Can anyone help the Survey of London trace a remarkable lost watercolour of the chemist Jacob Bell’s workshop in Oxford Street by the famous early Victorian painter William Henry Hunt? Today the painting seems to be known only from a splendid print. But the original was in the library of the Chemists’ Club of New York in the 1930s, so the likelihood is that it is still somewhere in the United States.
W. H. Hunt (1790–1864), sometimes known as ‘Birds Nest’ Hunt to distinguish him from his later contemporary William Holman Hunt, was among the finest and most delicate of English watercolour painters. Nearly all his works show intimate rural scenes, or close-up details from nature, among which his studies of bird’s nests and fruits are outstanding. He very seldom painted large or urban compositions – which makes his study of Bell’s workshop, originally entitled A Laboratory, the more intriguing.
The story behind the painting appears to be as follows. Jacob Bell (1810–59) was the son and successor to John Bell, a chemist who founded a firm in Oxford Street still in existence today as John Bell & Croyden in Wigmore Street. Jacob was a man of wide interests and initiatives, in politics, art, photography and, above all, the better organization of his profession. He was effectively the founder of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. That took place in 1841, the very year in which A Laboratory was painted. It shows the workshop behind Bell’s shop, with John Simmonds, Bell’s apothecary and one of his father’s early apprentices, seated on a barrel stirring a crucible, while an apprentice boy, William, cleans a mortar. It seems a reasonable guess to suppose that the painting and the founding of the society are connected, and that Jacob Bell wanted to commemorate the charming but rather primitive state of the chemists’ premises at the time, before they were modernized.
Jacob Bell had had some art-training himself and enjoyed many friends among artists, principally Edwin Landseer. So it is likely that he knew Hunt well, and asked him to paint the picture as a special favour. It was exhibited at the Society of Watercolour Painters’ annual exhibition in 1841, and then again at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, when it was lent by Jacob Bell. After Bell’s death the painting disappeared from view. Much later, in 1931, it was spotted on the walls of the library in the Chemists’ Club of New York and cleverly identified by an American scholar, Elsie Woodward Kassner. It was known to be English, and had been anecdotally known in the club as Michael Faraday washing apparatus for Sir Humphry Davy. Kassner wrote an article for the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association (Volume 20, number 3) correctly identifying the subject.
That ought to have been that. But unfortunately the premises and holdings of the Chemists’ Club were sold in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some items went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, but the Hunt painting was not among them, and efforts to trace this unique work of art have so far proved unavailing. Fortunately we have a fine lithographic print of it by J. G. Murray, published in 1842, but to find and republish the original would be thrilling.