Strangers’ Hall: The Custance Family Portrait

Cathy Terry, Senior Curator of Social History, Norfolk Museums Service

The lovely ‘conversation piece’ portrait ‘Mr and Mrs John Custance of Norwich and their daughter Frances’ by William Beechey (1753-1839)  hangs in the Georgian Dining Room at Strangers’ Hall museum, in a late 18th century period room setting, and flanked by related portraits of members of the Norfolk gentry. It is also the subject of a new work by artist Will Teather (below right), part of a series reworking paintings that are on permanent display at Strangers’ Hall.

Teather says his fractal reinterpretations “explode the geometry implied within the historical composition around its key energy points. The results of this process can be described as somewhat psychedelic, like a glitched version of the originals, helping viewers to see the museum collections afresh”.

Teather’s paintings were due to be exhibited at Strangers’ Hall in April 2020 alongside the originals, but witht he museum closed due to lockdown, this has not yet been possible. We hope to present the paintings side-by-side with the originals as planned once the museum reopens, but in the meantime we’re exploring Teather’s work and the pieces that inspired them through this blog series. In this video, Teather explains more about his process and the inspiration for the series.

John Custance (1749-1822) of Weston House, inherited his estate at Weston Longville near Norwich at the age of eight and married Frances Beauchamp-Proctor, a wealthy heiress and daughter of Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor of Langley Park in 1778.  John and Frances had eight children but only daughter Frances is shown in the painting, and she is reckoned to be three years old at time of sitting.  We see John portrayed as a typical country squire, relaxed and at ease with his family in a comfortable domestic setting. John wears a practical cutaway coat with blue velvet collar, a fashionably short waistcoat and front-fall knee breeches. A white stock is worn at the neck, white stockings and short boots complete the ensemble. Mrs Custance’s robe has fitted sleeves and full flounces, and she wears a high mob cap tied with a wide ribbon and bows and has a wide-brimmed fashionable hat positioned on a chair nearby. Daughter Frances wears a simple white muslin gown, with red leather shoes with buckles peeping out at the hem and has her hair loose with a fringe.

The family were near neighbours of Parson James Woodforde, Rector of Weston Longville, and all members of the family and their servants mentioned numerous times in his writing. These chatty and detailed diaries preserve a wonderful record of rural life in the later eighteenth century, detailing the parson’s daily activities, his food and mealtimes, and his regular visits to Norwich. He frequently dined with Mr and Mrs Custance, so we can glean plenty about their lives and of the Weston community from this diary. This is his entry for January 28th, 1780:

“…The company present were Sir Edmund Bacon and Lady, Mr and Mrs Custance and Mr Press Custance…..We had for dinner a Calf’s Head, boiled Fowl and Tongue, A Saddle of Mutton rosted on the Side Table, and a fine swan rosted with Currant Jelly for the First Course. The Second Course a couple of Wild Fowl called Dun Fowls, Larks, Blamange, Tarts etc etc and a good Dessert of Fruit after, amongst which was a Damson Cheese. I never eat a bit of Swan before, and I think it good eating with seet sauce…. “

Norfolk Museums Service also has in its collections a three-quarter length portrait of John Custance in middle age, by Henry Walton, who trained in the Zoffany studio. An interesting earlier ‘conversation piece’ portrait of his father, Hambleton Custance, by Francis Hayman, shows him with his friend Thomas Nuttall, solicitor to the East India Company, with dogs and gun after a day’s shooting. This painting is now in the collections of the Tate Gallery. A portrait by American-born artist Benjamin West commemorating the marriage of John and Frances in allegorical style, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA, shows the couple in an idealised classical setting, swathed in silk robes accompanied by Hymen and Cupid. We don’t know the circumstances of the painting, but clearly the families who commissioned the painting were familiar with the vocabulary of traditional grand manner portraiture, and a had a deep pocket to match.  

These Custance family portraits together typify the aspirations and interests of the wealthy Norfolk squirarchy; presenting themselves as pillars of polite, cultured, genteel society, and well as active and engaged leaders of the rural community. Presumably they all once hung, with others, perhaps hunting scenes, views of the estate or still lifes in Weston House. Although we can’t see much of the room itself, the up-to-date but not ostentatious furniture and carpet suggests a comfortable and well-appointed interior of a Norfolk manor house. Weston House a three-storey house completed in the Adams style in 1781 and demolished in 1926. The gardener’s cottage, former stables, canal and kitchen garden remains in the grounds of the Dinosaur Park at Weston Longville.

The painting was by Sir William Beechey, (1753 – 1839), a prolific portrait paint and pupil of John Zoffany, whose work shows the influence of Reyolds. Born in Oxfordshire, he trained as a lawyer before turning to painting. He spent five years in Norwich from 1782, during which time he presumably was commissioned by John Custance. Beechey returned to London in 1787 and became appointed portrait painter to Queen Charlotte in 1792. He continued a successful practice for many years, during which time he painted several of Norwich people now in the Norwich Civic Portrait collection, including those of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Mayors John Patteson and John Staniforth Patteson, and artists Joseph and Alfred Stannard.

Mr and Mrs John Custance of Norwich and their daughter Frances’ (NWHCM : 1990.232) was purchased for the Norwich Castle art collection in 1991, thanks to the Art Fund.

Further Reading

Find out more about Weston Park on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer

Learn more about Sir William Beechey on Wikipedia

Find out more about Parson James Woodforde from the Parson Woodforde Society

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