The polymath James Ferguson came from a humble background, where his education was almost non-existent. After teaching himself to read, his father agreed to send him to school where his aptitude was noted and he subsequently attended the local grammar school.
Ferguson’s earliest interests were rooted in science and mathematics. When he watched his father, a farmer, using a lever to raise the decayed roof of the family smallholding, he wrote an account of the principle of mechanical advantage. At night, working as a shepherd, he studied the stars. At the age of fourteen, a local farmer encouraged this interest, aiding him to chart the star’s positions. A local gentleman, Thomas Grant, also encouraged Ferguson’s curiosity and talent, offering him a position in his household where he could be taught by Alexander Cantley, his butler. When Cantley moved away, Ferguson was again left to his own devices and made himself a globe at home, subsequently fashioning a watch using a whalebone spring and a clock from wood.
Ferguson first became acquainted with drawing whilst working for Sir James Dunbar of Durn at the age of about twenty-three. He was employed by Durn to maintain his clocks but also showed some skill in copying his paintings. William Baird, a relation of Dunbar’s, invited him to use his library and taught him how to use Indian ink. Baird was subsequently his first portrait subject. Encouraged by this excellent start to his painting career, Ferguson moved to Edinburgh to seek an apprenticeship with an oil painter. He was soon distracted, however, by a desire to study anatomy and surgery and began training and practising as a doctor. He also rekindled his interest in astronomy, in which he began lecturing after introducing himself to Professor Colin Maclaurin.
Although he had gained fame through his role as both portraitist and lecturer at the Royal Society (of which he became a fellow in 1763), he was poor, and made advertisements in the 1750s offering to give lessons on astrology and to paint “pictures in Indian ink on vellum at a guinea apiece, frame and glass included”. In 1760, at which point he began to receive a generous pension of £50 per annum from the Privy Purse, he stopped producing portraits and instead focussed on his academic career. For the next sixteen years until his death in 1776, Ferguson maintained an active academic life, producing a vast number of scientific papers for both expert and novice. After he died on 16 November, his body was interred in the Old Marylebone Churchyard, which has since become a school playground. Nearby a plaque reads “Some Notable People Buried Here”, under which John Ferguson’s name is inscribed, alongside those of Allan Ramsay and George Stubbs, amongst whom Ferguson stands tall.
He was made a fellow of Royal Society in 1763 and continued to publish. His work was greatly valued and George III granted him a pension of £50 per annum from 1761. When he died in London in 1776 he left a considerable estate.
One of the portraits here shows James Caulfield, born on 18 August 1728 in Dublin to the 3rd Viscount Charlemont. He succeeded to his father’s title of Viscount aged only six. In 1746, he set out on the Grand Tour and at Turin pursued his Classical studies and became a close friend of the Prince of Sardinia. After travelling across Greece and Constantinople in 1748, he returned to Italy, and lived the life of a socialite. Between 1750 and 1754, Charlemont lived in Rome, where he became involved in the city’s literary circle; it was in Rome that he was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Pompeo Batoni in 1751 and 1753 respectively.
In 1754, Charlemont returned to England, after nearly nine years abroad and began his career as statesman. During his time in London in the late 1750s, a half-length portrait was painted by Hogarth (also noted on the reverse of this portrait) and it is likely that this portrait by Ferguson was executed at a similar time. Portraits of Charlemont share the same full lips and high-arched eyebrows as seen in this drawing. In 1760 Charlemont assumed the role of custos rotulorum, the principal Justice of the Peace of County Armagh. It was in 1763 that an Earldom was offered to Charlemont, after he had successfully preserved the peace after an insurrection broke out between the counties of Armagh and Tyrone. On 2nd June 1768, he married Miss Hickham, daughter of Mr. Robert Hickham. Despite his involvement in the politics of Ireland, he maintained a literary output, publishing titles on Italian poets, from the Medieval greats, such as Boccaccio and Dante, to the then-modern Pietro Metastasio.
After his brother, Francis Caulfield’s death at sea, Charlemont was able to engage with politics on a national scale, for he took his brother’s place in the House of Commons. Committed to the notion of Irish independence, he became the president of the volunteer convention in Dublin in November 1783. In the same year, he was made a founding Knight of the Order of St Patrick, an honour conferred upon him by George III. Aside from his political life, he was appointed the first president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1785 as well as the president of the Royal Dublin Society. His home in Dublin, dubbed Marino, owing to its proximity to the sea, was a local attraction, which Charlemont used as villa in which to entertain his many guests and visitors. After a long period of deterioration, Charlemont died, aged 70, at his house in Dublin in 1799. After his funeral, which although officially private, was attended by a large crowd, his remains were interred in the Caulfield family vault at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh.