Amongst the holdings of the Laing Art Gallery is a watercolour simply entitled Church and House in Landscape by William Beilby. To connoisseurs of eighteenth century art William Beilby’s name is associated primarily with the fine, enamelled glass for which the Beilby family was renowned. Born in Durham in 1740, the son of a silversmith, William Beilby served an apprenticeship to an enameller in Birmingham, before joining his brother Ralph in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1760, where together with their sister Mary, they produced high quality enamelled glassware. Examples of their work can be seen today in the Laing Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and other leading collections.
William Beilby’s talents, however, were not confined to enamelling on glass; he was also a skilled watercolourist, and in 1767 he advertised as a drawing master, whilst continuing to produce glassware decorated with heraldic motifs for his aristocratic patrons. A decade later, he left Newcastle for Battersea and set himself up as a drawing master there. His departure from Newcastle may have been prompted by the death of his mother and by the entry of Thomas Bewick, his brother’s apprentice, into partnership in the family firm. We can trace Beilby’s arrival in Battersea through his appearances at meetings of the parish vestry and in the lists of those qualified for jury service, in which he is variously described as gentleman or schoolmaster. He made his first appearance in these lists in 1780 and his last in 1788. During his sojourn in Battersea he married Ellen Turton, the niece of a wealthy City merchant. The couple subsequently moved to Scotland, before settling finally in Hull.
The watercolours produced by Beilby provide us with a detailed visual record of the areas in which he lived and worked in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Amongst these are topographical views of Northumberland, views of Newcastle upon Tyne and scenes from Battersea and its environs. Church and House in Landscape is of unknown date and depicts a church with an apsidal east end and Perpendicular gothic east window, with a tower at the west end surmounted by a spire topped by a weather vane. To the right of the church lies a substantial dwelling house with a number of chimney stacks breaking the roofline. The spire of the church draws the eye in and forms the focus of the picture.
Another water colour by William Beilby, also in the Laing collection, is entitled A view in the Lane near Battersea Fields. It shows a cart and two figures passing down a rural lane in front of a church, the tower of which is surmounted by a spire. At the top of the spire is a weather vane and beyond the trees to the left of the tower are the chimney stacks of a dwelling. The tower has a single, round-headed opening on each façade and its corners are surmounted by slim urns. The spire rises above from two octagonal storeys, the lower one showing a clock on each of its principal faces. If we turn again to the unidentified Church and House in Landscape, we see the same urns surmounting the tower, and the same two octagonal storeys, with the clock faces on the lower one and the spire rising above.
Today the eastern aspect of St. Mary’s, Battersea presents an apsidal east end with a Perpendicular gothic window. Either side of this gothic window is a small round window, with a third one above the main east window. When the church of St. Mary’s was rebuilt in the 1770s, it was decided that the fenestration of the window installed by Henry Yevele in the late fourteenth century should be retained in order to accommodate the St John glass dating from the 1630s. The newly rebuilt church at Battersea came into use in 1777 just before Beilby arrived in the village. The arrangement of the window tracery to which the vestry and its architect, Joseph Dixon, paid such attention, together with the three small round windows, can be clearly seen in Beilby’s painting of the unidentified church. In his painting, to the right of the apse we can observe a round headed doorway, and its matching pair can just be discerned on the left behind the pillar of the entrance gate. Dixon’s original plans allowed for entrances to the aisles in this position. These were abandoned around 1791, and the faint outline of the blocked doorways can be detected on the outer wall of the present church.
Nowadays St. Mary’s church is bounded to the north-east by Richard Rogers Partnership’s Montevetro development. At the time that Beilby resided in Battersea this was the site of the manor house, by all accounts a fairly plain building, leased by the St John family to tenants. The descriptions that we have of the manor house would seem to accord with the building, set in a rural landscape, depicted in the right hand side of Beilby’s painting.
The consistency of the architectural detail between the buildings shown in A view in the Lane near Battersea Fields and Church and House in Landscape is remarkable. Unlike many contemporary artists Beilby seems to have recorded precisely what he observed in his neighbourhood. When we compare his painting of the un-named church with St. Mary’s, Battersea as it stands today, and with what is known of its building history from archival records, there can be little doubt as to the location of Beilby’s unidentified church.
His period of residence in Battersea coincided with the early years of the newly rebuilt church, a source of pride to the vestry of which he was an active member. St. Mary’s formed a major landmark from the river, and would have presented obvious subject matter to an artist. Church and House in Landscape can surely be identified as the church of St. Mary’s, Battersea and the house next to it as Battersea Manor.