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Back in the Doggett’s home

Ann Smith charts the story of how a portrait of the founder of Britain’s oldest annual sporting event ended up in Sherborne Castle.

The morning’s crop of emails routinely includes an enquiry about a picture or portrait in the castle, so Alan Woods’s enquiry about the portrait of Thomas Doggett was no different to any other. I confirmed that we do indeed have the portrait at Sherborne Castle, it is on display and I gave him our opening times. That, I thought, was the end of the story, as I then heard nothing more for a
few months.

Sherborne Castle: home to the Digby family and, until recently, the only known picture of Thomas Doggett

Sherborne Castle: home to the Digby family and, until recently, the only known picture of Thomas Doggett

However, in the spring, Alan contacted me again. He would like to see the Doggett portrait and would like to bring his son with him from London. I said I would be pleased to meet him, if he let me know when he was coming. On the appointed day, I took them to see the portrait, and it was clear that both were quite moved to see it. I began to sense this was no ordinary visit, the reason for which was soon to be made plain.
Alan turned to me and said: ‘I am a Queen’s Waterman, past Master of the Company of Thames Watermen, and my son, Tom, won the Doggett Coat and Badge Race.’
I suddenly realized the significance of their visit. I was thrilled. To meet someone so intimately connected with the portrait was a real privilege and I listened, fascinated to hear what he had to say. Alan’s family have been Thames Watermen for generations, and have conveyed royalty along the Thames on their vessels. Alan was puzzled that there is no picture of Doggett at Watermen’s Hall in London. The Company of Fishmongers, who have run the Coat and Badge Race annually since six years after it was first contested, have a portrait which was at first believed to be Doggett, but is now known not to be of him. In other words, our portrait at Sherborne was the only known image of him. Alan’s mission was to remedy this deficit and bring Doggett home, to Watermen’s Hall.

Alan and Tom Woods in their finery

Alan and Tom Woods in their finery

Alan later confessed to me that he had come down hoping to buy the picture at Sherborne, but quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be possible. Instead he started asking me questions about artists and the possibility of having a copy made. Naturally the owner, Mr John Wingfield Digby would have to be consulted first; in fact he was quite happy when he heard the reason. But who could do a convincing copy? As Alan put it, most successful forgers are probably behind bars! As it happens, I had met Ying Yang, a Chinese artist and picture-restorer, who I knew could copy pictures accurately. I put Alan in touch with him, and he agreed to do it. Ying came down and took a series of photographs, from which he worked in his London studio.
Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian, who became joint actor-manager of the theatre at Drury Lane. In 1715, 114 years before the University Boat Race was first contested, he established the Doggett Coat and Badge Race, to be raced for annually by the Thames Watermen. It is the oldest annual sporting event in Britain, and, the wartime years excepted, has not missed a year; The Company of Fishmongers have administered the race since Doggett’s death in 1721.

Sherborne Castle archivist, Ann Smith

Sherborne Castle archivist, Ann Smith

The prize for winning the race was a red coat and cap, and a large silver badge to be worn on the arm. This livery is, to this day, worn by past winners of the race. Doggett’s portrait at Sherborne Castle shows him in costume, on stage, speaking his lines, and is believed to be the earliest such portrayal of an actor. Why it is at Sherborne is a mystery. The Digby family had an estate in Ireland in the eighteenth century and were patrons of other Irish artists, such as Charles Jervas, who became court painter to George I. The Digbys also had a town house in London and may have seen Doggett at Drury Lane. Whatever the reason, his picture has been at the castle for a very long time. It is mentioned in the 1862 picture catalogue, when it was consigned to the Servant’s Hall, but by the early twentieth century it was on display in the main Entrance Hall, where it has been ever since.
At a ceremony in Watermen’s Hall in June this year, I was privileged to represent Sherborne Castle and the Digby family at the unveiling of the copy. It was a wonderful occasion, redolent of history, with members of the Company in livery, in a lovely Georgian building – the only Georgian hall in the City of London, which is beautifully maintained by the Watermen. We were given a private tour of the building and all the wonderful memorabilia
on display.

The original portrait in Sherborne Castle’s hall

The original portrait in Sherborne Castle’s hall

Ying’s copy of the picture is nothing short of miraculous. When I saw it unveiled, a slight shiver ran through me – it looked unnervingly like ours! In fact, it is slightly smaller (the original measures 8ft by 5ft) but he has cleverly scaled the background scenery so the figure still dominates the stage. He told us that he painted it in the same way as the original, by building up layers of paint, so it will age in the same way. It was lovely to see Doggett in such an appropriate setting, in Watermen’s Hall. He will remain there now forever, for all to see and enjoy.

The official unveiling of the new portrait

The official unveiling of the new portrait

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