Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wivell, Abraham

1056940Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62 — Wivell, Abraham1900Campbell Dodgson

WIVELL, ABRAHAM (1786–1849), portrait-painter, was born on 9 July 1786 in the parish of St. Marylebone, London. He was the fourth child and only son of a tradesman who had left Launceston, Cornwall, a year previously, and died soon after his son's birth, leaving his widow very badly off. Young Wivell began to work for his living at the age of six as a farmer's boy. He returned to London two years later, and, after trying several occupations, was apprenticed to a hairdresser in 1799 for seven years. At the end of this term he set up for himself in the same trade, and advertised his skill in taking likenesses by exhibiting miniatures among the wigs in his shop-window. He made the acquaintance of Joseph Nollekens and James Northcote [q. v.], who helped him to extend his practice as a portrait-painter, though he could not yet afford to live by that alone. He made some unsuccessful experiments about this time in etching and mezzotint engraving. A mezzotint portrait by him, after John Smith, was published in Rodd's ‘Portraits to illustrate Granger's Biographical History of England,’ 1819. In 1820 he took portraits of Arthur Thistlewood [q. v.] and the other Cato Street conspirators in Clerkenwell prison, and received a commission from the publisher Thomas Kelly of 17 Paternoster Row to draw them again during their trial at the Old Bailey. These portraits met with great success. Later in the same year he took a sketch of Queen Caroline as she appeared on a balcony to receive the greetings of the people on her return to London. The sketch was brought to the queen's notice, and she gave Wivell a sitting to enable him to finish the portrait. At the queen's trial in the House of Lords Wivell, who had gained a surreptitious entrance among the barristers, took rapid sketches of all the persons concerned, which were circulated at the time among the company present and afterwards published. This was the starting-point of Wivell's career of prosperity. He soon obtained abundant commissions from the royal family and the aristocracy, and painted portraits, which were afterwards engraved, of George IV, the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Clarence, Prince George and Princess Augusta of Cambridge as children, Lord Holland, Sir Francis Burdett, George Canning, Sir Astley Cooper, Lord John Russell, and many more of the leading men of the day. He painted the portraits of nearly two hundred members of parliament for a view of the interior of the House of Commons which was published by Bowyer and Parkes, and received numerous commissions for theatrical portraits. He seldom exhibited at the Royal Academy or other galleries, and few of his portraits were painted in oils; the majority were highly finished pencil-drawings on a miniature scale. In 1825 he went to Stratford-on-Avon and made a drawing of the bust of Shakespeare in Stratford church, which was engraved by J. S. Agar. In 1827 he published ‘An Inquiry into the History, Authenticity, and Characteristics of the Shakespeare Portraits,’ and lost a large sum of money by the venture, since the sale of the book was not nearly sufficient to cover the expense of the plates. He was relieved at this juncture by the death of his uncle, Abram Wivell of Camden Town, who left him his house and furniture and an annuity of 100l. for life. In 1828 Wivell became interested in the subject of fire-escapes, in which he invented several improvements. In 1829 a society was formed which developed into the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, established in 1836. Wivell became superintendent of fire-escapes to this society, with a salary of 100l., and held this post till 1841, when he left London for Birmingham. There he resumed his practice as a portrait-painter and had sittings from many of the important residents. In 1847 he took portraits of railway celebrities for the ‘Monthly Railway Record.’ He died at Birmingham on 29 March 1849. He was twice married, in 1810 and 1821. His second wife and ten children survived him. His eldest son, Abraham, also became an artist, and painted a portrait of Sir Rowland Hill, which was engraved in mezzotint by W. O. Geller in 1848. A portrait of Wivell, drawn by himself, was engraved by William Holl.

[Art Journal, 1849, p. 205.]

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