J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 11, 2021

The Beard of John Stavely

Beards were not fashionable in the British Empire during the eighteenth century.

This fact is sometimes regretted by reenactors who don’t want to shave their modern beards, but the artistic record is clear.

That doesn’t mean there were no bearded men in Revolutionary America. Rather, they were few, and people saw them as unusual. The Boston shoemaker William Scott grew a long beard for religious reasons, and it scared children on the street.

Another man of the period noted for his full beard was John Stavely. We know him as a model for the painter Joseph Wright of Derby. And we know his name only by the inscription on the back of a Wright drawing now in the collection of the Morgan Library:
Portrait of
John Stavely
who came from Hert-
fordshire with Mr. French
& sat to Mr. Wright in the character of the old man & his ass in the
Sentimental Journey
We can spot the same bearded face in other Wright paintings and drawings, such as his two versions of The Captive and various studies as the man aged.

The Sotheby’s site says:
Wright’s practise of employing old men as models in the 1760s and early ’70s is well documented and the artist’s account book, now preserved in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London, includes the details and addresses of several local Derbyshire characters that sat for him on a regular basis. . . . Perhaps his favourite model, however, was a character known as Old John Staveley…
Stavely’s most famous role for Wright was as the scientist in The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers. Wright finished this painting in 1771, then went back over it in 1795.

Unfortunately, we don’t appear to have any account of what John Stavely’s family and neighbors thought of his beard. We know only that when Joseph Wright of Derby wanted to paint bearded men, he had a limited pool to choose from.

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