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Recollections of John Pounds: The Painting by Reverend Henry Hawkes

Mr. Thomas Sheppard, a boot and shoe maker of long standing in High Street, a member of my Flock, much respected for his sound good sense, his integrity, and general benevolence, called upon me one morning, and said:

Sheaf, Henry S.; John Pounds Teaching Poor Children; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services
Sheaf, Henry S.; John Pounds Teaching Poor Children; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

“There is a young man of the name of Sheaf, a journeyman shoe-maker, living in Landport, who has a taste for drawing and painting; he has done several Scripture pieces, which seem to me very creditable and promising, for so young an artist, entirely self-taught.”

And he asked me, if I would go and look at them. “For it may cheer and encourage him,” he said, “to see that some take an interest in his efforts.” I willingly consented; and we went in the afternoon. The young man showed us several oil-paintings that he had done.

The subjects were all from Scripture. They showed considerable idea of design, and capability of effect in drawing, grouping, light and shade, and colouring; but all of a humble sort; though implying promising ability, if well cultured.

I was much pleased with his earnestness as he showed us picture after picture, and the readiness and clearness with which he explained his design, as he pointed to various effects. As his choice was so decidedly for Scripture subjects, I offered to lend him a work on Jewish Antiquities; illustrating the institutions of the Jews, their observances, and their manners and costumes; which he expressed himself pleased in accepting.

Shortly after, Mr. Sheppard called on me again; and said: “I have advised Sheaf to try something more local in its interest; as more likely to help him forward, and bring him more into notice with his fellow townsmen.

‘There’s the old cobbler in St. Mary’s Street,’ I said ‘sitting at work on his bench, in the midst of his school: – try that.’ And I took him to see the old man, with his host of little scholars about him; – all so busy, and happy.

He took the hint, and has done the picture. And I want you to go, and give us your opinion of it.” We went immediately. It was an oil-painting. On first seeing the picture, I felt: – “There’s the old cobbler! – done to the life!” The likeness was excellent; – the coarseness of feature, well intimated, and not overdone.

The action, just as he would turn sharp round from his work, to speak to a scholar; with his penetrating eye, and determined manner. The general form and appearance of the old man were well given.

He was sitting on his bench, with a shoe in his hand – mending. A boy was standing beside him on his right, reading. Other boys were near him on the same side, some sitting, some standing, at their lessons. On the other side, several little girls were sitting close to the old man; one with her arms around the neck of another.

His cat was brushing against him; as if pleased with all that was going on. Bird-cages were hanging on the wall. – All characteristic. – And we heartily congratulated the young man on his success.

But the hair of the old cobbler was painted of a dark colour; – not true to his grizzly gray head. And his hair was smooth; as if it had been recently combed and brushed. His face and hands looked clean. And he had his coat on. His shirt collar was fastened round his neck; and his black stock fitted neatly to it. All which looked as if he had been carefully prepared for the occasion.

The old man’s arms were long, and very energetic; well proportioned to a strong man, six feet high, or more. This was not well intimated in the picture. And the more I looked at it, – I felt there was wanting – the expression of superior intelligence, the tender benevolence, the power of love, the pure soul of piety, which, – with all his rough uncouthness, – I was accustomed to see when conversing with him.

In the foreground, there was an ample proportion of clear space; which, while it showed the rest of the picture off to advantage, gave no idea of the old man’s crowding beneficence; for his scholars were close packed up to the very door. And the roomy appearance of the place made it look larger than his little shop: – little more than two yards wide: – where he so often had thirty or forty children at a time, busy and happy at their lessons.

Still, for a general view of the old cobbler at work on his bench, and teaching his scholars at the same time; it was happily hit off. And we very cordially renewed our congratulations, as we left the young artist.

John Pounds workshop
John Pounds workshop

On our way back, Mr. Sheppard, habitually thoughtful, and of few words, said: “I am in hopes, that this picture of the good old man, if it becomes much known, may be of service to him, in bringing him more into notice, and inducing others to help him.

 

For he goes on working – in his never-ceasing usefulness, – year after year, – always the same: – no relaxing with him: – you always find him – sedulous, – thoroughly in earnest, – self-devoting to the good of others.

 

And so few seem to take any notice of him. And very few indeed, he tells me, when I ask him; – for, otherwise, he would not touch on it: – so generous, – so contented, – so unobtrusive, – and never complaining. But he told me the other day, when I asked him, – very few indeed rendered him any solid help: – in the way of money, or articles of clothing, or other things, for his poor children.

For himself he would not accept any thing. For he has a high spirit of self- respect; and is very independent; – as you may have noticed.”

“Yes, I soon saw that!”

“Friends, desiring to make him more comfortable, as they thought, have sometimes urged him to accept something for himself. But they could never succeed. But, – for his poor scholars, – he would always accept help; and always makes the best use of it for them.

“When I consider,” – Mr. Sheppard went on, – and warmed up to an unusual enthusiasm: – “how many years he has been carrying on that school of his: – in that poor little shop: – with such meagre materials for teaching:

and yet, – giving a solid, useful education – to hundreds of poor children:

and – in great measure – feeding and clothing many of them: – and many more years, before he began his school, he had been continually doing good among his poor neighbours – all round him: helping them in very various ways, according to their need; continually taking good substantial food to them, in their want and destitution; preparing nice things for them, in their illnesses: – and himself, the while, – with only his own poor cobbling to maintain himself: – I sometimes find it difficult – to realize myself, – how he can have been so long doing so much good, – with such small means.”

Within a few weeks, Mr. Sheppard said to me: “Sheaf has taken his picture of John Pounds to Mr. Edward Carter, and requested his acceptance of it.”

“What did Mr. Carter say?”

“He accepted the picture, and gave the young man a five-pound note.”

Some highly esteemed benefactors of the good old cobbler, with a most friendly interest in him, – thinking it would give himself pleasure – to see himself in a picture, – managed to get him quietly into a room where his picture was, without letting him know their purpose. The picture was standing on the chimney-piece; a rather high one. And they gently led him on, till he found himself – in front of his own picture.

They stood – silent – and still; to see what effect it would produce upon him. He stood before it, – looking up at it, – quite still, – with fixed eye, – without speaking a word. There was no sign of his being at all interested in it.

Not a feature of his countenance moved. But he stood – looking up – fixedly – at the picture. All were still, and silent. And so – they stood – a considerable time: – when – suddenly – he said – “There’s my cat!” – and seemed pleased to see his cat there. This was all he said about the picture.

 

Conversing, a few days after, with the lady who was one of the friends who showed him his picture; he said, the two little girls close beside him, one clasping the other round the neck, were his “two little queens!” – as he used to call Lizzie Lemmon and Georgiana Richmond.

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