All In The Family

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About a month ago, some good friends in Beverley, Yorkshire alerted me to a monograph which identified an ancestor of mine as the subject of a painting by one of my favourite artists, Joseph Wright of Derby.

The full title of the painting is A Philosopher Lecturing Upon the Orrery and it dates from about 1766. As you can see, it is a wonderfully dramatic composition - one of several similar works by the artist. The Philosopher in his scarlet gown, without a ubiquitous tidy wig, is explaining the workings of the orrery, an astronomical clock, to a group of seven listeners of varying ages.

The monograph is by Prof. Jonathan Powers of Derby, where the painting resides. Prof. Powers not only goes into fascinating detail about how the device functions, but also identifies everyone in the scene. He proves that the anonymous philosopher is none other than John Arden, my 4x great-grandfather whom the artist knew well.

Not only that, but he (with the help of his wife who is a genealogist) has discovered a great deal about John Arden, his ancestors and descendants. It turns out that the Ardens are one of only three families in England who can trace their ancestry to before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The other two are the Berkeleys and the Swintons, of whom the marvelous actress Tilda Swinton is a descendant.

The Ardens come from the area in the West Midlands near what was called the Forest of Arden. They are a most interesting lot - one of them was executed as a traitor by Queen Elizabeth I, and a cousin of his was Shakespeare’s mother, Mary. Many stayed Roman Catholic after the reformation; indeed, John Arden was disinherited for becoming a Protestant.

I am descended from one of John Arden’s daughters, who married the organist of Beverley Minster in the 1790’s. Her elder sister was a close friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist pioneer, pupil of John Arden, and mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (See a previous blog post about our visit to Beverley last year). The playwright, John Arden (d. 2012), was a patrilineal descendant. I believe his sons are my fifth cousins. Thanks to Prof. Powers, I am now in touch with them.

Here is a link to more information about Prof. Powers’ book:

Many thanks to him and his wife for responding to my inquiries out of the blue and to Susan and Neave for alerting me to Prof. Powers’ work.

Nicholas McGegan