Tale Of Fraud And Intrigue Comes To Light From Cryptic Letter That Accompanies Picture As Family Consigns It To Auction

Art Daily
Published on
 Bottled beer, Rupert Murdoch and a very public scandal – the secret history of an Elizabethan portrait. Image courtesy of Ewbank’s Auctions.
Bottled beer, Rupert Murdoch and a very public scandal – the secret history of an Elizabethan portrait. Image courtesy of Ewbank’s Auctions.

WOKING.- He may look a rather severe figure but Alexander Nowell, Dean of St Paul’s for 42 years throughout Elizabeth I’s reign, had a lighter side to his nature – as the man credited with inventing bottled beer.

A cryptic letter that comes with the portrait has led to the discovery of links to Rupert Murdoch and a very public family scandal whose resolution involved the portrait being granted as a gift.

The story has unfolded as Dean Nowell’s descendants consigned this portrait of the long-lived scholar and cleric, born around 1517, who died in 1602, for sale to Ewbank’s Auctions of Surrey, who will offer it as a highlight of their three-day 30th Anniversary sale from March 18-20.

A keen fisherman, Nowell was known as a piscator hominum – a fisher of men, the title granted to St Peter by Jesus and associated with priests – and according to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain, he accidentally invented bottled beer on one of his excursions with rod and line to the river bank.

The story goes that Nowell left a bottle of beer, decanted from a barrel, on the river bank during a fishing trip, forgetting about it. He rediscovered it by chance a few days later and found it was still “perfectly drinkable”. When he opened the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed the original of bottled ale in England”.

Even more fascinating is the tale behind the letter written by Robert Sherson, a doctor and apothecary, to his cousin, the Dean’s namesake Alexander Nowell, in 1811, gifting him the portrait in gratitude for “your obliging endeavours to defend the conduct of my oppressed and much injured son”.

Research has revealed that the “much injured son” was also called Robert Sherson, a senior official in the East India Company and in charge of famine relief in storm-hit Madras in 1807.

An article by Professor Mark Knights of Warwick University’s History department details how Sherson had ordered a survey of grain supplies after storms tore off the roof the company’s grain store, signing off the estimate without sufficiently checking whether it was accurate.

Sherson’s arch enemy, a more senior official named Mungo Dick, exploited the mistake to accuse Sherson of over-estimating the losses and embezzling the profits from selling off part of the grain supply.

A committee of enquiry, in which Dick was appointed as chairman, also found Sherson guilty of selling grain at inflated prices, thereby profiteering from the famine, and he was dismissed from his post as deputy Customs Master, Assay Master and Director of the Government Bank.

Sherson, in turn, had accused a local accountant who was loyal to Dick of forging the accounts that pointed to his alleged guilt.

Despite his disgrace, Sherson eventually had his day in court, although it took until 1814 for the Supreme Court in Madras to vindicate him. The court threw the accusations against him out, arguing that he might have been the victim of fraud and conspiracy. One judge went as far as to condemn Mungo Dick, adding that had it been a British court he would have been jailed “as a perverter of justice”.

Entirely exonerated, Sherson was reinstated to the East India Company the following year and compensated for his suspension and humiliation.

Despite this, the stain on his character continued to haunt him and it was only after Alexander Nowell, a Member of Parliament and a cousin, waged a sustained campaign in his favour that his name was finally cleared in public.

The letter, dated 27th January 1811, shows that Nowell had started his campaign long before Sherson was cleared in court. While the father expressed his gratitude in presenting Nowell with the portrait, his son went even further, naming his own son Alexander Nowell Sherson in honour of his champion.

Professor Knights also revealed that the much injured Robert Sherson was the great, great, great grandfather on his mother’s side of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

Other copies of this image are held at his alma mater, Brasenose College, at Oxford University, and St Paul’s Cathedral, and an engraving after it was published in 1796.

The estimate is £4,000 to £6,000.

A further letter from Robert Sherson senior to Alexander Nowell, dated 25th January 1816, begs him to accept another gift of a painting, this time by Breugel. The picture, dating to 1588, is also included in Ewbank’s sale, although it is catalogued here as being from the studio of Jan Breugel the Younger and also has an estimate of £4,000-6,000.

More in the auction industry