An Important Eighteenth Century Oil Portrait of Sir Thomas Plumer, Master of the Rolls & First Vice Chancellor of Britain - Attributed to Lemuel Francis Abbott


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A very fine and important late eighteenth century oil portrait of Sir Thomas Plumer, Master of the Rolls and First Vice Chancellor of England attributed to Lemuel Francis Abbott.

Sir Thomas Plumer

Sir Thomas Plumer was the son of Thomas Plumer, a London wine merchant of Lilling Hall, Yorkshire and Anne Thompson, daughter of Henry Thompson of Kirby Hall, Yorkshire. Educated at Eton and then at University College, Oxford he was elected a Vinerian scholar for achieving the highest marks under examination for his Bachelor of Civil Law. He was called to the bar in 1778 where he served the Oxford & South Wales circuit for eight years whilst in 1781 until 1793, he served as commissioner of bankrupts. He also served from 1785 as the King’s Sergeant of the Duchy of Lancaster until 1813.

In 1783 Plumer came to more public prominence for his skilful defence of Sir Thomas Rumbold, Governor of Madras who had come under suspicion for his dealings with Indian landowners. Actions which were considered to have led to the invasion of the Carnatic by Haider Ali, ruler of Mysore.

Plumer’s success secured him a place on the defence council in the trial of Warren Hastings, Governor General of India. Known at that time as one of the most notorious political trials of the age, Hasting’s (on his return from India) received little support from the Pitt Government and his perceived aggressive commercial policies allowed MP Edmund Burke and others to press for impeachment. The trial spanned some seven years from 1788, during which time, the long wars with France had begun and Hastings was eventually cleared of all charges.    

In 1802, he was one of a distinguished team alongside Lord Ellenborough, Spencer Percival and William Fielding (son of the author) who secured the conviction of Joseph Wall (Colonial governor of the West African Island of Goree) for murder. They again joined forces a year later to present the prosecution case at the trial of Irishman Edward Marcus Despard, a hero of the American War of Independence but who later became involved in the Irish revolutionary Movement. He was convicted of plotting to seize the Tower of London, the Bank of England and planning the assassination of King George III. Despite having Lord Nelson as a character witness, Despard was convicted and became one of the last people to be hung drawn and quartered in England.

Plumer's association with Spencer Percival continued in 1806 when he assisted in the so called 'delicate investigation' into the romantic conduct of Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales. He was knighted in the following year and appointed Solicitor General and entered parliament following a by-election in the borough of Downton.

Following Percival's assassination, Plumer relinquished his seat in 1813 and was offered the role of Vice chancellor (the first person to have undertaken the position) and later promoted to Master of the Rolls in 1818. He was a trustee of the British Museum and a fellow of the Royal Society as well as the Society of Antiquaries.

On more personal matters, Plumer married Marianne Turton daughter of John Turton of Sugnall Hall, Staffordshire in 1794 and had five sons and two daughters. He resided at Canons in Stanmore, Middlesex after having bought it at auction in 1805. The house is now owned by The North London Collegiate School.

Plumer died in 1824 aged seventy and was laid to rest in the chapel at Rolls House.


The painting has been in continuous family ownership until its divestment through auction. Once housed in Kirby Hall, Great Ouseburn, Yorkshire where his mother resided as a child, it was then passed through family hands after the demolition of the property in the 1920’s.

The Thompson’s (Plumer’s mother’s maiden name) have a long association with Kirby Hall and both the Plumer and the Thompson families married into the Turton family. In the early nineteenth century the Thompson family became Meysey Thompson paying homage to Mary Meysey, John Turton’s wife and it was Sir Harry Stephen Meysey-Thompson first baronet and MP for Whitby who continued to reside at the property.

His son, Henry Meysey Meysey-Thompson 1st Baron Knaresborough inherited the estate and was notable as being Private Secretary to William Gladstone but later joining the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party over his opposition to the Irish Home Rule Bill. He was MP for Hansworth from 1892 until his ennoblement in 1905 when he became Lord Knaresborough. Owing to his son’s death at Ypres in 1915, his title became extinct upon his death but the baronetcy was passed to his nephew.

As a result of death duties arising from Baron Knaresborough’s estate, the property associated with the estate was divested and the paintings became the property of Doris Meysey-Thompson and later her sister The Hon Lady Richmond Brown. Upon Lady Richmond Brown’s death they were passed to her sister’s son upon whose death, they were later consigned to auction.

Detail & Condition

The portrait has been recently relined, restored and provided with a new stretcher using traditional methods in order to maintain its future integrity but I have retained the original stretcher as it contains some of the information relating to its history.

Various marks are evident on the stretcher, the first is the title applied with pen and ink and states "Sir Thomas Plumer, Master of the Rolls". The second is an applied sticker stating "Meysey-Thompson". The third is an applied chalk marking stating the following, "For Henry Thompson, Kirby Hall".

In addition, the stretcher lengths all have the initials "WW" which belong to the art supplier and colourman, William Ward who traded from Chandos Street, Covent Garden between 1773 & 1788. Ward's trade card resides in the Ambrose Heal collection and makes reference to his appointment to the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Richmond amongst other notable clients. His trading dates would also match Sir Thomas Plumer's early career.

The original canvas (underneath the new lining) also contains a duty mark (picture provided) owing to the taxation on canvases that started in 1784. I cannot decipher a date as is possible with some marks of the period but given Ward's trading dates and the date of the tax legislation, it is likely that the painting was produced between 1784 and 1788 just after Plumer's defence of Sir Thomas Rumbold and just before the notorious and lengthy trial of Warren Hastings, Governor General of India. The painting would certainly reflect a man in his early thirties.

There is unfortunately no signature on the painting but the dates for the painting also coincide with Lemuel Francis Abbott's residence in London from 1780 until his declaration of insanity in 1798. After lengthy discussions with the National Portrait Gallery, Sothebys and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the painting is considered to be by Abbott's hand since earlier attributions to both Henry Raeburn and Thomas Lawrence were discounted.

Lemuel Francis Abbott

Abbott was born in Leicestershire in about 1760, the son of a clergyman. At the age of 14, he was schooled in London under Francis Hayman who was himself one of the founding members of The Royal Academy and its first librarian. Abbott returned to Leicestershire just two years later upon Hayman’s death in 1776 but continued to develop his talents and moved back to London again in 1780 where he undertook numerous commissions for the nobility until the failure of his health.

It is commonly considered that the sheer volume of work that Abbott produced was the cause of him being declared insane in 1798. He was treated by Dr Thomas Munro who was notable for having also treated King George the Third.

During his active years, Abbott exhibited at least fifteen portraits at The Royal Academy but never became an Academician but his talent secured him commissions with poets, senior naval officers, diplomats, industrialists and colonial governors alike. He is perhaps best known for his era defining portrait of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson which currently resides in the Terracotta Room of Number 10 Downing Street.

This painting is in absolutely superb condition with some historic craceleure to the paint, however this has been stabilised by restoration and refinished by a competent and qualified art conservator.