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19th century portrait of Lord Hill’s Column builder returning to Shrewsbury after discovery in Australia

An oil painting of a local builder, John Straphen, is returning to Shrewsbury after spending nearly 200 years in a small town in Australia and is to be donated to Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.

Straphen became the builder of Lord Hill’s column in 1815 after the death of John Simpson and built the staircase inside the column opposite Shirehall.

Straphen died in Shrewsbury in 1826 and it has been passed down through his direct family in the small agricultural town of Echuca, Australia ever since. At present it is not known how or why the portrait got there, but, in spite of the hot climate the family has cared for it and it is in fine condition. It measures 22cm x 21cm excluding its frame.

The painting, an oil on canvas in a gilt frame, depicts a seated Straphen proudly holding a diagram of Lord Hill’s column. He is dressed in a regency tailcoat, cravat, white waistcoat, breeches and high black boots – everyone’s image of Mr Darcy! The English Bridge and column can be seen in the background.

Richard Hayes, Chairman of the Friends of Lord Hill’s Column, said:

“This is a most extraordinary discovery. We had no idea that any portrait of John Straphen even existed and, out of the blue, one not only turns up but it will be returned to his home town of Shrewsbury.

“John Straphen took no money for designing and building the staircase inside the column and that generosity has continued through his family line. We are extremely grateful to his descendants for the gift of this painting.”

There is much research to be done on the portrait but it is assumed that it was painted shortly after the column was erected in 1816.

Straphen’s descendants investigated the background to the painting in the 1990s and they traced it to Shrewsbury. Following a recent death in the family they decided that it was time that John Straphen returned home and they have very generously made a gift of it to Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.

Mary Mckenzie, Acting Museum’s & Archives Manager for Shropshire Council, said:

“We’re all delighted by the unexpected discovery of this fascinating portrait of John Straphen. The portrait is being donated to the service on Tuesday 4 April, and we’re looking forward to displaying it at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.”

The column was paid for by public subscription and cost £5,973.13s 2d; the statue an additional £315. Straphen’s spiral staircase and remarkable cast-iron handrail bears a message from bottom to top with one letter on each and every baluster. It can be read clearly by visitors to the column today. The message reads:

‘This staircase was the gift of John Straphen, the builder, as his donation towards erecting this column. The first stone of the foundation was laid December 27th, 1814 and completed June 18th, 1816, the anniversary of the glorious battle of Waterloo.’

More information about the Friends of Lord Hill’s Column and the Column itself can be found on the website.

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