Francis Place, pioneer artist and potter

January 6, 2023 4 Comments

In the late seventeenth century York was a lively intellectual centre.  The York Virtuosi – modesty was not one of their features – were a group of scientists, historians and artists including the zoologist Martin Lister, the antiquarian and historian of Leeds Ralph Thoresby and the glass painter Henry Gyles.  Another member was a pioneering artist and potter who deserves to be better known well outside Yorkshire, Francis Place 1647-1728).

Francis Place, Stoneware mug (Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina)

Place’s family came from county Durham.  He trained as a lawyer in London, but the plague and a distaste for the law caused him to leave.  On a later stay in London he was introduced to drawing and engraving by his friend, the Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar, best known for his panoramic views of London.  He moved to York and made a living, in part at least, through his art.  He made drawing trips to various parts of Britain, Ireland and the Continent, combining sketching landscapes with his other keen pastime, fishing.

Francis Place, Oystermouth (National Museum Wales)

In 1678 Place visited south Wales, with a fellow artist member of the York Virtuosi, William Lodge, and got as far as Pembroke.    He made several sketches that survive, including views of Cardiff, Swansea, Oystermouth, Tenby and Pembroke Castle.  Sketching tours of this sort became very common in the eighteenth century, but were rare before then, and Place was one of the first artists in Britain to take a portable sketch pad, pen and ink and travel between locations.  Remarkably, he normally travelled on foot; he and Lodge covered 700 miles in seven weeks, he claimed, in Wales and the west of England.

Francis Place, Tenby (National Museum Wales)

Place explored north Wales on the way back from a tour of Ireland in 1699, making sketches between Holyhead and Chester.  His drawing of St Winefride’s Well in Holywell was widely circulated later as an engraving.  One found its way, along with two original drawings by Place, including Hawarden Castle, into the extra-illustrated edition of Thomas Pennant’s A tour in Wales.  

Frances Place, St Winefride’s Well

Artists sketching outdoors excited apprehension during this period, a time of intense anti-Catholic feeling.  It may have been on the north Wales visit that Place and Lodge found themselves in trouble.  According to a later source,

… they had got into Wales & were both taken up and put into Prison, being strongly suspected for Jesuits, & no arguments could convince the contrary till many of their Friends came from Chester & other Parts to convince them the contrary.

Francis Place, Tenby Castle

Sketches from Place’s Welsh trips survive in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and National Museum Wales.  NMW has fifteen sketches, bought in 1931 as part of a collection that also included his only known self-portrait.  Ten of them come from the same sketchbook, and are probably the earliest on-the-spot drawings ever made in Wales.  In 2011 Emily O’Reilly and other Museum experts conserved the drawings, detaching some from their later paper backings, so revealing sketches not seen for 200 years. They also stitched some of the drawings together digitally to make more panoramic views (marks show that creating a panorama was Place’s intention).

Francis Place, Hawarden Castle

The drawings show that Place was a careful and sensitive artist, with a developed sense of composition.  His view of Oystermouth is taken from half way along the bay-side road from Swansea, and shows the castle and church, Mumbles Hill, and sailing ships off the shore.  The view of Tenby shows the North Beach, with the town beyond, contrasted with the flat masses of the cliffs, shaded from sunlight, to the left, which are rendered in wash..  In both drawings small human figures help to give scale.

Place was interested in developing his techniques – he later added washes to his sketches, was a pioneer in the use of mezzotint, and worked in oils – and in extending into other genres, notably botanical and wildlife illustration and portrait painting (he is said to have painted the only known portrait of William Penn).  Around 1693, when he married his second wife, he also turned to making pottery.  Only four examples survive of his bold experiments with salt-glazed stoneware.  They are astonishingly clean and modern in their design. 

Francis Place, Stoneware capuchin cup (Hospitalfield House, Arbroath)

The example in Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, is a capuchin, a cup or small mug designed for drinking coffee and chocolate in the newly fashionable coffee houses that were growing up in urban centres.  It has an elegant profile and handle, and a simple but shiny brown glaze, and would not look out of place in a coffee shop today.

Francis Place, Stoneware capucihn cup (Victoria & Albert Museum)

The Victoria and Albert Museum has another capuchin, this time in a lighter colour, but with a bold, almost modernist, diagonal slash of variegated brown paint across its body.  It was stored in a leather case, that has also survived.

Francis Place, Stoneware mug (British Museum)

A third mug, in the British Museum, has a different, jug-like shape, with a roundish body and corrugated neck, and a curious handle where the clay emulates a cord twisting about it. The fourth mug, in the Mint Museum, combines this shape with features the ‘slash’ decoration of the V&A capuchin cup.  It is the type of jug that Place includes in the foreground of his undated self-portrait (you can make out an easel in the dark background).  It is a portrait of a working man, rather than one of the gentry.  He wears a warm jacket, a cravat, soft hat, and a rather anxious look on his face.  From our perspective, though, Francis Place had no reason to be worried, and much to be proud of.

Francis Place, Self portrait (Hospitalfield House, Arbroath)

Comments (4)

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  1. rita tait says:

    thank you for this interesting piece and Happy New Year Andrew. You might be interested to know that I am in regular touch with Prof. Yasuko Suga who will be in the Uk in the summer again.

  2. Deborah Hagan nee Place says:

    Thank you, one of my ancestors. Very interesting character.

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