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Deaf artist William Agnew

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 20 December 2011

AGNEW, William (1846-1914)

Educated at the Glasgow Institution for the Deaf and Dumb by Duncan Anderson (headmaster there from 1836 until his retirement in 1869), Agnew was an amateur artist who painted series of pictures showing Queen Victoria using finger spelling to communicate with a deaf woman on the Isle of Wight. The five paintings (none of which now exists) are the “Royal Condescension” paintings of 1883, 1889 and 1900 (for the differences between them, see Britain’s deaf heritage), “true Nobility” (1897) and “Post Office, Whippingham, I.O.W.”

Much of the following is from the British Deaf-Mute article of 1892. Agnew left school to become a bookbinder, and after nine year went to work for the ‘semi-mute’ printer Mr A.F. Strathern. In about 1872 Agnew went to work for ‘Messrs Moncrief, Barr, Paterson, and Co., an eminent firm of writers in Glasgow.’ He became involved in work to gather funds for an Institute for adult Deaf in Glasgow and West Scotland, and the Queen gave her name as a patron and a £50 donation. In 1891 a Grand Bazaar raised £6,000 and a site for the Institute was purchased for £4,500.

Agnew was a strong opponant of the oral system, “and most certainly he himself is a standing proof of how the sign-manual system can educate a man.”

Agnew died on 21st December 1914.

The picture, which was exhibited at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1890, has the following details at the bottom :

“Royal Condescension, from the original painting by , 36″ by 24″, by William Agnew. This will doubtless prove a picture of historical interest. Some years ago a Deaf and Dumb Woman namned Mrs Tuffield resided with her parents, who had charge of the Post Office at Osborne, Isle of Wight, 1874. Her maiden name was Bective Groves, and on account of her husband’s cruelty, she had been obliged to leave him. In her usual kind of way Her Majesty the Queen was in the habit of visiting this Deaf Mute, and took great pleasure in trying to lighten her sorrow by talking to her by means of the Finger Alphabet. Her Majesty lately corroborated this story, and at the same time mentioned that she is not now so proficient in the Silent Language.”

[Click onto the picture to see it at a larger size]

The picture has Agnew’s signature at the bottom left and the date 1889.

Mr. Wm Agnew. British Deaf-Mute and Deaf Chronicle, 1892, 2(14),  19. (NB. RNID Library copy shelved under The Deaf Chronicle.)

Mr. William Agnew. British Deaf Monthly, 1902, 11(131), 533-534. (photo)

Margate school for the Deaf. Silent World, 1952, Sep, 104-07. (p. 106 refers to Queen Victoria’s interest in the school and the portrait of her at the ex-pupil’s bedside)

JACKSON, P. Britain’s deaf heritage. Pentland Press, 1990. pp.148-150