William Heathcote of Hursley Park

July 19, 2014 at 12:54 pm (history, jane austen, people, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , , , )

Always searching for more, I’ve come across this ENCHANTING portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – which features a cherubic William Heathcote (later the 5th baronet), with his cousins, painted by William Owen c1803.

wm heathcoteThe museum’s write-up about the painting is fascinating: for it proves how wrong a catalogue attribution sometimes can be! The baby in the quartet was, in 1938, thought to be William (born in 1801). This then meant that the children surrounding the baby were all little girls… When you click on the picture to see the ENTIRE portrait (it will take you to the Met, and open in another window) you will see why this is so important a mistake.

  • when at the Met’s website, click under “catalogue entry” for the painting’s full history

William, who was a GREAT CHUM of Edward Austen, was the son of the Rev William Heathcote, vicar of Worting. Jane Austen knew the Heathcotes well; little William’s mother was the former Elizabeth Bigg, daughter of Lovelace Bigg-Wither. Elizabeth returned to her parental home following the early death of her husband. Jane Austen was friendly with all the Bigg sisters of Manydown.

The painter, William Owen, exhibited the work in 1806.

The fascinating part of the history is what happened in 2012 – just two years ago – when a descendent gave the museum access to family history and, based on birth dates, the Met re-evaluated the sitters.

The Heathcote pictures (yes, in the PLURAL) were sold off in the 1930s, by a distant relation who had inherited the baronetcy (as mentioned, Edward Austen’s friend was the 5th baronet). As the website says, the extensive collection “constituted a rather comprehensive record of the appearance of succeeding generations from the late seventeenth century until shortly after 1800“. Breaks my heart to read of families divesting themselves of The Old Family Portraits – but without such divestment these would not be found online now…

Owen’s work has great charm, in the rusticity of the scene presented.

I forgot to mention: William Heathcote’s first wife was Caroline Perceval, daughter of the 2nd Baron Arden — who was related to the Comptons of Castle Ashby (ie, Emma Austen’s Aunt and Uncle Northampton). So, in a way, William “married into the family” even before Edward Austen did! (He and Emma Smith married on 16 December 1828.)



  1. hursleypark said,

    It’s great to read a piece on Sir William Heathcote and for reminding me to check the Met’s catalogue description of the painting, which still needs a slight revision!

    The information about the family has been available publicly since 1899, as a history of the family was written by Evelyn Dawsonne Heathcote under the title “Account of Some of the Families Bearing the Name of Heathcote which Have Descended Out of the County of Derby”

    Based on the Met’s notes about Embley it is likely the painting was commissioned by Thomas Freeman Heathcote, who lived at Embley Park (later the home of Florence Nightingale) until the death of his father, Sir William Heathcote 3rd Brt., in 1819. By the mid nineteenth century the paining was in pride of place above the fireplace in the dining room at Hursley House surrounded by other family portraits by Owen. Elsewhere in the house were portraits of the family by Kneller and others. Several still hang in the main hall at Hursley Park others are dotted around both private and public collections.

    If Sir William is of interest then feel free to visit my website on the history of Hursley Park ( http://hursleypark.wixsite.com/history ) which will eventually contain more on Sir William and the paintings.

  2. hursleypark said,

    I have just taken this as an opportunity to re-read the 1938 catalogue entry and the Met were a little unfair, I suspect misinterpreting the “cousin” was their error as the 1938 entry is clear …

    44. Portraits of Harriet and Anne, Daughters of Langford Lovell, Esq., with Ellen, daughter of the Rev. Samuel Heathcote, and afterwards wife of William Wyndham, Esq., and Sir William Heathcote, 5th Baronet.

    Four children in a landscape; the boy holding a sheath of wheat on his head; the two elder girls, minding a sleeping cousin, looking towards the boy

  3. Janeite Kelly said,

    The Heathcotes are of GREAT interest, especially in relation to James Edward Austen.

    Sorry to neglect your informative comments for so long! Usually, I get an email and I must have missed it.


    • hursleypark said,

      I know the feeling well. I miss emails and messages all the time. Very frustrating!

      Let me know if I can help in any way and I would love to hear any of the stories you may have on the Heathcote and family. I was talking to several descendants of the Heathcotes a week or so ago when we opened Hursley Park to visitors as part of the national Heritage Open Days


      • Janeite Kelly said,

        HI, Dave – although the Smiths & Goslings – and I’d include James Edward Austen Leigh among that group (as he married into the family!), include a LOT of material, they are not often more than “sightings”. Mentioning of people, or mentions of visits. Have you ever read his daughter’s biography? I’m sure in some way Sir William gets some mentions. When last in England (2016), I collected a few more letters, including those to JEAL; I think a letter of congratulations on the announcement of his intended marriage with Emma Smith is among them. I must look. A small group had been saved from that period – though they really ALL say pretty much the same thing! In essence, how lucky he was. k

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