Entertainer Billy preferred the brush to the lens

Illustration from T. Arthur's Life of Billy Purvis.
Illustration from T. Arthur's Life of Billy Purvis.

Billy Purvis lived into the age of photography, but no photographs of him exist. This is odd since showmen are usually quick to exploit novelties.

A Miss Wigley opened a daguerrotype portrait gallery in the Royal Arcade in 1845, and although she returned to London in 1847, other ‘photographic artists’ appear in Newcastle from 1849 onwards.

Robson says: “During Billy’s sojourn in Seaham Harbour, he luckily fell in with a young and talented artist, Mr Parry. Billy and the painter grew boon companions, and the result was that Billy’s likeness was painted in oil by his clever friend. The execution of the portrait was strikingly faithful, and showed no ordinary proficiency.”

This resulted in such an increase in Mr Parry’s business that he begged Billy to sit for him again. Billy did so, but fell asleep so Parry drew him exactly as he was.

“Crowds went to see these portraits of the different phases of Billy, as they were exhibited at Mr Hay’s Establishment, Grainger Street, Newcastle, ‘Ay, dash, that’s Billy Purvis! he’s been drunk: lucka!... there’s the glass o’ beer he’s been drinkin’ when he’s geyn to sleep’.”

But Billy wasn’t drunk, only asleep. Unfortunately, these portraits have not survived, and the talented Mr Parry, of Seaham Harbour, is not in Marshall Hall’s Artists of Northumbria. Consequently, only three or four pictures of Billy exist that were either taken from life or from memory by people who had known him well. One of these, signed ‘H. Mole del’, shows him seated, playing the union pipes. This is probably John Henry Mole (1814-86). Mole worked professionally in Newcastle from 1835, but Marshall Hall says that he gave up portraiture in 1848 so it was drawn from life when Billy was aged between 50 and 65.

He appears smartly dressed with wavy hair, somewhat tousled, his features regular with arched eyebrows and a strong, dimpled chin. It is possible from this picture to imagine Billy as a younger man, and suggests that some of those in T. Arthur’s Life of Billy Purvis may be reasonable likenesses. In the Monthly Chronicle for August 1891, a member of his company, C.H. Stephenson, describes Billy’s clown costume: “knickerbockers and vest in one — very baggy from just above the knees up to the hips. A loose ‘fly’, or sleeveless jacket, rather short, fell over the shoulders; the sleeves, of white calico or cambric, were large and puffed; a big white square-cut lay over the collar. A red skull-cap, with a red comb running from the nape of the neck to the crown of his head, cream coloured stockings with narrow crimson rings and buff shoes and red rosettes, completed Billy’s dress.”

His costume also had “strips of yellow braid or serge, running corkscrew fashion from the inside of the thighs and upwards round the front of the figure and meeting at the back. Between each row were small red tufts of worsted that dangled like so many diminutive tennis-balls”.

His make-up was just a patch of red on chin, forehead and cheeks, “none much larger than a shilling”.

We have already reproduced Ned Corvan’s picture of Billy stealing the bundle. Edward Corvan (1830-65) joined Billy Purvis’s Victoria Theatre in about 1845 and stayed with him for five years. Corvan gives him straw-coloured hair, and it appears from this picture that, apart from the skull-cap, stockings and sleeves, Billy did vary his dress from time to time.

Lastly, we have another oil painting from the Laing Art Gallery. A label on it says, ‘Billy Purvis by James Powell, Late of the Durham Ox Hotel, Foot of Westmorland Road, who became acquainted with Billy Purvis when the Shows stood on the ground now occupied by the North Eastern Railway Audit Offices, facing the above inn’.

The Durham Ox was very short-lived. It is not in Pigot’s Directory for 1829, but is in Hodgson, 1833, the landlord being H. Dees, and in Richardson, 1839, Stephen Rutherford. Both give the address as Forth Place, but an 1841 directory, while still recording Mr Rutherford as landlord, places it in West Clayton Street.

A great many properties were demolished soon after to make way for the Central Station, and we hear no more of the Durham Ox. All three addresses given for it are near the Life Centre, and I suspect that it was always in the same place. Either way, its existence was practically confined to the 1830s, and I assume that Mr Powell was landlord during a period when no directory was published. The Laing dates the picture c.1820, but I think it was painted later, and perhaps much later. It closely resembles Stephenson’s description, and may have been based on that rather than on observation or memory. Billy wears spectacles, suggesting old age, but his hair is dark brown.

All other pictures of Billy Purvis are either derivative or, like those in T. Arthur’s Life of Billy Purvis, mere cartoons.

Acknowledgment: We reproduce the portrait by J.H. Mole by kind permission of Tyne and Wear Archives, and that by James Powell by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).