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Portraits of Mary and Walter Noble

Portraits of Mary and Walter Noble


English School

Portraits of Walter and Mary Noble

c. 1700-10 (Walter) and c. 1685-8 (Mary)

Oil on canvas in late seventeenth century carved giltwood frames

Oval, each 73.5 x 60.5 cm (canvas), 95 x 83 cm (frame)

Provenance: Walter Noble, Noble/Landor family by descent.

This pair of portraits of a brother and sister, in their very fine late seventeenth century original carved frames, are made particularly special by their family history. It is rare for a pair of portraits of county gentry to have passed through unbroken descent through a single family, especially one with such prominent characters.


Walter (165?-1724) and Mary Ann (?1653-1700) Noble were from a family of Staffordshire gentry and landowners. Their parents were John Noble and Jane Brandreth of Chorley Hall in Farewell, near Lichfield in South Staffordshire. Their grandfather Michael Noble had been a parliamentarian during the civil war, and sat as MP for Lichfield.


Mary married John Spateman, clerk and later Rector of St Peter’s church, Yoxall, just a few miles from her family home. She must have spent her entire married life in childbearing, since she and John had eleven children: five sons (Michael, Walter, Samuel, Francis and Thomas, who became a vicar like his father) and six daughters (Mary, Jane, Sarah, Elizabeth, Anne and Margaret). We know very little else about Mary, whose life was tragically cut short; she was buried at Yoxall on 22nd January 1700. Her portrait can be dated stylistically to the mid 1680s, probably during the early years of her marriage. It is finely painted, particularly in the soft and rosy handling of her skin and the curls of her hair. The draperies appear to have been completed by a studio assistant, suggesting that this portrait is probably from the hand of an established artist with a large commercial practice. There are characteristics reminiscent of the work of both Willem Wissing and John Riley, two of the leading portrait painters of the time.  


Mary's portrait must have belonged to her brother Walter, because it is through his descendants that both portraits passed. Walter married Ann Hinckley of nearby Longdon in June 1696.  After the death of his elder brother Michael in 1708 he inherited Chorley Hall and various lands in the Lichfield area (Michael also left his Spateman nephews and nieces £50 each).[i] Walter and Ann Noble had at least seven children, of whom four were still living at the time of his death in 1724: his son Walter and daughters Ann, Jane and Mary.  Walter’s portrait was probably painted around the time that he inherited his brother’s estates, perhaps to commemorate his hew position as landowner and head of the family. It is certainly by a different hand to that of his sister, and he appears much older than her. Both portraits, however, are housed in a very fine pair of late seventeenth century carved giltwood ‘Lely’ frames, almost certainly original to the portraits.


What was life like for Walter and Mary Ann Noble? Their home village of Farewell was just three miles from Lichfield, a thriving cathedral city that was a centre for polite society in the region. Daniel Defoe, who visited on his Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, thought Lichfield was the best town in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties for ‘good conversation and good company’ ( ii, 480). There were few noble families in the area, and society was dominated by wealthy gentry families like the Nobles. One of the highlights of the social calendar was the annual horse races held at Arlewas from 1680s and moved to Whittington Heath in 1702. We can be almost certain that the Nobles and Spateman families would have attended.


The baton now passes to Walter Noble’s daughter Mary, through whose descendants our portraits descended. At his death in 1724, Walter’s will specified that his household goods (which would have included these portraits) be left to his wife Ann, and after her death to be divided equally among his children.[ii] Mary must have taken possession of the portraits on Ann’s death in 1729, because a series of labels attached to the back of the portraits refers to Robert Landor, ‘our forefather’. Mary Noble married Robert Landor in 1732, when she was twenty five. He was another affluent Staffordshire landowner, and the couple lived at Rugeley, just a few miles from Farewell. Of their six children, it was their eldest son Walter Landor (1733-1805) who inherited the family properties (including our portraits) in 1781, adding to them further properties from his second wife, Elizabeth Savage.


The next owner of our portraits was Walter and Elizabeth’s son, Walter Savage Landor (1773-1864).  Although he is known today principally to literary scholars, Walter Savage Landor was one of the most prominent poets and men of letters of the nineteenth century and a friend of Charles Dickens, William Hazlitt, Robert Browning and Robert Southey. He was also an insolent troublemaker whose radical politics and wild behaviour led him into constant difficulties. A highly precocious child, he went to Rugby School at the age of eight where he gained a reputation as a talented boxer and sportsman. But he was asked to leave Rugby, and later Oxford, on account of his behaviour (incidents involving the submission of coarse verse to a school publication, and a shotgun at a party respectively).


Walter Savage Landor’s fondness for writing Latin poetry  unsurprisingly did not bring him commercial success, but his book of Imaginary Conversations (1824) was highly regarded (it included an imagined conversation between his ancestor Michael Noble and Oliver Cromwell). He sold off the family estates, including Chorley Hall in 1825 and  married Julia Thuillier who was 21 years younger than him. He spent twenty years living in Italy, where he was again asked to leave Florence on account of his provocative insolence. Walter Savage Landor was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Florence in September 1864, and was immortalised by Dickens as the character Lawrence Bythorn in Bleak House.


Our portraits then passed to Walter Savage Landor’s second son Walter (b. 1822), who married Diana Mary Litler, and from them  to their son Walter Noble Landor (1864-1955). Born in the year of his grandfather’s death, he became a celebrated local antiquary, researching his own family history and publishing many Staffordshire parish records. His extensive papers are held by the Staffordshire Record Office.


In 1909, Walter Noble Landor had the portrait of his great-great-great-great-grandfather Walter Noble relined, and it was probably him who directed extensive alterations to the canvas, filling in in the background to a dark tone to match the portrait of Mary, and retouching his face to make him younger and more attractive. Those alterations have now been reversed, and we see Walter Noble as he truly was – on a light background, older, but certainly more authentic. Walter Noble Landor also added several labels to the back, explaining the history of the portraits and sitters, initialled WNL. Mary Noble has now been relined but the original stretchers have been retained, along with all of Walter Noble Landor’s notes. The frames have also been cleaned of heavy overpaint to reveal the quality and detail of their carving.


The portraits continued to descend through the family until they were sold in 2022. They are a fine pair of late Stuart portraits, in very good original frames, but it is their family history that makes the portraits of Walter and Mary Noble really special. I hope they will find a new home where they will continue to be cherished, as they have been for over three hundred years.


[i] Will of Michael Noble, 1708. The National Archives, PROB 11/505/193.

[ii] Will of Walter Noble, 1724. The National Archives, PROB 11/600/88.

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