An Ipswich worthy portrayed by John Constable

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Thanks to the generosity of two Australian descendants of Sarah Lyons of Ipswich, we are able to reproduce a painting effectively lost to sight for nearly two centuries. The top-right-hand corner of the canvas bears the following inscription:


This has been translated as ‘Isaac son of Abraham Titterman/ from the Ipswich synagogue./ “And Isaac was seventy years old” in the month of Nisan/ in the year 5563 [1803]./ Done by the hand of John Constable/ of East Bergsholt, Suffolk." The redundant, or at least unsounded ‘s’ in the last word of the place- name may be the simplest problem presented by this work of art. Experts have questioned Constable’s self-attribution of the portrait, instancing a close similarity to others of this period painted by George Frost: no exhibition of early Constable portraits has yet been held.2 Almost equally puzzling is the identity of the sitter, whose surname occurs nowhere in synagogal or civic records. In a letter to the Jewish Chronicle of 19June 1896 Samuel Hickman of Sandringham Road, London N.E., stated that he owned a portrait of Sarah Lyons painted about 1804 by Constable and relined in 18 57 by her great-grandson Mier Ansell. Nothing has since been heard of that painting, whose dimensions Hickman gave as 23% x 19 inches; but his letter prompted an anonymous descendant of Sarah (who then owned the present portrait) to send a few details about ‘The Rev. Isaac Titterman’ to the jewish Chronicle three weeks later.3 Titterman, it was said, had been brought as a child from Holland to Ipswich by his mother Sarah; her maiden name was Abrahams. Later she, Titterman and his wife dwelled in the parish of St Peter and each lived to a great age. Documentary research at the Suffolk Record Office having failed to elicit further information, we turn to a mention in John Con- stable’s correspondence of an ‘old Mr Abrams’ and his mother in 1806.4 An Isaac Abrahams who died aged 87 in the parish of St Peter, Ipswich, in 1818 had a wife who died there sixteen months previously at the age of 96. Sarah Lyons, it will be recalled, died aged 105 in 1807.5 Parish ratebooks reveal that Abrahams


Plate i John Constable, Portrait of Isaac son of Abraham Titterman. Oil on canvas. 77.9 x 65 cms (30.7 x 25.6 ins).

lived at a house in St Peter’s Street from 1796, and mark him from 1797 as ‘poor’. In the 1801 Ipswich census the house was occupied by two men and two women. This is all that is known, apart from a reference to ‘ The Rev. Isaac Abrahams of St. Peter’s’ in the Ipswich Journal of 7 September 1816.6 If Abraham Titterman’s son at some point took his father’s Hebrew name as his own pat- ronymic, it would be difficult to imagine one better suited to the man who inscribed in Hebrew lettering above the front

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