Thomas SAUL 1826 – 1880 Mystery Portrait

By John Saul

This article was published in the April 2019 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

I have written two articles for Soule Search on my Lavenham/Ipswich Saul ancestors: ‘Four Generations of Ipswich Sauls’, in the August 2004 edition, and ‘The Ipswich Sauls – A Follow-Up’, in April 2013. The first article led to contact being established with a third cousin Mike Fenn: we share great-great grandparents, Thomas and Frances Saul. Thomas and Frances had 2 children, Elizabeth (1849-1935), whose second husband was George Fenn, and Thomas (1850-1937), my great-grandfather.
Much of my second article dealt with the first Thomas Saul and summarised what we had learned about him through our research. But Thomas died before photography became commonplace, so we had no idea what he looked like. But Mike possessed a portrait of an unknown man which he had inherited from his grandfather Thomas Saul Fenn but he had never worked out who the sitter was. Did I have any ideas?
I felt that there was a definite likeness with my side of the Saul family, and especially with my father Thomas George Saul (1907-2000).
Mike then sought expert opinion, which was that, based on the style of the portrait and the sitter’s clothes, it was painted in the 1850s or 1860s. The sitter looked to be between 35 and 45 years of age. The blue bow tie also indicated 1850/60. By the 1870s the sack coat and necktie fashions were changing and were unlikely to have been worn by a young man. The portrait was an original pastel, competently executed though unsigned and not by a well-known artist. A label on the back of the frame records that it was framed or reframed by Bartletts of Westgate Street, Ipswich, who were in business in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
There was no one in Mike’s family who fitted the age of the sitter and the likely date of the portrait. But there was one significant clue: a young Mike Fenn remembered asking his grandfather’s housekeeper who the man in the portrait was, and being given the answer ‘grandfather’, which mystified him as it was obviously not his grandfather. And then 50+ years later it suddenly dawned on him that the sitter was not his grandfather but his grandfather’s grandfather, the first Thomas Saul!

Portrait of Thomas Saul aged about 40, mid 1860s, artist unknown

Portrait of Thomas Saul aged about 40, mid 1860s, artist unknown

Mike had the portrait restored, and in due course he presented me with a full-size reproduction made by a professional photographer. Given that three Thomas Sauls, George Fenn and Thomas Saul Fenn were all landlords of pubs owned by the local brewer Cobbolds, it was fitting that the handover took place over a beer at a former Cobbold pub, the “Butt and Oyster” at Pin Mill on the Orwell, just outside Ipswich. The portrait now hangs in my hall.
One mystery remains: why was the portrait commissioned? There are two possibilities:
Thomas Saul’s father Timothy Saul (1779-1834) was a labourer/brewer at Cobbolds Brewery in Ipswich at the time of his death. A brief report in the Suffolk Chronicle said that “he had been employed by John Cobbold at Cliff Brewery and was previously in good health, yet he suddenly fell down and instantly expired”. The report concluded, ominously, “We regret to state that he left a widow with a large family”. Now Cobbolds were relatively enlightened employers, and we wonder whether they took an interest in the young Thomas Saul, the youngest of Timothy’s 11 children, ensuring that he received a basic education and giving him a job in the Brewery as soon as he was old enough. We do know that in 1848 and 1862 he was a “maltster”. In 1865 he moved to Harwich to be Tavern Manager for the new Great Eastern Hotel. He returned to Ipswich in 1868 to take over a Cobbold pub, the Swan, and made a great success of it before his early death in 1880.
So was the portrait commissioned by Cobbolds to mark his departure from the Brewery in 1865? Quite possibly.
Thomas Saul was a Founder Member of a local Court (equivalent to Lodge) of the Ancient Order of Foresters, being initiated at the age of 20 into the new Ipswich Court 2105 at their inaugural meeting on 1st April 1846. The Order was renamed ‘Friendly Society’ after the passing of the Friendly Societies Act of 1850. A news item in the Suffolk Chronicle of 19 Nov 1867 refers to PCT (=Past Chief Ranger) Saul, founder member, responding to a toast to Court 2105. Unfortunately we have been unable to find out when he served his term as Chief Ranger (equivalent to a Masonic Grand Master), but as he moved to Harwich in 1865 it could not have been any later than 1864/5.
Could the portrait have been commissioned to mark his term as Chief Ranger? Unlikely, as surely he would have been portrayed with the paraphernalia of office. We will probably never know.