This exceptional canvas was made by the Philadelphia-born painter Thomas Spence Duché for the celebrated London orphanage founded following a proposal by Henry Fielding. A member of the American Loyalist diaspora in London, Duché was the son of the Reverend Jacob Duché who had been the first chaplain to Congress.
Following his opposition to the American armed resistance to British rule, Jacob Duché had been forced into exile in London where he became chaplain of the ‘Asylum or House of Refuge for Orphans and other Deserted Girls of the Poor’. One of a series of charitable organisations established in mid-eighteenth-century London, the Asylum located in Lambeth, emerged from a concern for the conditions of girls abandoned on the streets of London. Designed to prevent the girls becoming prostitutes, the Asylum raised them ‘free from the prejudices of evil habits’ and taught them the basic skills of domestic service. Thomas Spence Duché is recorded as living at the Asylum during his father’s time as chaplain and secretary and whilst he was training with the Philadelphian-born painter, Benjamin West. Duché’s relationship with the Asylum endured after his father’s retirement, eventually being listed as a regular subscriber. He also produced this remarkable painting for the Asylum. It is an allegory showing Hope - the figure dressed in red and blue - protecting two young girls who she presents to a seated figure in white, identified in contemporary accounts of the picture as ‘the genius of the asylum’. This unusual visualisation of the Georgian welfare state was engraved, and the image used as the heading of the Asylum’s official stationery long into the nineteenth century. Preserved in excellent condition, this painting remained in the collection of the Asylum, moving with it first to Beddington in 1866 when the institution was renamed the Royal Female Orphanage and then to High Wycombe in 1943 before being sold in 1968.
Thomas Spence Duché’s journey to London was a complex one, but it is a story worth telling as it gives powerful context for his work as a painter. On his birth in September 1763, Thomas Spence Duché seemed assured a place at the heart of society in Colonial Philadelphia. His father, the Reverend Jacob Duché had just been ordained and appointed assistant minister at Christ Church, Philadelphia. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of the successful merchant, Thomas Hopkinson, who founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, acted as the original trustee of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and served as the first president of the American Philosophical Society. The 1770s thrust Duché’s family into the heart of American Revolutionary politics, his father was chaplain to the Continental Congress, one uncle, Francis Hopkinson, was a member and another, Dr John Morgan, was surgeon general of the army. The reverend Jacob Duché lead the opening prayers of the First Continental Congress, in which he asked God to ‘look down in mercy… on these our American States, who have fled to thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection.’ Duché’s spontaneous prayer had a profound effect on the delegates, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
‘Mr. Duche, unexpected to every Body struck out into an extemporary Prayer, which filled the Bosom of every Man present. I must confess I never heard a better Prayer or one, so well pronounced.’
Following the Declaration of Independence, Duché, meeting with the church’s vestry passed a resolution stating that the name of King George III was no longer to be read in the prayers of the church. Duché crossed out the King’s name from his Book of Common Prayer, committing an act of treason against Britain, an exceptionally brave and dangerous act for a clergyman who had taken the loyal oath. Duché was elected the first official chaplain of Congress five days later. When the British occupied Philadelphia in September 1777 the Reverend Jacob Duché was immediately arrested by General William Howe. Events convinced Duché that the Declaration of Independence had been a mistake and he wrote an appeal to George Washington to end hostilities. This volte face had cataclysmic consequences. Jacob fled Philadelphia whilst the British still held the port, leaving his wife and young son, Thomas Spence Duché. On April 27 1779 the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania required that Elizabeth Duché forfeit her property and ‘pass into New York with her children’ on their way to join her husband in exile. This first attempt failed, Thomas writing to his uncle, Francis Hopkinson (a signatory of the Declaration of Independence), that his mother was so sick ‘she was not able to Walk without Support, & was fainting continually till at last she was so Ill that the Doctor of our & another Ship said they thought she could not support it many days longer.’ Congress vacillated eventually allowing the Duchés back to Philadelphia before a second attempt could be made. In April 1780 Congress agreed to give Elizabeth Duché ‘letters of protection to secure herself, her children and servants, her necessary sea furniture and stores… against vessels of war belonging to the United States.’ The passage took 21 days and the Duché family were reunited in a ‘neat house 4 miles from London.’
We get a portrait of Thomas’s activities in London in a remarkable letter from Jacob Duché, written to his friend and correspondent, Benjamin Franklin, then America Ambassador in Paris:
‘My Son, who is now in his 20th year is a Pupil of my good Friend West, and most enthusiastically devoted to the Art, in which he promises to make no inconsiderable Figure. As he is my only Son, and a good Scholar, I wished to have educated him for one of the learned Professions. But his Passion for Painting is irresistible. West feeds the Flame with the Fuel of Applause: And his great Example has excited in my Boy an Ambition to distinguish himself in his Native Country, as his Master has distinguished himself here. The late Revolution has opened a large Field of Design. His young mind already teems with the great Subjects of Councils, Senates, Heroes, Battles – And he is impatient to acquire the Magic Powers of the Pencil to Call forth and compleat the Embryo Forms.’
This letter tells us that Thomas had been apprenticed to Benjamin West, who ran a hugely successful studio at 14 Newman Street. By this date, West was already historical painter to George III and had been a founding member of the Royal Academy. His studio had become a remarkable locus for young American painters and the twenty-year-old Thomas Duché would have encountered John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart amongst others in West’s house. The letter to Franklin is revealing, suggesting that the conversation in Newman Street turned on the role young painters would occupy in the new republic. At precisely the date of Jacob Duché’s letter to Franklin, West was painting a group portrait of Franklin, John Jay, John Adams and other American participants in the signing of the preliminary peace between America and Britain. The unfinished painting apparently formed the first of a planned series of canvases depicting the great events of the American Revolutionary war which West described in a letter to Charles Willson Peale. It is therefore no wonder that young Thomas Duché’s head was teeming with ‘the great Subjects of Councils, Senates, Heroes, Battles.’
Thomas Duché found at least one outlet for the ‘Magic Powers of the Pencil’ beyond the routine round of portraiture. Jacob Duché had been rewarded for his loyalty in Britain, by being elected in 1782 chaplain and secretary of the ‘Asylum or House of Refuge situate in the Parish of Lambeth, in the County of Surry for the Reception of Orphan Girls, Having Resided six months within the bills of mortality; whose settlements cannot be found.’ The position came with ‘apartments’ so his entire family moved to Lambeth. Known as the Asylum for Female Orphans, it had been founded in 1758, following a proposal by Henry Fielding. As magistrates, Fielding and his brother, Sir John Fielding, were acutely aware of the links between urban poverty and crime. Both brothers sponsored a series of charitable endeavours which attempted to address deprivation by morally improving activities. Sir John Fielding served as life governor and the Asylum was linked with another of his projects, the Magdalen Hospital, which sought to reform prostitutes. The idea of the Asylum was to divert female orphans from prostitution. The children at the Asylum were taught ‘to make and mend their own linen; make shirts, shifts, and table-linen; to do all kinds of plain needle-work, and to perform the business of the house and kitchen.’ The idea was to train women who could enter domestic service. As an organisation, the Asylum formed part of a culture of charitable giving in mid-eighteenth-century London, most visibly represented by the Foundling Hospital.
Shortly after Jacob Duché wrote to Benjamin Franklin in Paris, Thomas Spence Duché painted this unusual allegorical painting. The oval canvas depicts the personification of Hope dressed in red with a blue shawl, protecting two orphaned girls shown in rags. A narrative element is suggested by the vignette behind Hope, showing a pauper’s coffin being received at the west door of a small parish church, presumably the last remaining parent of the impoverished children. Hope presents the children to a seated woman dressed in white, with a golden shawl, identified in a contemporary source as the Spirit of the Asylum, her hands outstretched in welcome. Behind the Spirit of the Asylum we see the portico of the Asylum itself in Lambeth and a crowd of neatly presented young women, evidently the Asylum’s happy residents. Painted very much in the manner of Benjamin West, with a blond palette and creamy use of highlights, the composition owes something to the allegorical work West was pursuing in the mid-1780s. The figure of the Spirit of the Asylum in particular owes her pose to the figure of Britannia from a remarkable painting entitled The Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783.
The painting seems likely to have been executed towards the end of Jacob Duché’s period as Chaplain and secretary of the Asylum, and perhaps in 1788 to commemorate Thomas’s election of the Committee, or governing body of the Asylum. Duché presented the canvas to the Asylum, along with a plate etched with the image by William Skelton, which was used on the Asylum’s official stationery long into the nineteenth century. The allegory was evidently deemed a success as Duché produced a second version, pairing it with a depiction, according to The Gentleman’s Magazine of: ‘Charity, presenting an emaciated prostitute, in a state of despair, to three reclaimed females at the door of the Magdalen Hospital.’ Duché created a pair of images which offer an exceptional insight into mid-eighteenth-century sentimentality, morality and philanthropy but perhaps most importantly, the appalling urban deprivation in London of the period. These paintings were turned into coloured stipple engravings by George Quinton and published in 1797.
The situation of the Asylum places it at the heart of another more complex story, one in which the Duchés played a small but crucial role. From as early as 1787 William Blake had become a follower of Jacob Duché, subscribing to his Discourses on Several Subjects. Duché was an early adherent to the teaching of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and from 1782 opened the Asylum to meetings of a Swedenborgian group which became the Theosophical Society. In 1789 William and Catherine Blake entered their names in the Minute Book of the General Conference of the Theosophical Society, suggesting that they had been regular attendees of Duché’s meetings. In 1790 the Blakes moved to 13 Hercules Buildings, as John Flaxman described ‘near the Asylum’, scholars have noted that this proximity had an impact on his work. The Asylum appears in the complex topographical references of Milton and the plight of orphans in Holy Thursday from Songs of Experience may refer to his observations of the residents of the Asylum. Whilst there seems to be no artistic link between Thomas Duché and Blake, it is fascinating to think that both were members of Jacob Duché’s Theosophical Society in Lambeth and it was whilst resident in Lambeth that Blake composed America a Prophecy. The idealistic young Thomas Duché, ‘his young mind’ teeming with ‘the great Subjects of Councils, Senates, Heroes, Battles…impatient to acquire the Magic Powers of the Pencil to Call forth and compleat the Embryo Forms’ would have been a sympathetic conversationalist with Blake then contemplating his republican prophecies celebrating: ‘Washington, Franklin, Paine’ and ‘the soft soul of America, Oothoon.’
Thomas Duché died in 1790 when he was described in The Times as having been ‘a young artist of very distinguished merit…the death of Mr Duche is the more to be regretted, because from the elegance and correctness of his mind, he attached himself chiefly to moral and sentimental compositions, subjects little handled by artists of the English school, and which if treated with ability, could not fail to promote the best purposes of painting.’ This contemporary account directly links Duché’s works with the fashionable idea of sensibility and the age-old notion that painting should have a moral purpose. Rarely in British eighteenth-century painting can these concepts have been more explicitly linked than in this remarkable allegory.
- Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 16 September 1774 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
- Quoted in: Albert Frank Gegenheimer, ‘Artist in Exile, The Story of Thomas Spence Duché’, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.79, no.1, January 1955, p.9.
- Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, Cat. no.106, p.219.
- The two paintings were described in an account of George Quinton’s printmaking in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1796: ‘He is at present engraving two ovals from very pleasing original, painted by the late Mr. Duché in the possession of B. G. Dilingham, Esq. near this city: one represents Hope, delivering two orphan girls in distress to the Genius of the Asylum; the other Charity, presenting an emaciated prostitute, in a state of despair, to three reclaimed females at the door of the Magdalen hospital.’ The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1796, p.9.
- Morton D. Paley, ‘A New Havin is Begun’: William Blake and Swedenborgianism, 1979, vol.13, Iss.2, pp.107-125.