Robert Hawkes was born in Caister in 1773 and began his career apprenticed to a haberdasher. His prospects were much  improved by his marriage to Miss Jermy, a daughter of a rich fellmonger who lived in the Cathedral Close in Norwich. (A fellmonger dealt in animal hides.) He became a great businessman in Norwich with several businesses involving wool but also cotton goods. He had in addition the principal interest in an up-to-date paper mill.


Politically he was a Tory but he was very progressive in his view of business. In 1826 he signed a motion proposing a railway from Norwich to London. This was only a year after the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway which inaugurated the Railway Age. Despite this initial enthusiasm it was 20 years before trains were running to Norwich from London, by which time Robert Hawkes was dead.

In 1822 he became Mayor of Norwich. He spent freely on the celebrations surrounding his inauguration on Guild Day. Snap, the Dragon who led the parade and snatched boys’ caps, and his attendant Whifflers would have been out as usual, but he had other more uncommon displays. Over each end of Bethel  Street (where he lived) were erected triumphal arches, decorated with flowers. At the top of the arch opposite St Peter Mancroft church was concealed a band of musicians playing to the crowds.

In recognition of his year in office the Aldermen resolved to commission a portrait. In casting around for a suitable artist they struck upon John Borrow, a minor artist who was the brother of George Borrow who was to become well known as a writer and linguist. John turned down the request, saying he wasn’t good enough, suggesting his teacher, Benjamin Robert Haydon in his place. Haydon lived and worked in London, and the visit which the two brothers made there to arrange the commission form the subject matter of a chapter in George Borrow’s autobiographical novel Lavengro.

Benjamin Robert Haydon regarded himself as an Historical Painter – not a fashionable style at the time (or since )-and he looked on portraits of minor provincial figures with a particular loathing. But he was perennially short of money, and the prospect of a comfortable fee persuaded him to accept the commission. So anxious was he to begin that he started immediately. The only drawback was that he had no idea what the ex-Mayor looked like. He lived over 100 miles away, after all. No matter; he had a mirror, and he could do nearly all  the portrait before travelling down to Norwich to paint his sitter’s face. The only trouble was that while the artist was rather short, Robert Hawkes was a fine figure of man approaching 6 feet tall and with a physique to match.

Consequently there were some ribald comments when the finished work was unveiled in Norwich. How did the robust Robert Hawkes come to have the diminutive legs of the artist? Despite a certain amount of sniggering  among some onlookers, the general impression in the City was favourable.  The face was good likeness, which was the main thing. Haydon was entertained im the city by local luminaries such as Amelia Opie and was elected to life membership of the Norwich Society, the established organisation behind the Norwich School of artists. It was a great honour, not afforded to many.



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