Portrait of Edward Foss, under Sheriff of London and lawyer, seated, quarter-length, wearing a dark coat, before a red swag, sky beyond, c.1816 oil on canvas 75.5 x 60.5cm (29 3/4 x 23 13/16in).
PROVENANCE Edwards Foss, United Kingdom Thence by descent Frederick Foss, United Kingdom Thence by descent Bernard Foss, United Kingdom Thence by descent Patrick Foss, United Kingdom Thence by descent Andrew Foss, United Kingdom
Oscar Wilde, in 'Pen, Pencil and Poison' described Thomas Griffiths Wainewright as 'being not merely a poet and a painter, an art-critic, an antiquarian, and a writer of prose, an amateur of beautiful things and a dilettante of things delightful, but also a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age.'1 A man of artistic temperament with a tendency to live well beyond his means, Wainewright was raised close to the centre of London's Romantic revolution until his spectacular fall from grace in 1837. Convicted of forgery, a crime necessitated by his extravagance, it was the testimony of the subject of this portrait, his cousin Edward Foss, which led to Wainewright's transportation to Van Diemen's Land. Wainewright produced portraits in oils of Edward and his brother Henry between 1816-17, as well as a watercolour of their sister, Frances (Fanny) Foss. The oils were considered lost or destroyed until the publishing of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's book, Wainewright the Poisoner, in 2000, which caused the Foss family to reveal this example's whereabouts. Having been held by the family since production, the portrait shows a youthful Edward Foss, the man who would some 20 years later be witness and agent to Wainewright's banishment. 2 In 1822, following the death of his grandfather, Wainewright, who was ever in need of funds, produced a Power of Attorney to the Bank of England which bore the forged signatures of Edward Foss, Robert Wainewright and Edward Foss (junior), our subject. He would commit the same crime almost a year later to access further funds, the forgeries unnoticed by the Bank until January of 1835. Whether through the acts of forgery or the suspicious deaths by poison of numerous family members close to Wainewright, relations between the Foss and Wainewright families soured. Whilst never proven, the swift demise of Wainewright's uncle, mother-in-law and wife's half-sister, all in good health and from whose death Wainewright directly benefited, undoubtedly caused concern. Regardless, Edward's testimony at the Old Bailey deeply shocked Wainewright, and the ensuing depravations of transportation and convict life, caused him to forever loath Edward Foss. Arriving in Hobart in 1837, over the following decade Wainewright would produce portraits of some 56 sitters, primarily of respected members of the small Hobart community. Considered to be amongst 'the finest examples of colonial portraiture, noted for their charm, skill and delicacy as well as for the faces of Hobart society they document' 3, a notable sitter was Surveyor General Robert Power, with whose family Wainewright became close. It was to Robert's wife Agnes Power that Wainewright expressed his final desire to return home and exact vengeance, which she transcribed in a letter to her daughter as 'By the bye, the unfortunate Wainewright is dead he died this day week of apoplexy. He had been for a long time very ill, had lost the use of his hand and was altogether in a miserable state of poverty as well as illness and had gone to the Hospital. Two days before he died, he felt so well that asked leave to go from the Hospital and died quite suddenly. He certainly was a wonderful man, full of talent and fuller still of wickedness. The last time I ever saw him he said all he wished to live for was to go home and murder the person who had transported him [ie his cousin, Edward Foss] of course I affected to think he was jesting, but I am quite sure he was in earnest.'4
1 Pen, Pencil and Poison, A Study in Green, Fortnightly Review, January 1889 2 Andrew Motion, Wainewright the Poisoner, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, p. 194 3 Michael Desmond, 'Poison Pen' in Magazine of Australian and International Portraiture, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, May 2010 4 quoted in Andrew Motion, Wainewright the Poisoner, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, p. 280
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