Our Archive is a rich resource for academics, historians and writers, researching a wide variety of topics. Biographer Ruth Ord-Hume has used The Archive in researching her new book Mr. Percy, Portrait modeller in coloured wax, published by ACC Art Books.
Here, Ruth Ord-Hume describes how she used the newspapers from our collection to research her book, and to find out more about this extraordinary artist.
When I set out to research the life and work of Samuel Percy I soon found out why it had not been done before. He left no papers and there was very little already written about him – and most of that that turned out to be based on guesswork and was often wrong.
Samuel Percy was a modeller of miniature portraits in coloured wax who was born about 1753 and died in 1819. There are a great many examples of his work scattered round the world but nothing has been known about the man himself – where he lived, how much he charged, what he thought or did. It turns out he thought and did a great deal that was out of the ordinary and it is chronicled in his advertisements.
Charles James Fox by Samuel Percy
Most of his working life was spent moving from town to town, modelling portraits in each place and then moving on, advertising at each venue as he went. There are over one hundred of these adverts, each one different, and each telling us a bit more about ‘Mr. Percy’. Happily for him, his career coincided with the growth of local newspapers.
For example, it is only because of a 1786 advertisement in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette that we learn he spent seven years teaching at the Royal School, Armagh in the 1770s. We have the Caledonian Mercury to thank for letting the world know in 1791 that Percy had despatched a present for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia by ship from Leith.
Sometimes Percy felt he had been badly treated and he chided the public. He bluntly informed the people of Manchester that he would not reduce prices to ensure sales before he left the town nor would he ‘adopt French manners to express British Sentiments’ presumably referring to the exaggerated courtesies of the French court (Manchester Mercury 1783).
Many years later he berated the public of Liverpool because they had not been to see his (paying) exhibition in the city, thus threatening to leave him out of pocket after meeting his expenses (Liverpool Mercury 1815). The ploy seems to have worked because he was still in Liverpool the following year, and we can tell this because he was advertising then.
Sometimes advertisements provide the only surviving record of his work. When he launched a new batch of his famous scenes of figures in Taunton in 1813, he listed them by name in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser and this is the sole record of their existence.
Without recourse to the newspapers, Percy’s life story could not be written. Quite simply, there would be no story to write.
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