I’ve long been intrigued by a portrait on the Art UK website of a rather dishevelled and – quite frankly – eccentric figure, which, so the label claims, depicts William Hornby (incorrectly labelled as Hornsby) of Hornby’s Bank in Gainsborough, a market town in North Lincolnshire.
The archives office in Lincoln claims differently; they believe it depicts William’s brother, Joseph who, they suggest, was a well-known eccentric character in these parts.
Which brother, then, is in the rather cruel portrait?
Joseph was born at Gainsborough in 1729, the eldest child of Joseph Hornby senior, a prosperous mercer in the town. Seven more children followed but all except two, William (born in 1732) and John (1739), died in infancy. The elder two of the three sons, Joseph and William, followed their father into the mercantile trade.
At his death in 1762, Joseph Hornby senior left considerable inheritances to his three sons.
Gainsborough was a thriving and prosperous town in the eighteenth-century, boosted by trade from the busy River Trent which passes through. The Hornby family’s wealth grew and, together with Sir Joseph Esdaile, Esq, William opened a bank, the first known to exist in the town. In partnership with two other gentlemen, they also established the Chesterfield Bank in Derbyshire.
In 1760, William Hornby took out a lease on the medieval timber-framed Gainsborough Old Hall and established a coarse linen factory in part of the building and sublet the rest. The factory lost money and the old manor house was in a poor state of repair.
You peeped in and saw its great ground floor apartments occupied by joiners, and coopers and bricklayers – depositories for lime, hair, and bricks – and you turned away disgusted.
By 1790, Hornby had wound up his factory and sublet the Great Hall of the manor house to a Mr West, who used it as a theatre. The staircase which was temporarily added at this time to access the theatre can be seen on the print below.
By the end of the century, troubles were mounting up. The partnership which ran the Chesterfield Bank (William Hornby, Joseph Esdaile, Samuel Raynes and Richard Gillett) was dissolved in 1799. By 1803, William Hornby could no longer meet his creditors’ demands and he was declared bankrupt. The Gainsborough Bank was no more.
William Hornby is reputed to have ended his days in penury, being cared for by a woman who had formerly been his cook, dying ‘at an advanced age’ (he was 72) in February 1805 at Doncaster, just over the county border in South Yorkshire.
After all this, are we any closer to identifying which Hornby brother is shown in the painting? Well, there is no contemporary mention of Joseph being an eccentric. At his death in 1811 (he was buried in the churchyard of Gainsborough All Saints) he is described as formerly being ‘an eminent merchant’. No hint of madness or eccentricity.
It seems more likely that the painting is a cruel depiction of William Hornby. Perhaps in his pursuit of wealth and in his running of the bank, he made an enemy of someone who commissioned this painting in revenge? Or, was it painted after Hornby’s bankruptcy, the work of a creditor who was left out-of-pocket and wanted to leave a lasting visual legacy of the former banker, that of a miserly man down on his luck.
At this distance in time, and with no other evidence to hand, we are simply left to wonder.
Our Old Town, Thomas Miller, 1857
The London Gazette, 6-10 August 1799