“Some word of
life e’en now has met
His calm benignant eye;
Some ancient promise breathing yet
Some heart’s deep language which the glow
Of faith unwavering gives;
And every feature says ’I know
That my Redeemer lives.’”
The size of this canvas is four feet by three feet two inches. Orpin is wearing a blue coat, black vest, white neck-cloth, and dark breeches. His hair is grey and curly, and falls upon his shoulders. He sits on a gilt-nailed chair at a round wooden table, on which is a reading-easel, supporting a large volume bound in dark green, and labelled “Bible, Vol. I.” The background is warm brown.
Of this picture a critic states: “The very noble character of the worthy old clerk’s head was probably an additional inducement to Gainsborough to paint the picture, Seldom does so fine a subject present itself to the portrait painter, and Gainsborough evidently sought to do justice to his venerable model by unusual and striking effect of lighting, and by more than ordinary care in execution. It might almost seem like impertinence to eulogise such painting, as this canvas contains painting which, unlike the works of Reynolds, seems fresh and pure as the day it left the easel; and it would be still more futile to attempt to define the master’s method.”
The history of the portrait is interesting. It was painted at Shockerwick, near Bradford, where Wiltshire, the Bath carrier, lived, who loved art so much that he conveyed to London Gainsborough’s pictures from the year 1761 to 1774 entirely free of charge. The artist rewarded him by presenting him with some of his paintings, The Return from Harvest, The Gipsies’ Repast, and probably this portrait of Orpin was one of his gifts. It was sold at Christie’s in 1868 by a descendant of the art-loving carrier, and purchased for the nation by Mr. Boxall for the low sum of L325.
The mediaeval clerk appears in many ancient manuscripts and illuminations, which show us, better than words can describe, the actual duties which he was called upon to perform. The British Museum possesses a number of pontificals and other illustrated manuscripts containing artistic representations of clerks. We see him accompanying the priest who is taking the last sacrament to the sick. He is carrying a taper and a bell, which he is evidently ringing as he goes, its tones asking for the prayers of the faithful for the sick man’s soul. This picture occurs in a fourteenth-century MS. [6 E. VI, f. 427], and in the same MS. we see another illustration of the priest administering the last sacrament attended by the clerk [6 E. VII, f. 70].
[Illustration: THE CLERK ATTENDING THE PRIEST AT HOLY BAPTISM]
[Illustration 2: THE CLERK ATTENDING THE PRIEST AT HOLY BAPTISM]
Another illustration shows the priest baptizing an infant which the male sponsor holds over the font, while the priest pours water over its head from a shallow vessel. The faithful parish clerk stands by the priest. This appears in the fifteenth-century MS. Egerton, 2019, f. 135.