This portrait, by the London portraitist, and curator of the then newly opened Dulwich College Picture Gallery, Stephen Poyntz Denning, shows the judge James Hannen as a boy aged twelve. Born in Peckham in 1821 and educated at St Paul’s School and Heidelberg University, James Hannen was called to the bar aged twenty-six. After becoming a judge of the Court of the Queen’s Bench in 1868, Hannen went on to become the judge of the Court of Probate and Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in 1872. The latter, under the parliamentary Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, assumed the role of adjudicating over matrimonial issues, such as divorce, in civil courts rather than ecclesiastical courts. Thus, Hannen was one of the first judges to legislate over marriage as a contractual concept rather than a sacramental one.
From 1888-1889 Hannen presided over the Parnell Special Commission which saw the investigation of alleged letters by Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Home League party, condoning the murder of Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and T. H. Burke, Permanent Under-Secretary for Ireland, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, 1882. These letters, which were published by The Times, were found to be forged by the Special Commission, clearing Parnell’s name and resulting in out-of-court reparations of £5,000 to Parnell.
In January 1891, Hannen was appointed Lord of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly known as Law Lords) and a life baron under the title Baron Hannen, Burdock in the County Sussex. In 1888, Vanity Fair published a cartoon of him by ‘Spy’ titled ‘the great unmarrier’. He died a few years later in 1894.
As can perhaps be seen in the style of the present work, Denning was the pupil of John Inigo Wright (c.1745-1820), living with the Wright family during his apprenticeship (1814-17). Wright’s connections to both artists and patrons stood the young Denning in good stead, and he was able to exhibit his first miniature at the Royal Academy in 1814. From 1821 he became custodian of the Dulwich Collection and two years later was invited to paint Princess Victoria (then aged four). When this portrait was purchased by the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1891 it became one of the most popular images in the collection.