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Francis Sykes and his family

22 November 2015
Sykes attr ar Liotard Elizabeth Caroline RCIN copy

Francis Sykes after Liotard, Princess Elisabeth Caroline (Royal Collection)

When I was a publisher many years ago, I was privileged to have on my list (and to have the benefit of his advice) Dr John Sykes, physicist and lexicographer, and one of the most brilliant minds I have come across. I have no idea if he was connected with the family of the enamelist Francis Sykes, but his great celebrity as the most consistent winner of The Times crossword championship pointed to a skill that would certainly have helped unravel the story I set out below, and which I stumbled across while hoping (in vain) to establish the identity of an unrelated pastellist.

The information in various reference books contains a number of confusions, and the story can only be told by consulting a very wide range of sources, some of which contain material errors and omissions which ought to be corrected – not least because on the authority of the famous antiquary Ralph Thoresby, who was related to the family, a descendant was denied the arms to which he was entitled. Civil war tensions combine with undocumented life events for the crypto-Catholic branch of the family. Unlike crosswords, art historical research should end up with a story which is more interesting than the puzzles that obscured it (and worthwhile even when incomplete), so I shall present the outline of a story in a linear narrative. I don’t think it has been pieced together before. It may I hope inspire others to add some missing components.

You can find an extended pedigree with the principal biographical data on my website at this link.

The story starts in Leeds, with Henry Sykes (1601–1654) of Hunslet Hall. His son William was a republican, which partly accounts for the omission of this branch of the family from genealogical accounts. William’s fifth son Daniel (1632– ) was the father of the Richard Sykes who married the heiress to the Sledmere estates, from whom the well-known family of Sykes of Tatton descend (they are the subject of numerous eighteenth century portraits by Gardner, Romney etc.). But the fourth son, also William, was written out. And it is to that William’s son, yet another William, born 1660, that we must turn.

This William appears in Thoresby simply as a merchant who died without posterity in 1692. Thoresby must have known this was untrue as he was married to William’s cousin Anne, as you can see from the Sykes pedigree which he prints in his Ducatus Leodiensis, 1715, p. 4 (to be compared with mine linked above):

Thoresby Sykes

This William Sykes, “limner”, was involved in an altercation in which he killed two bailiffs at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, for which he was convicted of manslaughter on 17 January 1697/8. But he remained in business, both as a painter and as a dealer in paintings, playing a significant role in the Virtuosi of St Luke and acquiring a reputation as a connoisseur.

Sykes appears on several pages in Vertue’s notebooks, for example (i.52) “Mr Bullfinch Bought all Mr Betterons Pictures amongst which were a great many Crayon pictures of famous Playerses these he sold to Mr Sykes.” His death, which took place in Bruges on 31 December 1724 (Vertue noted “Mr Sykes dy’d at Brugs”: i.146), was reported first in the Daily Post, 12 January 1725:

William Sykes death Daily Post12i1725

Soon after, his collection of 300 or so pictures were sold over five days from 2 March 1725 at his house, the Two Golden Balls, Portugal Row, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The quality of the collection is revealed in the catalogue which can be seen in full on the excellent website at this link.

The disposal of the pictures was in conformity with his will (Gulielmi Sykes of the parish of St Giles in the Fields, painter) which was proved 11 February 1724/5 (National Archives, Prerogative Court of Canterbury). In it his wife, his sons William and James and his grandson Luke are mentioned. William took over the business, but himself died three years later. This time the will (proved 23 May 1728) contains a number of clues that have been overlooked. Notably he again provides for his pictures to be sold, but the proceeds are to be used for the benefit of his two sons, Francis and Luke: each is to be “apprenticed to an able Master in Painting”, but he specifies that that master should, in the case of Luke, be “Mr Wootton”, and in the case of Francis, “Sir James Thornhill”. Both sons were therefore probably below the age of 14 when the will was made (11 March 1727):

Wm Sykes will 1728

The auction took place at Cooper’s, Covent-Garden, 23 January 1728/9 and following days. This was announced in the Daily Post, 14 January 1728/9, and again the catalogue can be consulted at this link: .

This followed what must have been an unseemly row between members of his family, resulting in this notice in the Daily Journal, 8 November 1728 (repeated a week later):

James Sykes ad Daily Jnl 8xi1728

Little more is known of James. The Daily Journal for 30 August 1731 reported that he was “attacked by three Street-Robbers, at the Corner of Duke-street, near Vere-street, but he making a brisk Defence, and others coming to his Assistance, they thought fit to make off.” He died in 1737, according to a piece in Notes & Queries, 1882: but this may be an error (see below), as the will proved on 13 April contains no information definitively identifying his relationships.

Of Luke Sykes nothing more in known. But our story resumes with his brother Francis Valentine Sykes (1715–1771), a miniaturist of considerable distinction whose biography has hitherto been completely unknown.

His date of birth and full baptismal names are provided by a James Sykes (writing in Notes & Queries 1861–1882, as QFVF, initials based on the family motto), who is unaware that his ancestor was an artist.

It isn’t certain if Francis Sykes was taken on by Thornhill, as his father intended. Rather the first sighting we have is from two engravings made after Thornhill’s son-in-law William Hogarth: an undated portrait of the actor John Hippisley as Sir Francis Gripe, and this engraving after one of Hogarth’s Four Times of Day:

Sykes ar Hogarth Half starved boy

Sykes’s plate, known as “The Half-Starved boy” (reproduced from the Metropolitan Museum of Art impression), is inscribed “WH pinx. F. Sykes sculp. 1730”, leading to a dispute about the year: 1738 or 1739, being suggested, e.g. by Hogarth’s biographer John Nichols (who was also unsure if Sykes was a pupil of Hogarth or Thornhill). However the best testimony about Sykes’s training (and the main clues to the puzzle of his identity) are given by the artist himself, as reported in the Diary of Sylas Neville 1767–1788 (Oxford, 1950, p. 84 & passim), who knew Sykes at the end of his life. Apparently “Hogarth for water-colours [sic] and Zink for enamel were Mr. Sykes’s masters” (he also taught Samuel Cotes, and esteemed “the elder Cootes the best artist in Crayons”).

We don’t know at what date he studied with Zincke, but it seems that quite early (before 1740) he was married, to a Theresa Rigmaden or Rigmaiden (1713–1791), the daughter and heiress of Francis Rigmaden of Twickenham. Her ancestry plays a crucial role in unravelling the story: one of the remarks that appears in various sources is that Sykes was a descendant of the man who hid Charles II in an oak tree at Boscobel after the battle of Worcester. In fact the descendant was Theresa, not Sykes; but even here the sources were garbled, as a flurry of insertions in Notes & Queries in the late nineteenth century revealed. Some propagated the idea that Theresa was a Pendrell, the name of several of those loyalists who concealed the king; but in fact her ancestor was Francis Yates, another of those involved. All of this matters because the grateful monarch rewarded these men with perpetual annuities of £100, to pass to their lineal descendants; with the result that there are extensive files proving their genealogies in the National Archives (summaries are printed in several books about the Boscobel incident). They are the basis for much of the information in this post.

We know that Sykes had settled in The Hague by 1743, when, on 27 August, he registered his will there. A son, also Francis, was born c.1740, and was last recorded in India c.1764, where he is thought to have died (although a Francis Sykes married a Catherine Ridley in Calcutta in 1766, possibly no relation). But the most important member of the next generation, Francis’s second son Henry Sykes (see below), was born in The Hague in 1743/44; a daughter Theresa was born in 1749. It is clear that the family’s connections with The Netherlands had not ended with William’s death : Francis’s aunt Ann Sykes is reported to have founded a convent in Bruges, where she was still living in 1740.

By 1752 Sykes was in Paris, for reasons that will emerge. Here he was recorded as purchasing a large group of miniatures by Petitot at the sale (from 27 November to 22 December) of the banker Cottin, apparently for resale back in London. He appeared a few years later in Les Affiches de Paris in 1754 as “peintre miniaturiste du duc d’Orléans”. But he led a hand-to-mouth existence, living in a furnished room in the rue du Petit-Lion, unable to pay his rent or his suppliers, and spending his advances before delivering his work. Thus in 1752, the goldsmiths Garand and veuve Ravechot consigned to him a gold box to be enamelled for the maréchal de Richelieu, and advanced him 1747 livres. Three years later Sykes had spent the money without commencing the work, and refused to return the box. The maréchal set the lieutenant de police on to him, and had Sykes imprisoned in the Bastille until he agreed to finish the work. (Henri Lapauze, in the journal La Renaissance, 1924 tells the story, but confuses the artist with one George Sykes, an artist later known for his expertise in drawing portraits on board with a red hot poker; the confusion persists in the reference books.)

Essentially the same story was told very differently by the artist himself, to the actress George Anne Bellamy (c.1731–1788). The background to the story was reported London Evening Post, 4 September 1755: a certain Peter Sykes, formerly an eminent merchant, who died in Toulouse on 19 August 1755, had left his fortune equally to Bellamy and a “James Sykes, a resident of Utrecht” (who one speculates might be the uncle of Francis reported as dead in 1733). According to her own account (in her Apology…), Bellamy, who was habitually short of funds, was surprised to be told by a friend that her “fortune was made”, before reading a newspaper report to her concerning the death, “a short time before” of “Thomas Sykes, Esq” [sic] who “had died in the South of France, and had left his fortune in the English funds, and his property at the Hague, both of which was supposed to be very considerable, to Miss Bellamy, belonging to one of the theatres.” Bellamy’s unsuccessful attempts to recover this legacy are related in her autobiography; the funds were ultimately confiscated by the Dutch authorities. Some time later, finding herself in Antwerp, she pursued the matter with Mr Sykes’s brother [sic]: this must have been Francis. There she

learnt that Mr Sykes, (who, besides his profession as a painter, kept a jeweller’s and bijou shop) having had an invitation from the Duke de Berry, in order to make some alterations in his Grace’s gallery, was gone to Paris. Some other great personage taking offence at Mr Sykes’s giving the Duke the preference to himself, had procured a Lettre de cachet against him. And as he was one day at the coffee-house, an exempt took him aside, and desired he would take an airing with him, in a coach which stood at the door, as far as the Bastile. It would have been in vain for him to resist, and equally as vain to enquire the reason. He had only time to request of a gentleman of his acquaintance, who was in the room, to let his wife know of the disaster. This his friend did; and it had such an effect upon her that she lost her senses in consequence of it. Such being their unfortunate situation, it was much feared neither Mr nor Mrs Sykes would ever return to their family more.

Soon after, Sykes reappeared in London, where three notices appearing in the Gazette between 30 March and 10 April 1756 (as the bankruptcy law required) explain the reasons for his stay abroad:

Francis Sykes Gazette 1756

Back in London he resumed his practice as an enamelist, creating a small number of miniatures which are mostly only attributed to him. One signed example is this very fine 1759 enamel, in 1917 (when this terrible photo was taken) in the collection of Ernst Ludwig Großherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein (to whose mother, Princess Alice, it was bequeathed by Princess Sophie Matilda of Gloucester (1773–1844), her godmother):

Sykes Princess Elizabeth Caroline sd1759

Francis Sykes after Liotard, Princess Elizabeth Caroline, sd 1759

A second version, not signed or dated, is surely also by Sykes, and is still in the Royal Collection; reproduced at the start of this post. Although not remarked in the Royal Collection online database, the image derives from Liotard’s well-known pastel of the princess – but with a change of dress, so that it matches the pastel copy of the Liotard also in the Royal Collection:

The date of the Hesse enamel, 1759, is some six years after the Liotard; it may be that the copies were made on the princess’s death in that year. It is probable that the other enamel was made at the same time, and surely by Sykes. The authorship of the pastel copy is not known: but the substitution of the blue dress for the highly complicated shot silk in the Liotard may well have had the enamels in mind (the blue is the same as that found in so many enamels by Sykes’s teacher Zincke), and it is quite possible that Sykes himself made it. There is however no other evidence that he used pastel.

Of Sykes’s other enamels one can cite one of the Earl of Bute, sd 1760 (another of the same sitter, after Ramsay, is in the V&A, attributed), as well as a portrait of George III, sd 1764 (Christie’s, 13 February 1962, Lot 28).

The Morning Chronologer for 4 May 1764 [in the London Magazine, June 1764, p. 325, followed by other papers, but the dates given erroneously in various references as 1769] contained the following announcement:

Sykes George III 1764

“F. Sykes” was among the 211 artists who subscribed the Roll Declaration of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain in 1765.

For the remainder of Francis Sykes’s career, the best coverage is the rather sorry picture painted by Sylas Neville, who clearly found the man very engaging, and reports their numerous conversations in some detail, and, one suspects, some inaccuracy. Thus when Neville “introduced a conversation about Charles Wortley Montague”, the figure Sykes describes is not Edward WM (as the editor of the diary assumes), but Liotard (the story is of course of the beard, and the legend of his admission into the seraglio where “he painted all the ladies in crayons”). The artist recommended Montpellier, where he may have lived at some stage. Sykes guided the young miniaturist Edward Miles, who drew Neville’s portrait. Sykes’s enamel of Neville, “one of the best he had done”, shows the diarist in Vandyke dress, the colour dark grey, sleeves and breast slashed with crimson; in the foreground, an ancient urn inscribed DMGG for Diis Manibus Gracchorum. (The description suggests that the enamel of a lady in Vandyke dress sent to the Society of Artist in 1761, no. 116, was surely by the same Sykes.) Neville ended up reluctantly accepting Sykes’s bill for £60, whereupon, with the bill unpaid, Sykes died, in Yarmouth: between 30 July 1771, when Neville last saw him, and 3 August, when he was already dead (“of an uncommon disorder”) and buried. Only after this does Neville learn the extent of Sykes’s hardship and distress; a friend explained that Sykes “was once in a very good way in Holland and did what he pleased about pictures, but that he could not rest there, but would go to see Paris.”

Neville, who was surprised to be told that Sykes was a Roman Catholic, also mentions two daughters, one “pretty well married”, the other in a nunnery abroad. He makes no mention of the sons. As noted above, Henry Sykes was born in The Hague in 1743/44. He was still in London when, c.1766, he married Grace Birch (1744–1812), the daughter of Francis Birch of Uppingham (and it was in Uppingham that Henry’s mother Theresa died in 1791). Although Henry retained a presence in England (at The Crescent, New Bridge Street, Twickenham), he settled in France, where he conducted an important and broadly based business. This included spinning and textile manufacture, at Saint-Rémy-sur-Avre, but branched out into the retailing of luxury goods from premises in the Palais-Royal. Here, while recorded as a mercier (baronne d’Oberkirch took her daughter there to buy fabric) and selling prints, he developed a speciality in importing scientific instruments from Britain, earning him the title “opticien privilégié du roi”. Thiery 1788 noted his “magasin de physique, estampes angloises & autres curiosités, chez M. Sykes, place du Palais Royal.” His suppliers included the renowned firm of Peter Dolland (the maker of telescopes used both by John Russell and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour), and he supplied spectacles to Benjamin Franklin (allegedly the first set of bifocals). Before he became known in a different context, Jean-Paul Marat conducted scientific experiments using apparatus which he would only allow Sykes to construct. (In France the spelling causes some difficulty, and variants such as Sikes or Sickes occur.) But it was as a symbol of frivolous spending that Sykes appeared in the satirical verses of the chevalier de Cubières (Opuscules poétiques, 1784):


Most sources have Henry’s only child as Grace Valentine (1768–1817), whose marriage (which took place in London, St Anne’s, Blackfriars, in 1788) to another expatriot, William Waddington, produced a line of French parlementaires, including her grandson, William Henry Waddington, Prime Minister of France in 1879.

The story remains incomplete, with a number of loose ends. Of these the most puzzling is the relationship (if any) with George Sykes, Jr mentioned above: he exhibited portraits (not all with the red hot poker) and a conversation piece at the Society of Artists 1770–73. In 1773 he wrote to George Stubbs to request election to the Society, and he appears then to have settled in York. There is a curious reference in William Paulet Carey’s Letter to I*** A***, a connoisseur in London, Manchester, 1809, ii, p. 25, in which he attributes an anecdote about Richard Wilson (that he used a large decayed cheese to model for rocks and landscapes) to “Mr Sykes, an Artist of merit, who now lives, beloved and respected, in York; and who, forty years ago, painted pleasing portraits, in miniature and oil; and small conversations, composed with much elegance of fancy.” There is no obvious connection with Francis Sykes and his family.


From → Art history

  1. A great write up of the Sykes family. I had been gathering similar notes covering the early 18th century dealers. William Sykes (d 1724) crops up in the correspondence of William Kent, and he was one of the people appointed by the Navy to value Thornhill’s work at Greenwich. The general impression is that he was one of the really big picture dealers of the first couple of decades of the 18th century and numbered the Duke of Devonshire among his clients. It’s the only London picture sale I’ve found advertised in the foreign press (though I would love to find more!). He had a second sale, on 16 Nov 1724.

    James Sykes was one of the organisers of the 1724 auction and did a valuation of Lord Falmouth’s pictures in 1730 (Herts RO). His sale in 1733 was transcribed in the Houlditch Mss, meaning that the 8 April 1733 will is surely his.

    John Baker was a founder member of the RA who was a coach painter who specialised in flower painting. In his ‘notebooks on artists’ Farington recorded that Baker “never was established as a Coach Painter, but was employed by various persons and in great request [as a flower painter]. Of these engagements, that which continued longest was with a coach painter of the name of Sykes, who resided in Little Queen Street, Lincolns-Inn fields.” This would have been the 1750s or 60s. Knowing nothing of the fascinating history you’ve reconstructed, I always assumed this was some member of William Sykes’s family, still having a presence in that bit of London; especially as it would be easy to imagine dealing/restoring sliding into decorative painting over a generation or two. But perhaps it’s just a co-incidence.

    • Thank you for your generous and useful comment. I’m glad we’ve triangulated James. Isn’t the coach painter John Sykes, as in the DNB? I note also in the General Evening Post 6.ii.1770 “Mr Sykes, coach-painter, in Great Queen-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields, to Miss Webb, of the same place.” But I’m not sure they’re connected with my family, who I think regarded themselves as socially superior to coach-painting (even if not financially!) There is also a cabinetmaker John Sykes “of Coachmakers Hall” whose will was proved 17 June 1771; he did have a brother Francis, but also sisters Elizabeth Winn and Ann Willett who don’t fit. And no doubt others…

  2. Doh! It was me who (uncredited) supplied that information to the DNB about Sykes about ten years ago. That’s middle age for you! Ms 5667 (the painter stainers apprentice bindings) shows a John Sykes taking on an apprentice in 1772 and his widow Elizabeth doing the same in 1775.

  3. I’m still trying to identify the C. Sykes who made a handful of pastels in the 1770s, but does not appear to be related. But I’ll have forgotten by tomorrow…

  4. Richard permalink

    A small postscript on Francis Sykes’s widow Theresa: when the Royal Academy council met on 25 October 1771 they “Read an Application from Mrs Theresia Sykes. widow of Sykes Painter setting forth her great Distress. Resolved that the sum of five guineas be given her.’ (vol 1, f.112)

  5. How sad. I doubt if the five guineas will have provided fully for the remaining 20 years of her life.

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