While doing some research for a writing project recently, I came across what appeared to be a rather puzzling reference to the caricaturist William Heath in a newspaper article from 1827 .
DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE – LOVE.
The family of Mr. Heath, an artist, residing in Stangate-street, Lambeth, has, within these few days, been plunged into the deepest affliction, in consequence of Miss Ann Heath, Mr. Heath’s youngest daughter, and sister of the engraver of that name, having attempted to destroy herself by swallowing poison. It appears that the unfortunate young lady, who is in her 18th year, and distinguished for her personal attractions, had meditated self-destruction for a considerable time past, although she was observed to be in her usual good health and spirits, up to Wednesday morning last, when she made the attempt on her life, her elder sister’s attention was then drawn to the unhappy girl, soon after breakfast, by hearing her convulsive sobs in the adjoining apartment. On entering the room, she was shocked at beholding her sister in violent convulsions; she was grasping a piece of paper in her hand, and the unhappy girl exclaimed, “There, you wretch! See what I have done!” and immediately fell down in a state of insensibility. Medical assistance was instantly obtained, and a powerful emetic being administered, the young lady was sufficiently recovered in the course of three or four hours, to acknowledge that she had taken a large quantity of red nitrate of mercury, which she had purchased nearly a month ago, for the purpose of committing suicide, having previously ascertained what quantity would be sufficient to cause death; and she expressed her regret that she had not effected her purpose, saying, “that other people killed themselves when they were miserable, and she did not know what she should be prevented from terminating her existence.” She still continues seriously indisposed, constantly refusing to accept any nourishment; and she has intimated her unalterable resolution to decline all sustenance, in order that she may starve herself to death, since no other means of putting a period to her existence are open to her. The unfortunate young woman is surrounded by affectionate friends, and in the possession of a most comfortable home. It however appears, that a love affair if the cause of attempting to commit suicide.
Of course the story is interesting in and of itself but I describe it as puzzling because the Dictionary of National Biography and numerous other secondary sources tell us that Heath was born in 1794 . If that were true and the youngest of his children was 18 by the time this article was published in 1827, then it means he had managed to father at least three offspring by the time he was 14 or 15 years old. Even by Georgian standards this seems too far-fetched to be credible. So what other explanations might there be for this apparent discrepancy?
The suggestion that William Heath was born in 1794 appears to have been derived from a short obituary notice which appeared in several London newspapers in early April 1840 . The notice informed readers that a Mr William Heath, artist, aged 45, had expired at Hampstead on the 3rd of the month – implying that he was either born in 1794 or the first three months of 1795. Could the obituary have been mistaken? Perhaps they got Heath’s name, age or occupation wrong? Or perhaps they were referring to another William Heath who also worked as an artist? As other historians of print have pointed out, there were a surprising number of people named Heath working as artist-engravers in London during the early nineteenth-century. Historians used to think that the caricaturist William Heath was the son of James Heath (1757 – 1834) and / or brother of Charles Heath (1795 – 1848) but this was refuted by the author of a recent catalogue raisonné of those two artists and their family, who concluded that “There are other Heath engravers in the period, but none appear to be related at all closely to the Heath family engravers noted above”. So it’s certainly possible that the obituary notice was incorrect or that it has been wrongly associated with the caricaturist William Heath.
Other explanations can be extrapolated from the fact that the article also mentions that Heath’s son was an engraver. The first of these is that there were two William Heaths working in the print trade during the early 1800s and that the paucity of surviving documentary evidence has led to their work has being mistakenly attributed to one man. This would certainly explain the apparent discrepancy between Heath’s presumed birth date and the age of his children. The historian Julie Mellby briefly considers the same theory in a recent article, noting that Holden’s Triennial Directory records that there was a “print colourist” named William Heath working on Stangate Street in Lambeth in 1802 and speculates that this might have been the caricaturist’s father .
A second theory is that the son referred to in the article was actually the caricaturist and engraver Henry Heath. Again, this is not a novel theory. Dorothy George first suggested that “similarity of manner and, once at least, cooperation suggest that [William] was a near relation of Henry Heath” in the introduction to the ninth volume of her catalogue of the British Museum’s collection of satirical prints . The newspaper’s description of the elder Heath as an “artist” and the younger as an “engraver” would have been recognised by contemporaries. William was regarded as a serious artist specialising in military subjects as well as a caricaturist, while Henry’s talents remained confined to the world of print. More compelling evidence that the pair were father and son can be found in the Lambeth parish records. Henry Heath is recorded as being born in Lambeth on 14th July 1801, baptised at the church of St Mary’s-at-Lambeth on 17th April 1803 and crucially is shown as having a father named William. William and his wife Grace also had at least one other child, a daughter named Emily who had been born the previous year (although I’ve been unable to locate a record of an Ann Heath’s birth which would have had to have occurred in 1809). William himself appears to have been born in the same parish some twenty years earlier on 21st October 1781 .
So what to make of all this? It certainly suggests that the accepted details of Heath’s biography need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Beyond this, I think that there is some credible evidence to support the notion that William Heath was older than originally thought, that he began printmaking in his late 20s after spending several years working as a colourist, that he and Henry Heath were father and son, and that the pair spent a number of years working alongside one another in a similar fashion to Isaac and George Cruikshank. This doesn’t change the way we think about his work but it does at least help us know a little more about the man behind the prints.
- The article quoted her comes from the Cork Constitution, 8th December 1827, although the story had originally appeared in the London Evening Standard and the Globe on 3rd December 1827.
- See the British Museum Online Catalogue for a summary of Heath’s accepted biography: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=121628
- Morning Post, 8th April 1840, Globe, 9th April 1840, & Atlas, 11th April 1840.
- Heath, J., The Heath Family Engravers 1779 – 1878, vol. 3., (Aldershot, 1999), p.224.
- Mellby, J., ‘William Heath (1794/5–1840): ‘The man wots got the whip hand of ’em all’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 3-19.
- George concluded that “Biographical details are strangely lacking; he is known as the ‘ex-captain of Dragoons’, and it was assumed in Volume VIII that he was the William Heath who appears for a few years in the Army List before 1816. But this man died in 1816 and no other relevant William Heath is discoverable. Perhaps he served in the yeomanry, perhaps his army rank is mere legend. There is nothing to connect him with the great engravers Charles and James Heath; similarity of manner and, once at least, cooperation suggest that he was a near relation of Henry Heath.” George, M.D., Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol. 9., (London, 1949), p.54.
- England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, FHL Film Number: 0254603-0254607 (Henry Heath), 0254603-0254607 (Emily Heath) & 1595090 (William Heath).