The portrait of Anne Birch is housed at the Phoenix Art Museum and is described by them as
George Romney’s depiction of Anne Birch reveals why his portraits were so in demand. Elegantly dressed, seated languidly on a bench in a dark glade that opens tantalizingly to a distant, sunlit view, Anne holds a flute in one hand while resting her head gently on the other.
But who was Anne Birch?
The portrait by George Romney came to my attention recently on social media and apart from her name, the artist and the approximate year it was painted, 1777, little if anything, seems to be known about the sitter, so it was time to do a spot of investigating to see what, if anything, I could find out. Given the instruments in the painting it would appear that she was perhaps a talented musician, but so far nothing has come to light to support this. Music would have been a subject that young ladies like her would have been instructed in, so maybe she excelled in this area.
The portrait is believed to be that of Anne Birch nee Clowes, the daughter and only child, therefore heir apparent, to William Clowes Esq, of Huntsbank, Manchester and his wife Elizabeth, nee Neild, who were married in 1738. Anne was baptised 18 October 1743 in Manchester, making her about 34 when the portrait was painted, although in my opinion the sitter looks much younger, which makes me question whether it could have been painted slightly later and be of her eldest daughter, also named Anne.
So far it hasn’t been possible to establish exactly who William Clowes was, but he was described as being ‘the fourth brother of the House of Clowes, who afterwards settled in Broughton‘. I have however, managed to establish is that William died 15 February 1772, aged 68 and was buried in Manchester Cathedral.
William was clearly affluent, as when his only daughter married on 18 October 1764 the newspapers reported the marriage:
So, we now not only have a family for Anne, but also a husband, John Peploe Birch, Esquire. According to this newspaper we know that Anne was not only beautiful, but also very wealthy, making her, at that time, an ideal candidate for marriage. It appears that the two families knew each other though, so could this have been the marriage of two houses possibly?
Anne’s father William, appears to have had some familial connection with the manor of Broughton Old Hall, Manchester, could this have been where his money came from, but what about her husband, who was he?
John Peploe Birch was born 1742 and was the son of Rev Samuel Peploe, Chancellor of Chester and Warden of Manchester and his first wife, Elizabeth Birch.
John was later to benefit from the demise of his uncle Samuel in 1752, at which time he inherited the estate of Garnstone, Weobley, Herefordshire, which was left in trust for him until he reached the age of twenty-one, to be granted to him if he adopted the surname Birch, which he duly did, retaining Peploe as a middle name.
John and Anne moved to Barnstone which was where they spent the rest of their lives, but whilst in London they also had another home on Curzon Street, Mayfair. During their marriage they had three known children, Anne (1765-1846), Mary (1769-1830) and Samuel (1774-1845).
In 1767 John was appointed High Sherriff of Herefordshire, but as to whether he had an occupation seems unclear or was he simply landed gentry spending his time managing his estate?
John lived until 1805, leaving his estate to his beloved wife Anne, who lived until the age of 76. Both John and Anne was buried at Weobley, Herefordshire.
Anne left a will in which she provided for her three children, Anne who was by that time married to a Daniel Webb, Mary who remained unmarried and Samuel who had married the daughter of Sir George Cornewall, but she described her legacy as being ‘what little I have’. What little she had amounted to about £6,000 (about £300,000 in today’s money), but this is probably far less than she had hope to leave.
Although still little remains known of their life together, this at least sheds a little more light on this beautiful portrait.
The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure … Volumes 12-13. Page 126
The Episcopal See of Manchester by Samuel Hibbert
Memorials of St. Ann’s church, Manchester, in the last century by Charles Wareing E. Bardsley
Manchester, England, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1573-1812 (Cathedral)