Every so often, we discover a painting that provides a few tantalising clues as to its deeper story. A few snippets of information that warrant further investigation - and sometimes immerse us in another world.
This was one of those occasions, a simple homespun portrait of two siblings that took us on a veritable adventure into their lives.
Meet John Wright and Fanny Sharman.
A few months ago, we discovered this portrait looking a little forlorn at an antiques market in the Cotswolds. It sprung out at us, almost glowing, and urged to be picked up (strange how that happens).
Upon holding it, we knew it had to be bought and the dealer kindly furnished us with two pieces of old canvas inscribed with the subjects’ details.
John Wright Sharman (1839-1885)
The young lad standing proudly between his sister and the family dog is John Wright Sharman, the son of farmer John Wright (b.1809) and Martha Wright. Here’s what we know.
1839 Born in Billingford, Norfolk.
1851 Age 11. At a boarding school.
1861 Age 21. Working on the family farm.
1870 Age 31. Married Emma Mary Spurrell.
1871 Age 31. Running Abbey Farm with his wife. The farm comprised around 300 acres of land.
1881 Age 41. Running Abbey Farm but also described as a Cattle Dealer.
1885 Age 45. Died following a ‘painful infliction’.
John and Emma had eight children including John Spurrell Sharman (1871-1959) who was once a custodian of the portrait and has inscribed one of the notes above.
Abbey Farm, in Hempton, Norfolk, was a substantial affair and covered around 300 acres. It was built on the site of a 12th-century priory, partially from reclaimed stone and in an area with a rich history of farming and sheep markets.
In the 13th-century, King John permitted three sheep fairs to be held annually in Hempton. These were widely known and ran for centuries. It’s recorded that in 1848, around 6,000 sheep were penned, so it was certainly an interesting place to become a dealer of cattle.
Like his father before him, John’s life as a farmer would’ve been extremely exhausting. But it was all he knew. From an early age, following a period at boarding school, he was thrust into the family business along with his siblings. And by the age of 31, he had 300 acres of his own.
We can only speculate on his endeavours and successes as little is recorded, but there was an unusual incident in 1880, which ended up in court.
The Lynn Advertiser reported:
The Late Fire — A special petty session was held on Wednesday, Fed 11th, before the Rev. Canon Jones M.A. when William Lake, late of Hunstanton was brought up on remand, charged by John Wright Sharman, farmer, with maliciously setting fire to a stack of hay, the property of Mr S. W. Sharman, on the night of February 4th. Mr Sharman said the stack in question was estimated to weigh about 50 tons.
After the fire the prisoner, when in the Fakenham lock-up said he set the stack on fire, and also that the police would find the box of matches which he threw down as he was going away, against the wall.
Miss Lynn, of Hempton, shopkeeper, proved selling a box of Bryant and May’s matches to a man who closely resembled the prisoner the same evening, a little after six o’clock. Jas. Atherton, Hempton, identified the prisoner as the man whom he saw in the King’s Head Inn the same evening, and witnesses saw him leave there about 9.15pm.
P.C. Harvey and Sergt. Short repeated the evidence previously given by them, and said that the prisoner had 3/2 in his possession when he gave himself up. P.C Harvey produced a box of matches, nearly full which he said he found against the corner of the horse-yard wall, about 35 yards from the stack.
Superintendent Murrell presented an official account of the prisoner’s previous convictions for larceny and arson. Prisoner, who admitted the truth of the evidence adduced, presented a wretched, forlorn and imbecile appearance. He was committed for trial.
In 1885, John Wright Sharman passed away and his obituary described him as a genial man. Many attended the funeral to mourn including “gentlemen, farmers, dealers… together with the merchants and tradesmen of Fakenham”. His wife Emma was “at the grave with apparent emotion”.
Fanny Shadlow Sharman
Less is known about John’s sister, Fanny, particularly beyond 1874.
1843. Born in Billingford, Norfolk.
1851 Age 7. Residing at a small boarding school in Dereham, Norfolk. Training under William Moore, a nurseryman, along with other girls.
1861 Age 17. Living at home with parents.
1866 Age 23. Married Georges Riches (b.1869), a farmer, in Tattersett, Norfolk.
Between 1869-1874, the pair had four children. But here the trail ends and we’re unsure of the reason why. Her death is recorded as 1911 but no records exist online for her final 37 years.
In 1881, her husband George was raising the children alone. And Fanny isn’t recorded as attending his funeral in 1904 (in the local press).
Did she leave? If so, why? And did she change her name? Whatever happened, it’s clear that she would've been devastated to leave her children.
Her husband remained in touch with her brother, John, and was an executor of his will.
A Tantalising Glimpse
Ancestry records can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they provide a wealth of dates, locations, and connections but on the other, they leave you with more questions than answers.
This pair of siblings, painted plainly on the family farm, leave us wondering who they really were. John Wright Sharman, a proud man that seemingly worked himself into an early grave. And his sister, Fanny Shadlow Sharman, who disappeared without a trace - leaving behind a family of four children.
But perhaps that’s the point - maybe it’s the gaps in a story that teach us more about ourselves than the subject in question.