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The Packer Portraits: Fascinating Heirlooms

To begin telling the story surrounding these family portraits, I believe it necessary to at least give an overview of the background information to set the scene including the people involved, the place, and the time period. There are many Packer families, and the last name is a common one, but for this story about the portraits, we need to be briefly familiar with four generations (but mainly two) of Packers, beginning with a John Packer (1572 – 1649) who lived and died in London, England.

John Packer (1572 – 1649) was a prominent lawyer and businessman who often mingled with distinguished aristocrats and royalty. Through his connections, especially through a Richard Sackville, the 3rd Earl of Dorset, as well as the Duke of Buckingham, he was able to purchase and acquire land and an estate just south of London called Groombridge in 1618.

His third son Philip Packer (1618 – 1686) succeeded his father John at Groombridge and transformed the property to the prominence it has today. To learn more about Philip Packer (1618 – 1686), check out my YouTube video in the “Who is” series about his life and accomplishments. He built a new manor within the surrounding moat with many rooms and lavish furnishings. This house is the same that stands today in great condition, and yes, it is the set location for the filming of the Keira Knightley movie Pride and Prejudice (2005) along with other box-office movies.

Within this house, there sat 10 painting portraits that hung together for nearly 350 years. One of the most recent purchases of the estate was in 1919 by a Henry Stanford Mountain. Mr. Mountain, a wealthy insurance man, bought the entire 238-acre estate along with the possessions inside, and basically left them in place while he cared for the estate. He allowed tourists to the property and often gave them guided tours. When H.S. Mountain passed away, the property changed hands and eventually was put up for auction through Sotheby’s along with the other contents of the house, and it is here that much of the information about the paintings come from.

Now to the portraits. As I mentioned, there are 10 portraits total, spanning three generations, and unfortunately, the exact artist or artists are unknown. It however was not uncommon for wealthy and prominent people to have portraits done of them, so it is understandable that they had these in the estate. The first three portraits are of Philip Packer (1618 – 1686), his first wife Isabella Berkeley, and his second wife Sarah Isgar. The next four portraits are of the next generation, all children of Philip and his first wife Isabella Berkeley. One painting shows four daughters of Philip and Isabella, another is of Robert Packer (1654 – 1669), John Packer (1655 – 1697), and John’s wife Barbara Morgan. The last three paintings are of the third generation, being three personal portraits of three children of John and Barbara.

When the paintings went for auction, Sotheby created a catalogue with information procured from some notes from Mr. Mountain dating back several decades. These notes, although good, are likely flawed, but still provide interesting information. As much as I would love to go into depth describing each portrait and their intricacies and stories, I'd much rather dive deeper into one controversy.

There are two portraits in particular where the person of interest in the painting is disputed. These two paintings (pictured above) were aptly named by Sotheby Lot 251 and Lot 257. Some have contested that these paintings are of Philip Packer the Immigrant (1656 – 1739), son of Philip Packer (1618 – 1686) and his second wife Sarah Isgar. This Philip Packer the Immigrant is of note because he is the first Packer from this line to immigrate to America be very prolific. However, I believe, along with many others, that this is not the case for a few reasons.

First of all, and sure, perhaps the weakest argument, is that the two portraits in question do not look like they are of the same person. I understand that it can be very difficult to paint the same person in the same way, and perhaps all of these portraits are very similar in style, but I think there are a few details that support my argument. So let’s look at the details. Hair style? Yes, they both have the same funky and funny-looking Victorian wig. Clothing style? Also, the two have the same elaborate, silk-looking robes that would make me sweat. The real difference may be in circumstantial and inferential evidence, and that evidence I deem to be stylistic similarities and differences. What I mean essentially is that there are two paintings, Lot 257, the disputed one, and Lot 258, that appear to be very similar, and are most likely to be what they are claimed to be: a painting of Robert Packer in Lot 257 and of John Philip Packer in Lot 258 (seen below).

I mean looking at these, you can tell they are very similar. Yes, same wig and everything, but also take a look at the style of the paintings; don’t they look like they may have been painted by the same artist probably around the same time? The pose is nearly identical: painting beginning above the knee taken from about the same distance. Clothing is nearly indistinguishable: but what I love here is the contrasting colors of one being in blue and the other in red, how cool! And finally the pose: one elbow up and the other by the waist. What is also telling, is the two seem to really compliment each other; the blue and red, and the pose is mirrored one having the left elbow up and the other having the right elbow up. Undoubtedly in my mind, and supported by these circumstantial evidences, these are indeed paintings of brothers, and cool ones at that.

The second argument and admittedly the most compelling, is the familial relationships surrounding Philip the Immigrant. Anyone looking into these characters knows that Philip the Immigrant, the man in dispute, was actually born out of wedlock, and probably didn’t ever live at Groombridge, but instead lived in Ireland with his mother. Philip Packer (1618 – 1686) had an extramarital relationship and several children with Sarah Isgar, who eventually moved into Groombridge after his first wife Isabella Berkeley died. It is documented that some of those children stayed in Ireland and did not move to Groombridge and were most likely not very welcome by their half-siblings.

In all, these paintings have a fascinating story. At the Sotheby auction, each portrait was quoted as being worth anywhere from $2,500 - $20,500 USD. Unfortunately, all were sold separately and have scattered, going to art museums, private collections, and one which was purchased by the current owner of the Groombridge Estate. I would love to track any of these down, so always be on the lookout and always remember the Packer Family Portraits!


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