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Discovery: The Ghost with a 'Great Beard'

Mon Nov 9, 2015

Philip Mould & Co. recently identified a previously lost portrait of Sir John Byron of Newstead Abbey.

‘Little Sir John with the Great Beard’ as he was commonly known, was an ancestor of the poet Lord Byron and inherited Newstead Abbey from his father, who was granted the property by Henry VIII in 1540.

This portrait-type of Byron was recorded at Newstead Abbey by a number of literary sources published in the early 19th century, and some writers, including the celebrated American author Washington Irving, romantically recorded its supernatural presence:

"Even the magnificent chamber in which I was lodged was subject to the supernatural influences which reigned over the Abbey, and was said to be haunted by "Sir John Byron the Little with the great Beard." The ancient black-looking portrait of this family worthy, which hangs over the door of the great saloon, was said to descend occasionally at midnight from the frame, and walk the rounds of the state apartments. Nay, his visitations were not confined to the night, for a young lady, on a visit to the Abbey some years since, declared that, on passing in broad day by the door of the identical chamber I have described, which stood partly open, she saw Sir John Byron the Little seated by the fireplace, reading out of a great black-letter book."

W. Irving, 'Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey', (London, 1835), p. 189.

Henry Bone, the celebrated portrait miniaturist and enamellist, copied this portrait-type in enamel in 1800 for his well-known series titled ‘Portraits of illustrious characters in the reign of Queen Elizabeth’. The enamel copy is now in the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset along with a number of other works from the same series. It was from this enamel copy that Philip Mould & Co. identified the subject when it was offered for sale in a minor auction in 2014.

The portrait has been returned Newstead Abbey having been lost for over 160 years, a happy ending that has been reported in The Guardian. To read the article, click here.