June 1910, p.16.
6) Derby Daily Telegraph, 27 Jan. 1910, p.2. The final, 39th, volume of The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, was published in 1912.
7) Derby Daily Telegraph, 27 Jan. 1910, p.2
8) Chemist & Druggist, 24 Sept. 1910, p.462; Grant (2000, ch.4) states that the painting, unveiled in ‘the parlour’ on the evening of 15 Sept. 1910, was ‘a beautifully executed replica of the portrait of Sir Jesse Boot’. See also the Wikipedia page about the Albert Hall.
9) The replica probably transferred to the Boots HQ in 1987 when the Albert Hall, having closed as a mission, received a major renovation as a multi-purpose venue.
10) Clausen was RA professor of painting 1903–6; Sargent was RA visitor, Life School and Painting School 1899–1904.
11) Davis’s baptism was registered in 1876 at Arkwright Street Methodist Church in Nottingham.
12) Full report, Nottingham Journal, 8 Jan. 1937, reprinted in Beacon, Feb. 1937, pp.5–8; news item, The Times, 8 Jan. 1937, p.4. Citations supplied 2014 by Abbey Rees-Hales, archive assistant, Alliance Boots.
13) Peter Heilbron to National Portrait Gallery, 7 December 2015, RP L247. Heilbron was at Villa Millbrook on a social visit. He met Lady Trent and was told that the house had been well looked after by the occupying officers, apart from damage to the portrait and from beer inside the grand piano.
14) J.W. Popple, quoted at length in Armstrong 1980, pp.44–5.
15) Boots Newsletter, no.22, May 1955, p.2.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length slightly to right, looking forward, seated behind desk, left hand to cheek, right hand holding pen.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 2011.

Provenanceback to top

On extended loan from Walgreens Boots Alliance, 2011.

Exhibitionsback to top

Boots 1849–2009: Dispensing Feel Good Formulas, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham, 2009.

Reproductionsback to top

Great Thoughts magazine, 1930, p.123, known from clipping in Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive & M. Coll., Nottingham.

John Bull, 21 May 1955, p.22.

Chapman 1974, pl.7 (captioned as ‘a favourite portrait painted in 1911’).

Armstrong 1980, frontispiece (captioned ‘Sir Jesse Boot’).

Nottingham Evening Post, 2 November 1990, p.6.

Weir 1994, front cover (cropped), p.4.

Nottinghamshire Today, February 2006, p.44.

View all known portraits for Jesse Boot, 1st Baron Trent