Mr Ranby And His House

By Gillian Clegg

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)

Although Hogarth kept his country house in Chiswick for 15 years, he is only known to have drawn one picture of the area. This is the etching generally described as ‘Mr Ranby’s House, Chiswick’. Who was Mr Ranby and where was his house?

John Ranby (1703-1773), was an important medical man in 18th-century England. He was principal surgeon to George II and first master of the newly-formed surgeons’ company (now the Royal College of Surgeons). He was also a friend to the famous, including two of the brightest stars in the 18th-century artistic and literary firmament: William Hogarth and novelist Henry Fielding. Hogarth etched Ranby’s Chiswick home and painted portraits of his children. Fielding defended Ranby over a medical controversy and portrayed him glowingly in Tom Jones.

This article aims to throw more light on this little known Chiswick resident and, using evidence from the rate books, to pinpoint the location of Ranby’s house and the homes of his Chiswick neighbours.

Section of Rocque’s map of the mid 18th century showing the houses along Burlington Lane and Hogarth Lane (Hogarth’s house is the small house in the centre of the map under the ‘d’ of ‘field’).

Mr Ranby
John Ranby was the son of an inn-keeper in St Giles in the Fields, Middlesex. After being apprenticed as a barber-surgeon, he passed the examinations to work on his own in 1722. He was appointed surgeon-in-ordinary to the King’s Household in 1738, promoted sergeant-surgeon to King George II, becoming principal sergeant-surgeon in 1743. He accompanied the King on the European Campaign in 1743 and was present when the French were defeated at the Battle of Dettingen. One of his patients was the King’s 22 year-old second son, the Duke of Cumberland, who was hit by a musket ball through the leg. Ranby subsequently wrote a treatise entitled The Method of Treating Gunshot Wounds which anticipated the use of quinine in medicine by many years.

In early centuries surgeons doubled as barbers but the rise of the big hospitals in the early 18th century encouraged surgeons to concentrate on their medical skills and eschew the trade of cutting and shaving heads. In 1744 it was proposed to separate the surgeons from the barbers by forming a separate company. John Ranby was instrumental in this move and it was probably his influence with King George that secured the separation between surgeons and barbers by an Act of Parliament in 1745.

Ranby was elected first Master of the Surgeons’ Company in 1745 and donated a massive and highly-decorated silver loving cup to mark his year of office (this is still in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons). He was Master again in 1751 and 1752. In 1752 Ranby was appointed surgeon to the Chelsea Hospital where he had a set of apartments. He died there in 1773 after a short illness and is buried in the hospital grounds.

As well as tending the Royal Family, Ranby had a large medical practice and his patients numbered other well-known people. When Fielding was very ill in 1753 he called in Ranby who advised him ‘to go immediately to Bath’. Although Fielding prepared to follow this advice, an outbreak of crime in London prevented him from doing so (Fielding was the Chief Magistrate for Middlesex and Westminster). Fielding never made Bath but travelled to Lisbon in 1754 where he died that October, aged 47.

Ranby was also involved in a medical controversy over the death of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, father of Horace and prime minister of England for 21 years. John Ranby was Orford’s physician and, along with other physicians, was present at Orford’s death bed. Orford died in agony due to use of the controversial preparation lithontriptic lixivium, administered to break up the stones from which he suffered. Ranby did not approve of this treatment and defended himself in a pamphlet entitled: A Narrative on the Last Illness of the Rt Honourable the Earl of Orford. This provoked a pamphlet in reply from Sir Edward Hulse, another of the physicians present at Orford’s death bed. Henry Fielding, probably in defence of Ranby, produced his own satirical pamphlet: The charge to the Jury and or the sum of the evidence on the Trial of A, B, C, D and E, F. All MD For the Death of one Robert at Orford in which he put the doctors on trial for murdering the former prime minister with lixivium which Fielding calls ‘a certain deadly instrument’. Fielding’s scepticism of the medical profession is shown in Tom Jones when, at Captain Blifil’s death ‘…the two doctors whom to avoid any malicious applications we shall distinguish by the names of Dr Y and Dr Z both felt his pulse; to wit, Dr Y his right arm, and Dr Z his left; both agreed that he was absolutely dead; but as to the cause of the distemper, or cause of his death, they differed; Dr Y holding that he died of an apoplexy, and Dr Z of epilepsy.

Marriage & Children
In 1729 Ranby married Jane, daughter of the Hon Dacre Barrett-Lennard. She was a wealthy widow, 20 years his senior, and Ranby seems to have married for money since an elaborate marriage settlement was drawn up. This was witnessed by no less a person than Hans Sloane, a friend of both the bride’s father and Ranby. It was obviously not a happy marriage since Queen Caroline, on her deathbed ‘asked Ranby while he was dressing her wound if he would not be glad to be officiating in the same manner to his own old cross wife that he hated so much’. The couple executed a formal deed of separation in 1738, but, seven years later, Jane still had to pay Ranby part of the proceeds of the sale of her land under the provision of the marriage settlement. The Ranbys produced no offspring but John Ranby subsequently had two natural children by an unknown lady who died in 1746 (this lady left a journal but her Victorian descendants destroyed any evidence of her name). These children appear to have been brought up by Ranby. The oldest child, Hannah, born in 1740, married MP Walter Waring in 1758. Waring inherited his cousin’s estate at Groton, Suffolk and husband and wife are buried in Groton Church. The younger child, born George Osborne in 1743, changed his name by Royal Licence to ‘John Ranby’ in 1756. He became a well known writer of political pamphlets, his Doubts on the Abolition of the Slave Trade being warmly commended by his friend James Boswell. His marriage to Mary Groate was childless and he died in 1820 at Brent Eleigh, Suffolk where he is buried.

Friendship with Hogarth and Fielding
John Ranby moved to Chiswick in 1748, a year before Hogarth. The two were probably old friends and, according to John Nichols, in the first (1781) edition of his Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, Ranby sat for Hogarth as a model for Tom Rakewell, the ‘hero’ of the Rake’s Progress, executed in 1735. But as no pictures of Ranby are extant, his identification with the Rake cannot be substantiated.

Living just across the fields from each other, Ranby and Hogarth were probably in regular communication, and between 1748-1750 Hogarth painted two charming portraits of Ranby’s children (both pictures have recently been acquired by the Tate Gallery). Ranby’s daughter Hannah was about nine when her portrait was taken, son George about six.

Mr Ranby the surgeon was obviously an admirer and collector of Hogarth’s work. He either bought or was given Hogarth’s original portrait of the engraver John Pine and Ranby’s name, sometimes along with Hogarth’s signature, appears on other etchings.

Fielding had known Ranby for some years before Ranby moved to Chiswick. As well as defending Ranby over the death of Robert Walpole in 1745, Fielding pays him this tribute in The History of Tom Jones (Book VIII, Chapter XII), published in 1749 ‘… this surgeon, whose name I have forgot, though I remember it began with an R, had the first character in his profession, and was serjeant-surgeon to the king. He had moreover many good qualities, and was a very generous good-natured man, and ready to do any service to his fellow-creatures..’.

When Fielding died in 1754, Ranby left Chiswick and took over Fielding’s house, Fordhook, in Ealing ‘the air of which place then enjoyed a considerable reputation being reckoned the best in Middlesex’, according to Horace Walpole. Fordhook stood on the Uxbridge Road, opposite the present Ealing Common Station.

What was he like, this eminent surgeon with two illegitimate children? Statesman and historian, Lord Hervey, calls him ‘a sensible fellow’ and Fielding’s praise of him in Tom Jones is extravagant. The Dictionary of National Biography, though, describes him as having ‘a harsh voice and inelegant manners’ and Queen Caroline, when she lay dying called him ‘a blockhead’ for informing King George II she was suffering from an umbilical rupture (a fact she was trying to conceal from her husband).

Hogarth’s view of Chiswick; Mr Ranby’s house is thought to be second from the left; the large mansion belonged to the Earl of Northampton in 1750 when Hogarth drew the picture.

Hogarth’s Chiswick etching
Writing about Hogarth’s etching of Chiswick in 1781 John Nichols says ‘This view, I am informed, was taken in 1750 but not designed for sale’. Indeed, the picture was not published until 1781, 30 years after Hogarth made the etching.

The identification of the picture has always been something of a puzzle. Mrs Hogarth appended no description whatsoever when she published it. A manuscript note, written by Horace Walpole, on an early edition of the print in the British Museum describes it as ‘View of Hogarth’s House at Chiswick, etched by himself’. Another impression in the BM calls it ‘Mr Ranby the Surgeons House’. The impression in the Crickitt Collection in Chiswick Library has the handwritten note, ‘View of Mr Ranby the surgeon’s house etcht by Hogarth given to me by his widow’ and the initials ‘WB’.

Mrs Hogarth would surely not have given ‘WB’ a picture of her own house without informing him of the fact, so it seems reasonable to conclude, as later experts on Hogarth have done, that Mr Ranby’s house is pictured in the etching.

The Chiswick rate books show that Mr Ranby lived in Burlington Lane. His name first appears in the rate books in 1748 where the entry reads: ‘Late Peacock now Ranby’ and the rate he paid was £1 4s. He gave up the house in 1754 when he moved to Ealing. The rate book entry for 1755 reads ‘Late Ranby now Hon George Townsend’ (Townsend was the son-in-law of the Earl of Northampton).

Burlington Lane came under the Corney House rating area of Chiswick. The rate books suggest that, after the rate collector had called on Her Grace the Duchess of Norfolk who lived in Corney House (the Regency Quay Development now occupies its site) and some surrounding properties, he progressed east-west along Burlington Lane. He collected first from ‘Mr Bridges’ then from ‘Mr Ranby’. His next call was on the Rt Hon Earl of Northampton, followed by the Earl of Burlington, and his final call was on the Rt Hon Earl of Grantham at Grove House (where Kinnaird Avenue is today).

Corney House and Grove House are not shown on Hogarth’s etching but the other houses appear to be. The house on the left is presumably the house occupied by Mr Bridges, the second house from the left that of Mr Ranby.

It has long been thought that the very large house in the centre of Hogarth’s etching was the Jacobean Chiswick House (demolished in 1788) but the rate books, pictorial and other evidence suggest this is not so. The house in the etching is a large gabled building with tall, slim chimneys. The façade of the Jacobean Chiswick House, however, had been altered in 1725 (25 years before Hogarth made the etching) and contemporary prints show that it had differently-shaped chimneys.

The order in the rate books suggests that the house in the centre of the etching is the mansion belonging in 1750 to the 5th Earl of Northampton. It was a substantial house; the Earl of Northampton paid rates of £12, a lot more than the £1 4s paid by Ranby and almost as much as the Earl of Burlington who was paying £18.

The Earl of Northampton’s house was built in the late 17th century by the rich statesman, Sir Stephen Fox, who also built two other large houses in Chiswick. Fox’s house in Burlington Lane is shown on the far right of Knyff’s famous print of Chiswick House, executed in c. 1700, where it resembles the house drawn by Hogarth. The Earl of Northampton’s house (later called Morton Hall) was eventually acquired by the 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1812 and demolished to make way for the present conservatory of Chiswick House (the handsome gate posts and the old wall that can be seen through the back window of the Chiswick House conservatory are the original gates to the kitchen garden of the 17th-century house built by Stephen Fox).

The rate books suggest that the buildings shown on Hogarth’s etching to the right of the mansion and its outbuildings are part of the Chiswick House stable block and the old Chiswick House. The domelike object on the far right of the picture would thus be the dome of the Palladian Chiswick Villa.

Where was Hogarth when he made the sketch? Near his house looking south, or by the river looking north? In many ways the picture makes more sense if it was drawn from the south looking up towards Burlington Lane. There is rising ground in the background (Acton or just artistic licence?), a horse and carriage/cart appears to be proceeding along a road (Burlington Lane?) and the houses seem close to their boundary walls.

But, if the drawing was made from the south, Hogarth’s print would show the properties in Burlington Lane in reverse of the order listed in the rate books. Artists setting out to produce an etching usually drew their sketches the wrong way round (often using a mirror) so that the picture appeared the right way round when the etching was printed. It is tempting to think that Hogarth drew this picture purely for amusement or as a technical experiment and did not bother about reversal. Experts on 18th-century art, however, consider that the composition of the etching is correct as is, since pictures of the period are designed to be read, like writing, from left to right and the little token man in the left foreground would be there, so to speak, to ‘guide’ or accompany the viewer’s natural gaze.

If the etching is the right way round, the sketch must have been made from the north looking south towards the backs of the houses in Burlington Lane. This is supported by the fact that a manuscript note on one of the early impressions of the print in the British Museum says’… Taken from Hogarth’s window at Chiswick’. This, however, is unlikely to be the famous bay window Hogarth added to his house as this looks north west towards Turnham Green. It could perhaps have been the window of Hogarth’s studio which stood in the garden. Or Hogarth could have made his sketch from the edge of a nearby cornfield. Hogarth was not, however, a topographical artist and did not normally depict views for their own sake; ‘Mr Ranbys House’ is exceptional which is perhaps why it is more problematic to interpret.

Sources used include: Dictionary of National Biography, Lord Hervey’s Memoirs of George II; Hogarth’s Complete Graphic Works by Ronald Paulson; Chiswick rate books

Gillian Clegg is author of Chiswick Past (1995), editor of LAMAS Transactions and editor of this Journal.

Comments are closed.