It is some few years now since I first laid eyes on a painting which was displaying in the Carnegie museum at Melton Mowbray, a landscape produced by a man whom we would probably describe today as a part-time or amateur artist. Dated 1835, it was labelled simply; ‘Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, from the Canal’. The painting is the excellent work of the late William Latham Esq., solicitor and local politician and of oils on canvas measuring just 22 x 109.5 cm. – for the unconverted, this equates to roughly 8½ inches x 43 inches – it is currently part of a collection of the Leicestershire County Council Museums Service. A greatly enlarged reproduction of this painting is today displayed for all visitors to appreciate in the public foyer of the handsome new Borough Council offices in Melton Mowbray (just look to your right as you pass through the main entrance. This well-chosen local scene exemplifies for me the 18th Century topography of this particular part of the town, the history of which has fascinated me for some time and this painting has for a while now, served to concentrate in me a search for its origins and subsequent evolvement into its greatly enlarged social and corporate expansion over two centuries. My representation of the small work of art is not easy to display due to its awkward size, but as a useful guide to put you into the location of the artist at the time – let us say where the swimming baths now stand – I would suggest that at a point about 10mm from the right-hand side, we would today see the Midland Railway line travelling East. This extant example of his artwork, the obvious skill of which was never to become his life’s work, possible relates to a friendship he had for many years with Melton Mowbray’s famous artist, Grant RA
A TOWN MAP
When William Latham was about 77 years of age – he never really retired completely – he was to complete a personal project that had apparently absorbed many hours of his precious and increasingly rare – even for a septuagenarian – spare time and thought. With his artistic gift and an eye and mind honed for precise and clear detail, he had long pondered over the geographical problems and divisions of convoluted opinion which had arisen in so many of the day-to-day cases which he had conducted or overseen during his legal work – criminal and civil – which were all part and parcel of his responsibilities to the Magistracy in the town. His solution was to be the creation of a standard map or chart of the Town to supersede any previous effort and one which would identify precisely and for once and for all, the location of each building, shed, fountain, memorial stone or byre and precisely display all of the boundaries of properties and those of the Borough limits. In the finest detail and by his very skilled hand, the fruits of all this dedicated work was to be made available for any citizen who wished to make use of its service. No other official map – such as those later to be produced government Ordnance Survey maps – was yet available. It is said that within a period of just six months from its conception, William was to complete and present this truly splendid artefact. Described as being some 11 feet in length and 39 inches wide and covering the whole area of the parish. Inscribed with the utmost accuracy and annotated with a finely crafted manuscript, the detail was to incorporate every single foot of ground contained in the lordship at a true scale set at 3 chains to the inch. Each separate property or residence in the parish was distinctly identified with the whole being colour-coded, i.e painted in watercolours with different colours or white ground to show which of the properties were unredeemed from the Land Tax, or anciently or recently redeemed.
The foot of the map was beautifully decorated with a depiction of the town as it was seen before 1846, the year of the arrival of the railway as Mr Latham was well known to be very much against the idea of a railway line cutting through his beloved town! The aspect being from the south end of the parish with prominent features of the area known as Priors Close, the Play-close, the Parish Church, Earl of Wilton’s residence, the bridges over the River Eye and adjacent canal, together with other characteristics of the neighbourhood. Skilfully executed alongside was to be found a detailed index which pertained to every particular as to owners and occupiers and their redemption or not of the land tax on the estates that have taken place. William had apparently professed in its implementation, that ” … its use in the future for the welfare of the town, with the added wish that it might become a legacy of reference for all time ahead.” This was surely an understatement and how we would all desire to see such a map today! In its official presentation to the Local Board it was Mr Latham’s intention to ask for permission to place it in the Magistrates room for that particular purpose, for the reference of officials or the general public. The gift, apart from being a work of art is said to have been nothing less than a marvellous production and one which in the motive which prompted it, indicated the amazing skill and patience of carrying it out and the accuracy and perfection which characterised it.
In connection with this impressive gesture to the people of Melton, William Latham was lauded from all quarters, not only from the businesses and professions to whom it would prove so useful, but also from every social class of town dweller who was to assure that public approbation was directly due i.e.
‘…to one who every person living in the parish justly feels a pride and pleasure – towards a gentleman, a townsman and a friend and that his creation, as a work of art as well as one of the greatest utility, to be ever regarded as a boon to the town which will only increase in value.
With no Ordnance Survey map of the town yet available, Solicitor Latham’s contribution proved to be certainly ahead of its time and it really does sound like an amazing tour-de-force. I do believe that this map – or a facsimile – still exists, though I do fear that it is by now lost to view and is possibly beyond public view. The people of Melton were to keep a weather-eye on matters and in the Grantham Journal at the beginning of March 1887, not too long after the passing of both William and Annie Latham, there appeared the first emergence of a growing discontent as to the future of the gift.
THE PEOPLE’S GIFT.
Such was the personality of William Latham in connection with his hometown, that it is surprising that he has never been made the subject of a published biography, as there is very much to tell of his public and private life in the fields of law, education, sports and especially, alongside his very busy law practice, was a lifetime dedicated to his political contributions at all levels in the borough. Much of this life is reported below, taken from eulogies published at the time of his eventual passing from the scene, but I will first tell of the second item of public dissension which ensued with his passing. It concerns the story of the Latham portrait.
A PORTRAIT …
Close to two decades before the death of William Latham Esq., many of the townspeople present at his funeral and others who had themselves by now passed on, had willingly and cheerfully put their hands into their not too deep pockets in order to voluntarily collect the not inconsiderable sum in 1870 of £300, exclusively for the purpose of presenting to William’s devoted wife Annie a full length oil-painting of her husband. The testimonial had been arranged and agreed with the popular solicitor and his wife some time beforehand and Mr J. Archer Esq., RSA had been commissioned to carry out the work for the generous fee of 150 sovereigns (£150). This presentation of the portrait to Mrs Latham, together with a separate presentation of a purse of 150 sovereigns, together with an illuminated vellum address in an enriched casket to her husband, had taken place at the Latham residence in Nottingham street during the Christmas of 1872. Mr Whitchurch, Chairman of the presentation committee was deputed to address Mrs Latham and in the presence of the gathered audience announced:
“Madam, – It is upwards of a year since I had the honour of appearing in this room with a deputation to solicit Mr Latham’s consent to our presenting him with a testimonial. That consent being obtained, our work (which was throughout a labour of love), may be said to have been easy, for such is the respect in which Mr Latham is held by his clients and personal friends, such is the esteem felt for him by his fellow townsmen, and such is the appreciation of that wondrous piece of calligraphy executed by Mr Latham in his old age, now hanging in our public room, and ornament, and most useful to us, that subscriptions voluntarily poured in upon us, – I say voluntarily because no solicitation was used, and we shortly received close upon £300 from upwards of three hundred subscribers. Our plans for carrying out the object of the testimonial were resolved on, and if they are in consonance with Mr Latham’s and your own we are glad. Knowing that an act of courtesy to a wife must ever meet with a grateful response from a husband, it was decided to present you with Mr Latham’s portrait. The portrait now before us, as a work of art, is seldom equalled, and as a true portrait, faithfully delineating Mr Latham, can’t be surpassed. The artist as well as depicting the outward features of the man, has shown us his natural temperament – look at that plain sympathising face and those benignant eyes. I have now, Madam, the honour and the most profound pleasure, on behalf of this deputation and the subscribers generally, of presenting this portrait to you, who will value it much. When we are numbered with our fathers, it will, I trust, be handed down to posterity and show them their predecessors in this place knew how to appreciate one of the noblest works of oration a true Christian and a good man. We sincerely wish Mr Latham and yourself many years of uninterrupted happiness, and that you may in green old age enjoy that peace which a life well spent generally produces.”
Then turning to Mr Latham, Mr Whitchurch addressed him, explaining that the purse was the work of two local ladies ‘whose fingers I have no doubt were guided by their good wishes towards you in producing so beautiful a piece of work.’ He told Mr Latham that the surplus of £150 was his to spend as he wished. The Address, hand-crafted in London by skilled artisans and presented in a beautiful and richly carved casket, was read out. In acknowledging the gifts along with the names of the 306 subscribers, Mrs Latham was, in return, to tell the Committee;
“Gentleman, allow me in a few words to thank you most sincerely for you great liberality and kindness. Nothing can be more gratifying to a wife than to find her beloved husband so highly esteemed and respected by so large a circle of friends. I not only thank those present, but, through you all, individually and collectively, who have aided in this marked goodness, not only to my dear husband but also to myself.”
It was also revealed that the following message was delivered that same day by Mr Latham to the trustees of Hudson and Storers Charities;
“A number of my neighbours and personal friends have kindly subscribed the sum of £302 as a testimony of their respect for me, which is very gratifying, and fully appreciated. Part of that sum has been expended in a portrait of myself, in autotypes from the picture [photographic copies], leaving a balance of £15 which has been presented to me this day. It is my wish to dispose of this sum for the benefit of Hudson’s Bede Houses and Storer’s Almshouses in this town, and for the following reasons – I have been clerk and treasurer to those charities for more than fifty years and have observed the benefits derived from them by the inmates. As the chief part of the income of these charities may be such as to necessitate either a reduction of the number of inmates or a reduction of their weekly allowance. I therefore hereby hand over the sum of of £150 to the Trustees of Hudson’s and Storer’s Charities, to be applied by them and their successors in such manner as they shall think will be most beneficial to those useful institutions.”
END OF AN ERA
It was on Thursday 6th January 1887, that William Latham was ultimately laid to rest at just after 2pm on what was reported as a cold and foggy afternoon, publicly and in the presence of a considerable number of his mourning townsfolk who would not be deterred from celebrating the final moments of a much-loved man who had been finally removed from their midst. Following this much-lamented passing of such a popular resident, attention was soon to be drawn to the mention within the requiem of the iconic portrait and scale map, especially the sentence in the Grantham Journal which had stated – ‘The portrait above mentioned now becomes the property of the town.’ There followed a public discourse via letters to the editor of this newspaper, as cross-conflicting factors in the town began to lay down their rights and reasons as to claims of ownership.It is here that I feel a personal need to bring to light in the present day, a more detailed exposition of these once personal items, now in public ownership, their origins and their probable importance to the heritage of Melton Mowbray. For me, there exists the added enigma of their possible present existence and of their seemingly unknown location – if indeed they do still exist at some place. For this reason, I will explain further.