John Norris Hewett, a singular woman
Browsing through eighteenth century sale catalogues occasionally produces curiosities beyond the works listed for sale. Collectors themselves have long been the subject of scholarly enquiry; but you will find little about the Mrs Hewett of Richmond whose collection was sold after her death by Christie’s in 1792 (she is “unknown” according to the Getty Provenance Index). As the sale included a number of pictures which she herself had made, in various media ranging from oil to watercolour and chalk as well as crayons (pastel), I was obliged to unravel the mystery of who she was. This wasn’t helped by her having the most unusual Christian names, “John Norris”, and of having married three times, each to men called John: and of being absent from virtually all reference books.
My curiosity was whetted when I came across this entry in the register of St George’s Bloomsbury (1773):
“A single woman” is not a standard phrase encountered in these registers. What we call a single woman is properly termed a “spinster”; the alternative is a “widow”. The entry misleadingly suggests she was born Gordon and had married a Mr Fisher, etc. The name is so unusual that when the Law Commission researcher was compiling the lists of acts of parliament in 1999 she assumed the 1773 divorce bill I explain below must refer to some bizarre homosexual arrangement; and indeed the Journal of the House of Lords attempted to rectify the spelling to “Joan” in its report of one of the committee stages of the bill.
This post would be excessively long if I continue to work backwards through all the confusions I encountered, so let’s start at the beginning – even if it feels as though you are being shown a solved Sudoku puzzle (you can always turn away now).
Mrs Hewett’s grandfather was Sir John Norris (1671–1749), admiral of the fleet, of whose naval career there is a good summary in the DNB (left is his portrait by Hudson from the Government Art Collection). He was a protégé of the wonderfully named Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His successes brought considerable wealth, including Hempstead Park (variously spelt) in Kent. The DNB acknowledges the obscurity of Norris’s family origins: probably Irish, and connected with the Aylmers. You can follow the relevant people in my iconographical genealogy for Aylmer.
One of Sir John’s daughters, Lucy (1705–1793), was married (like so many of her relations) into the Aylmers, to Sir Gerald Aylmer, 5th Baronet of Doneda. Their son was the oddly named Sir Fitzgerald Aylmer who was born eight months after Sir Gerald’s death: perhaps his name should be taken literally rather than as merely indicating his being posthumous (the 3rd baronet was also called Fitzgerald: he also was born in the year of his father’s death). In any case, Lucy, who was just 31, remarried the following year, and as we learn from her father’s will (1749, 12 years after the lapse), without his approval:
She receives only £10 from his vast estate, having “most undutifully and indiscreatly married a second husband without my consent or knowledge to the disgrace of her family.” Little is known about this second husband, one Robert Fisher, other than that he signs one of the documents below in a literate hand and is referred to as “Esquire”. (He is glossed as the “Mr Fisher” mentioned in the correspondence of Pitt, but that is more likely to be a reference to Thomas Fisher, a regimental agent.) Evidently Lucy christened her child (the only one she is known to have had) in a vain attempt to placate her father. Curiously by the time Lucy’s mother died, in 1763 in Berkeley Square, it seems she was forgiven, as she was named as her mother’s sole executrix and residuary legatee. But bizarrely (perhaps proof of dementia), Lady Norris can remember neither her daughter’s name, calling her Elizabeth instead of Lucy, nor that of her husband, whom she names as “Joseph Fisher of St James’s Square” when he was Robert. Fortunately the errors are corrected in the probatum, but Fisher’s address is not corrected (and may be wrong). Lucy’s response was to disclaim the inheritance.
But I’ve leapt ahead. In 1743 (the year derived solely from her age at death) the future Mrs Hewett was born, and christened John Norris Fisher (for obvious reasons she often dropped the “John”). There seems to be absolutely no trace of any baptismal document, and virtually nothing is known about Norris’s upbringing (perhaps it took place in Ireland?). But on 20 March 1764 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, she married a John Gordon (there are several homonyms, but he was then a captain in the 50th Foot, later promoted to lieutenant-colonel; he was the third son of an Irish family, the Gordons of Ballinteggart; his brother Thomas Knox became chief justice of South Carolina):
Now this should have been her first marriage, but once again the phraseology is bizarre: “John Norris Gordon heretofore Fisher” suggests that there may already have been some unofficial union. The witnesses were her father, Robert Fisher; her mother (almost invisibly small), Lucy Fisher, while the third, Lucy Fortescue, was her great-aunt. In any case, it seems that Captain Gordon went back to Ireland with his regiment, but on his return found that Norris was having an affair with a senior naval officer, John Storr (1709–1783), vice-admiral of the red.
In the absence of diaries or correspondence we can only guess how things developed from the resulting action for crim. con. and the private bill for “Gordon’s divorce” brought before Parliament, passed by the Lords 31 March and by the Commons 29 April 1773.
For the sordid details you have to refer to the Journals of the House of Lords:
If the purpose of the bill was supposed to allow Gordon to remarry, he did not in fact do so until 1780, when he made the only alliance mentioned in the standard reference works, to Elizabeth Bamfylde, daughter of a baronet. But Gordon died soon after, in Islington, in 1782.
In fact, just a few weeks after the divorce bill was enacted, “Norris Fisher formerly Gordon” married Admiral Storr, the register entry at the top of this post. Here is how the Town and Country Magazine reported it (providing key details which allowed me to pull this story together):
Admiral Storr was by then 64. He lived for another ten years, leaving his house in Bedford Square and a life interest in his numerous estates in Yorkshire to Norris.
There is a memorial (with a bust by William Tyler, left) in Westminster Abbey.
Just a year later, on 13 February 1784, at St George, Hanover Square, Norris married for the third time, again to a figure whose lineage is obscured by changes of name: John Hewett (1720–1787). He was in fact born John Thornhaugh, but by another private act of parliament, 29 George II. c. 53 (1756) he changed his name to inherit an estate. He was subsequently sheriff of Nottinghamshire and an MP. In 1744 he had married Arabella, daughter of Sir George Savile, 7th Bt, and his political affiliations remained entwined with those of the Savile family. His daughter Mary Arabella married Francis Foljambe (who it won’t surprise you didn’t have that surname at birth), and when Mary Arabella died, Francis was remarried to the daughter of the Earl of Scarborough and his wife, yet another Savile.
But of John Hewett’s remarriage to Norris Storr there is no mention in the History of Parliament nor any of the standard volumes. His signature on the 1784 marriage allegation (now conventionally worded as between “John Hewett Esqr, a widower and John Norris Storr, a widow”) is sufficiently shaky to suggest that he was already ill, and indeed he died three years later.
As the Gentleman’s Magazine reported, on 22 December 1790 Mrs Norris Hewett, relict of John Hewett Esq of Shire Oakes, Co. Nottingham, died at Richmond. She was buried at St Peter’s, Petersham, 29 December 1790, aged 47.
She had made her will a few days before, and was hoping to make it to Christmas day where it seems a half-year payment was due. The document (too long to reproduce in full) gives a glimpse into her final state of mind:
And so on. Her “dear Sir Andrew Ward and Mrs Ward” (who were they? why not Lady Ward?) were to choose four of her best pictures on condition that “they are not to be placed in Bed Chambers” (the usual fate of so many pastels).
The rest were “to become the property of Lady -“, the name omitted. One of the trustees of the will was Norris’s neice, Margaret, Lady Holt; the residual legatee was apparently another neice, called Harriet Hunt, of whom I can find no other trace nor any obvious connection: could it be that “niece” was a euphemism? Unsurprisingly the omission of the name led to litigation between the two nieces (notwithstanding Norris’s plea to Lady Hort “to feel for Harriet’s dessolute situation in point of protection and if it be possible may she find protection with or near” her), as this disguised account of the resulting case of Hunt v Hort (3 Bro C.C. 311) in an 1804 Treatise on the law of legacies (by the admirably named Roper Stote Donnison Roper) indicates-
The furniture was sold three months after Norris’s death, by Christie’s, but it was not until the following year, after the litigation was settled (the bequest to “Lady -” being declared void, so the pictures fell to Norris’s niece, Harriet Hunt) that her pictures were sold, on 16 and on 20 January 1792:
A catalogue of a collection of genuine and valuable pictures; drawings and miniatures; consisting of a variety of pleasing, historical and other subjects in crayons, the property and performance of the late Mrs. Hewett, deceased, celebrated for her refined taste in the polite arts brought from her late residence at Richmond; the most of which are rich, and elegantly framed and glazed, with large plates of glass. Which will be sold by auction (by order of the Executors) by Mr. Christie, at his Great Room, Pall Mall, on Friday, January the 20th, 1792, at twelve o’clock
Her collection included landscapes by Hubert Robert and Dietsch, an unknown oil of her second husband by John Russell, numerous anonymous flower pieces, landscapes, portraits etc.; copies after Stubbs, Kauffman and Cipriani. Her own work in unspecified media included copies after Kauffman, Reynolds, Guido Reni and several after Matthew William Peters. (Peters was a painter patronised by Norris’s cousins, the Fortescues – as was Cotes.) Subjects such as “a girl feeding a rabbit” might well be after Russell, and the many works for which no medium is indicated might well include pastels. A head of Christ and several sets of oval portraits are mentioned as in crayons. Everything is now lost without trace, including the portraits of Mr and Mrs Hewett.
Or is it? One of the copies after Peters was described as a “very large of angels and spirits ascending” (lot 48 sold or bought in at £11, the highest price for any of her pictures): it sounds as though it might be a copy of his Resurrection of a pious family, an enormous canvas which hung in Totteridge Church in the nineteenth century, and of which a large anonymous pastel copy (123×90 cm) was sold by Bonhams recently. It is not the only recorded copy, and I hesitated to put it forward as Norris’s work, but I recall that the pastel came from Hooton Pagnell. (I was quite sure that it was not by William Peters himself, but had no idea who the copyist might be.)
And then finally the penny dropped: Norris’s dear friends were not Sir Andrew, but the (yet again curiously named) St Andrew Warde (1745-1822) and his wife, née Anne Cooke. (The writing is perfectly clear once you know what you’re looking for.) Who owned Hooton Pagnell at this very time. The pastel, which did not make it into the bedrooms, had hung in the stairwell probably since its arrival until last year.
Perhaps someone out there has a stash of letters, or some enterprising social historian will find this outline of an unusually obscure life worth investigating further. But for the moment this pastel will have to suffice for the Resurrection of a not-so-pious lady.