A Gainsborough Portrait

Barbara Rich
16 min readOct 14, 2018

The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart — part 3

After Captain Edward Wheeler’s death in war at sea on 1 April 1761, James Unwin’s life was transformed by the events which rapidly followed. As executor, James took probate of Edward’s will on 7 May 1761, just over a month after his friend’s death. His tasks of administration included applying to the Navy Board for dispensation from Edward Wheeler’s obligation to deliver signed muster books for the crew of the Isis.

As Edward’s beneficiary, James inherited the money which he had managed for Edward, Wootton Lodge and other property in Staffordshire, and the land at Stourbridge, subject only to obligations to make payments to Edward’s “most beloved” Fanny Stephenson for the rest of her life.

Today, James’s role as close adviser and manager of Edward Wheeler’s money and as beneficiary of his large estate would give rise to serious questions about his professional propriety. Even more questions might have been asked when James also married Fanny Stephenson, giving him the benefit both of her love and companionship, and her valuable life interests in Edward Wheeler’s estate. James and Fanny were married at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire on 13 December 1762 by the vicar of the parish, Paulo Tookie. The marriage was by licence granted by the Archdeacon of Oxford. Chalgrove was the home of Edward Wheeler’s cousins, the Egertons, and Jane Egerton, one of the few members of Edward’s family of whom he had spoken kindly in his will, was one of the witnesses to the marriage. The other, Stukely Baynton (in some records Stuckley or Bayntun), was an Oxfordshire friend of James, and a subscriber to a 1753 book called “Essay on the Government of Children” which, very progressively for its day, advocated breast-feeding, even for upper-class women.

Fanny appears on the marriage certificate as “Frances Wheeler” and as a “widow”. This was pure social fiction. She and Edward Wheeler were unquestionably both sexually involved and not married at the date of death. This must have reflected a daring freedom of spirit, for there was no inequality of social class between them to impede a marriage. The vicar, Paulo Tookie, was one of the witnesses to Edward’s will, although that does not mean that he must have read it, or known of its contents. He, surely, believed that Fanny was Edward’s widow, rather than condoning the untruth. On the evidence of the marriage certificate, together with the family disapproval of Fanny’s conduct referred to in the will of her father, John Stephenson, I think she must have left her family home in Newcastle for Chalgrove some time between 1755 and 1759, and lived there as if she was Edward’s wife, her secret known at most only to Edward, his cousin Peter Egerton, and Edward’s trusted friend and attorney James Unwin. By chance, Edward and her father died within days of each other in the first week of April 1761, a double bereavement, even though she was apparently estranged from her family in Newcastle, which must have left her feeling quite alone in the world.

Marriage certificate of James Unwin and “Frances Wheeler” describing herself as a “widow” 13 December 1762

James and Frances very soon had children. Their son James William Edward Unwin was born in 1763, the year after their marriage, followed by a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, in 1764, a second son, Thomas, in 1765, and a third son, Edward, in 1767. Impertinent though it feels to trespass into the intimate lives of long-dead people, this rapid series of births leads to the unavoidable conclusion that even if he had lived longer, Edward Wheeler would never have had the love-child that he would have so much welcomed and made his heir.

1857 lithograph of Wootton Lodge

“Wootton Lodge, a fine old sombre-looking castellated mansion, embosomed in richly wooded hills”

It isn’t clear when the Unwins moved to Wootton Lodge in Staffordshire. James would not have been entitled to do so until after the death of Edward’s aunt Ann. All four children were baptised at Great Baddow, Essex, where James’s family originated and he was still living there in 1764 when his friend and confidant, the painter Thomas Gainsborough wrote to him there. But Wootton Lodge had certainly become the family home by 1768, when Gainsborough wrote to James there, asking

I suppose your Country is very woody — pray have you Rocks and Water-falls? for I am as fond of Landskip as ever’

Gainsborough and James Unwin had a long-standing professional and social relationship. There is a copy of a now-lost portrait of James, describing him as Attorney to the Navy, by Gainsborough in the Frick Art Reference Library. In their correspondence, Gainsborough described James as “a brisk little man” and “extremely clever”. There is an engaging account of the friendship, and of the progress of the portrait which Gainsborough painted of Frances Unwin on the Historical Portraits website of British art dealer Philip Mould. Having begun the portrait in Bath soon after James and Frances’s marriage, Gainsborough’s letters were a record of embarrassed procrastination, familiar to anyone who has ever failed to meet a deadline. He eventually visited James and his family at Wootton Lodge in 1771, presumably, as Philip Mould suggests, taking the finished portrait with him. Gainsborough’s letters to James Unwin, are in their own way as frank about Frances’ sexual attractions as was Edward Wheeler’s will. On 24 July 1763 Gainsborough wrote:

‘But My Dear Friend how shall I continue with you concerning Mrs. Unwin’s Picture I pray Sir, could not you divert yourself with the original for one week longer? I hope Mrs Unwin is not so round but that you can bring that about’

the reference to “not so round” presumably being to Frances’ pregnancy with their first child, James, and on 7 November 1765

‘We are heartily glad you go on so merrily, you put me in mind of a little Fiddle that Giardini pick’d up here at Bath, which nobody would think well of, because there was nobody who knew how to bring out the tone of, and which (‘though somewhat undersized) in his Hands produced the finest Music in the World: I believe Mrs. Unwin has found out the exact place where to fix your soundpost and to cause your Belly to Vibrate better than any hand you ever fell into in your Life’ .

It’s impossible to imagine James’s son Edward, born two years later, and who became the Reverend Edward Unwin, in the course of his long and “singularly blameless” life , or any of the other vicars or maiden aunts who increasingly populate James Unwin’s and his great grand-daughter Mary’s family tree in the 19th century, ever reading or writing a letter with a studied erotic simile like this.

James and Frances may have felt that the finished portrait was worth waiting for. Whether or not the opulence of the rococo desk, leather-bound book and green damask curtain with its large tassels like supernumerary earrings is an intentional reflection of the social ascendancy brought by the Wheeler inheritance, as Philip Mould suggests, it’s a sign of their style and standard of living at Wootton Lodge.

Mrs James Unwin by Thomas Gainsborough — image © Philip Mould

It is also the only unquestioned image of a woman in Mary Cathcart’s family that I have yet found, even though she herself lived long into the age of photography, and was a person whose name was often in the newspapers in the 1890s. It’s frustrating to be left to imagine her appearance at various stages of her life, and speculate as to its similarity — or not — to this beautiful portrait of a wealthy woman, or to a feminised version of the photographs of a couple of her male cousins whose images have survived to posterity.

There is another portrait, which is said to be of James and Frances’ daughter, Elizabeth Ann. In 1786, when she was 22, she married Thomas Smith Barwell at fashionable St George’s Church, Hanover Square in London, and lived a long life with him, surviving him only by a few weeks in the spring of 1837, both dying shortly before the accession of Queen Victoria in the summer of that year.

Mrs Smith Barwell (nee Unwin) by James Northcote 1803 © Los Angeles County Museum of Art

This is catalogued as a portrait of Mrs Smith Barwell (nee Unwin) by the British painter James Northcote, dated 1803, when Elizabeth would have been thirty-nine. Although set in an outdoor landscape rather than an interior, and portraying a woman of greater liveliness of expression, like Gainsborough’s portrait of Frances Unwin, it is a picture of flamboyant wealth. Its description as a portrait of Elizabeth by Northcote has been authoritatively questioned, as has its date[1] but it does seem likely to be a portrait of Elizabeth Ann Unwin, possibly by Hoppner, and painted in or around the year of her marriage.

James Unwin’s will

James made his last will on 1 March 1771, the year of Gainsborough’s visit to Wootton Lodge. He died three years later. Frances, his widow and sole executrix, proved his will on 6 May 1774. In his will, James directed that first

I desire my Body may be decently buried but privately and without pomp

and then set out how his estate was to be distributed. His “dear and beloved wife” Frances was to have everything, but only for her lifetime. James, perhaps thinking of the speed with which he had married his friend’s “widow”, expressed a touch of posthumous possessiveness, in

having a perfect and thorough Confidence that she will take care of the Education and Maintenance of our Children and trusting that she will never give them a Stepfather

After Frances’ death, everything was to go to James’s oldest son, James William Edward Unwin

whom I make my heir and do verily believe and think to be of my own begetting which I mention in Conformity to the Will of my Dear Dead ffriend Capt Edward Wheeler

but on condition that within six months of becoming entitled to the estate, his son should raise £2,500 for each of his sister Elizabeth and brother Edward (Thomas having died in childhood) and pay them interest at 4% on it until they reached the age of 21. The seriousness of this stipulation was underscored by a direction that if the younger James did not comply with it, all the provisions in the will in his favour would be revoked and he would inherit nothing, with the estate passing to his younger brother instead.

James also directed when his son came into possession of his inheritance he was

to take the name of Wheeler in pursuance of the Will of my said dear ffriend Capt Wheeler

Like his “dear dead friend” Edward Wheeler, James Unwin remembered his friends in his will, although without specifying the same sort of convivial memorial evening, saying-

I give the sum of ffive Guineas a piece to my good ffriends Thomas Thornhill Thomas Perkins and Stukely Baynton for a Ring for each of them in Token of the sincere Love I had for them in my Life time

James was buried at St Peter’s Church, Ellastone, the church and village closest to Wootton Lodge, and a memorial tablet placed inside the church by Frances — who, true to her husband’s wish, did not give her children a stepfather.

Memorial tablet to James and Frances Unwin, St Peter’s Church, Ellastone, Staffordshire

James Unwin’s children

James William Edward Wheeler Unwin

I know little about the life of James the younger, other than that he inherited £300 from his godfather Stukeley Baynton, and was a career soldier, commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 102nd Regiment of Foot at the age of eighteen, in 1781, a major in 1801, and later a Lieutenant Colonel in the 60th Regiment of Foot. In a similar fashion to Edward Wheeler’s decision to make a career in the Royal Navy in the first half of the 18th century, becoming a career soldier appears to have been an increasingly common choice for men of similar well-to-do backgrounds in the second half of the century and during the wars with the French which continued until 1815.

James died on 13 December 1818 in Marseilles, at the age of 54. What was he doing there, and how did he die? England and France were no longer at war, and in any event James had by then retired from the army. Perhaps he simply found Marseilles a congenial place to settle. These questions are unyielding even to inspection of pages of early 19C French death registration records online, their endless columns and rows of hand-written names and dates like a two-dimensional catacomb.

James’s memorial in the church at Ellastone, larger and more ostentatious than his father’s, reveals little, and poses a question of its own. A black obelisk forms the backdrop to a marble coat of arms. These are Unwin arms, but neither James nor his father in their lifetime or in their wills appear to have claimed any connection with any branch of a titled family of Unwins from which the right to use the arms could have been inherited. One of the things that makes the family interesting is their social and geographical mobility in the 18C and 19C. The older James’s memorial has nothing more decorative than the draped urn on it. Who commissioned his son’s memorial and why they included the arms remains an unanswered question.

Memorial tablet to James William Edward Wheeler Unwin (1763–1818) © militaryimages.net

In memory of I W E Wheeler Unwin Esq Late Lt Col in His Majesty’s 60th Regiment; who died at Marseilles the 13th of December 1818, aged 54 years. Much and deservedly lamented: most of all by those who knowing most of him best knew how to appreciate his worth: his integrity of heart; humane and benevolent disposition which, flowing from Christian principles ennobled a character justly held in professional esteem; and constitutes its best memorial. This tribute of sincere esteem and affection is paid by his nearest, surviving relations who find, in the record, a consolation for their loss.

These are bland sentiments, but, like Edward Wheeler, James left a will, made on 12 February 1816, which reveals more important aspects of his relationships and feelings that otherwise would be lost to posterity.

The will of James William Edward Wheeler Unwin

Like Edward Wheeler, James William Edward chose not to marry a woman to whom he was close, who he described in his will as a “dear friend”. And unlike Edward Wheeler, there were three children of this “dear friend” who surely were James William Edward’s children too, towards whom he felt both affection and obligation. The “dear friend” was Elizabeth Birch of Thayer Street, Manchester Square, in the West End of London. She had a son, James Wheeler Birch, born in 1799, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Charlotte. James provided an annuity for Elizabeth Birch of £100 for her for the rest of her life, as well as £100 for her and for her children for mourning (that is for black clothes to wear during a period of mourning after his death). He also directed that the three children should have a fund of £8,000 invested in Public Funds for them within two years of his death, to be split as to £5,000 for James Wheeler Birch and £1,500 for each of little Elizabeth and Charlotte. James Wheeler Birch also came last in line for possible inheritance of the Unwin fortune, but would only have done so if Mary had not been born, or if her father had taken Holy Orders. James Wheeler Birch would also have had to comply with a condition that he would take the surname Unwin if he had inherited.

Although James Wheeler Birch never did inherit the fortune of the man who appears to have been his father, he benefited from a provision in the will enabling him to have part of his £5,000 trust fund before his 21st birthday, to purchase a commission in the army, as he joined the 45th Regiment of Foot as an Ensign by purchase in 1818, and later became vicar of All Saint’s, Hertford. His son, James Wheeler Woodford Birch (1826–1875) was a colonial civil servant who, in a clash between British colonialism and the unhappiness of the colonised was speared to death by followers of a local Malay chief whilst in the bath-house of his boat moored in Perak, Malaya.

Less outspoken in his view of the entitlement of illegitimate children to inheritance than Edward Wheeler had been half a century earlier, James William Edward Wheeler Unwin’s will also provided for some legacies to friends — in particular, a gold repeating watch “it is a good one and may be of use in the prosecution of his arduous profession of which he is a distinguished ornament” to a “dear and valued” friend who was a Colonel in the Coldstream Guards , and of £1,000 to his sister “to be paid into her own hands and to and for her own sole and separate use and benefit”, and then directed that his surviving brother, Edward, should have all the income from his older brother’s estate for life, after which the estate should go to Edward’s son, then only three years old, James Wheeler Unwin.

And thus eventually to Mary, as the only surviving child of James Wheeler Unwin.

The Reverend Edward Unwin

The lives of the two surviving Unwin brothers, born only four years apart, seem to epitomise some of the differences between men of the eighteenth and of the nineteenth centuries. James the professional soldier, slightly raffish, with his unofficial family in a fashionable part of London, and the end of his life in the south of France. Edward, admitted to Charterhouse School as a scholar at the age of eleven in 1778, then diligently studying at Oxford, graduating from Pembroke College as a BA in 1788 and MA in 1792, entering the Church of England and serving as vicar of St Werburgh’s, Derby from 1809 until his death in 1847, marrying into a landed family, and living for decades in his “modern villa” as a contemporary gazetteer described it, at Park Fields, off the Kedleston Road in Derby. Of his four daughters and two sons, only three survived to adulthood.

The Reverend Edward Unwin died at his home in Derby on 22 November 1847, nearly two years after James Wheeler Unwin’s accidental death in January 1846 had left Mary Unwin fatherless and her mother, Emily, a young widow. Edward was 80, and had led a long and “singularly blameless”[1] life. His funeral took place at St Werburgh’s a few days later. The Derby Mercury described him in warm, but scarcely less bland terms than his older brother’s memorial tablet:

His long life has been singularly blameless — his character beautifully consistent. His eye was single, and his course straight. Regarding supremely his master in heaven, he was comparatively indifferent to the judgment of man. Faithful and zealous as a minister of Christ, he was ready with hand and heart for every good work. Deeply impressed with the importance and value of the great Scriptural doctrines embodied in the services, the articles, and homilies of the church of which he was a minister, he was no way favourably disposed towards any of the novelties or extravagancies which, from time to time, during his ministry, made their appearance in the religious world; and it was always his most anxious wish that the doctrines and precepts of Holy Scripture should be fully exhibited and explained to his people in their due proportions. He was remarkably free from all bitterness of word and spirit; kind and liberal to the poor; and, though it does not belong to a public journal to speak of private character, we may be permitted to say, that those esteemed him most who knew him best.

James Unwin’s children, grandchildren & great-grandchildren (some non-surviving, non-inheriting issue omitted)

Mary’s other inheritance

Mary Unwin had two further elements to her inheritance. When her parents had married in the summer of 1843, her father and grandfather had raised £6,000 for the young couple by mortgaging some of the Wheeler Unwin estate to the trustees of the marriage settlement created for James and Emily. The £6,000 was put into the settlement, together with some shares in a company building a canal from Leeds to Liverpool, contributed by Emily’s father. He took a particularly close interest in the canal building, as it crossed his land in Yorkshire. Under the terms of the settlement, Mary would inherit this fund after Emily’s death. Mary was also entitled to a share of her father’s personal estate on his intestacy. This intestate estate was valued by Emily at about £452 after she’d paid the various debts, and by law she was entitled to a third of this, and Mary two-thirds, or about £300. It’s difficult to translate these figures to modern values, but they could amount to the equivalent of a few hundred thousand pounds.

Mary’s grandfather, the Reverend Edward Unwin, would have known both of his older brother’s will and of the marriage settlement and mortgage, in which he participated. It’s unsurprising that when he made his last will, in March 1846, just a few weeks after his son’s death, he left nothing to Mary, but divided his estate between his own son Edward, his son-in-law George Southouse and his unmarried daughter Frances. Not only must he have been quite sure that Mary and her mother would never lack for money, but he may well also have been generous to his son in his lifetime. It’s difficult to explain otherwise how Mary’s father was able to live at the standard he did, and leave an intestate estate behind him. He does not appear ever to have worked and his own interest in the large Wheeler Unwin inheritance would only have materialised on his father’s death.

As Mary was only a very small child when she inherited money, a mansion house and land in two counties, it had to be managed on her behalf until she became an adult, at the age of twenty-one, in 1865. The step that her mother’s family took to ensure that this happened was to make her a ward in Chancery.

This will be the subject of the next instalment of her story.

Previous instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart


Part 1 — A Shocking and Fatal Accident

Part 2 — Cold Clay

[1] In 2017, the Financial Times published an article (£) about a portrait of another “Mrs Smith”, attributed to Northcote, which led to correspondence, now in the public domain, between National Portrait Gallery Research Fellow and former 18th Century Curator, Jacob Simon and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, about the date, attribution to Northcote and identity of the sitter of the “Unwin” portrait, as when the painting was sold at Christies in 1928 it was described as “Mrs Shaw Barwell” and it was not clear why dealers subsequently changed the identification. But as the painting was consigned to Christies by an Unwin descendant, I believe it is a portrait of Elizabeth Ann Unwin.



Barbara Rich

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity