John Alefounder 1757-1794, artist

Colchester pedigree

In the days before photography, many artists painted miniatures. This was the speciality of John Alefounder, probably the most famous member of the family - there is even a short entry for him in the original Dictionary of National Biography, although I believe some of the details given there to be inaccurate. The entry in the modern DNB is much better, although even there reference is made to him having a son, presumably from the inaccurate details of the print Pleasing Intelligence given by O'Donoghue (1908). I have attempted here to bring together all I can find about this artist and to assemble an account of his life and work.

There are a few mistakes which appear in several reference books:

Known work

Apart from surviving work listed below and the paintings of unidentified individuals noted in the chronology, a few other works are known. These include:

Surviving work

At least seven examples of John Alefounder's work survive, not including the various etchings which are also mentioned here:

A letter from John Alefounder, writing from India in 1793, to his cousin Philip Havens mentions several of their relations.




1753 Parents, John Alefounder and Sarah Vaughan marry at Greenstead, near Colchester, Essex parish register


Elder brother George baptised at Greenstead, parents "of St. Giles's in the Fields, Middlesex" parish register
1757 John baptised at Greenstead, parents "of St. Giles's in the Fields, Middlesex" parish register
1762 September 23 Sarah buried, Greenstead. Custody of the boys passes to her mother, Ann Vaughan. parish register; will of Ann Vaughan
1768 February 23 Ann Vaughan buried, Greenstead. Custody of the boys passes to her sister Sarah Burdox. parish register; will of Ann Vaughan
1776 John enters Royal Academy schools as an architectural student  Waterhouse, 1981
1777 Living with his father at Ave Maria Lane.
Design for a Lunatic Hospital exhibited at the RA
Graves, 1905
1779 Living at Mrs Angiers', Wardour St.
A Lady in Chalks exhibited at the RA.
Graves, 1905
1780 Living at Mr Booth's, 81 Strand.
Portrait of a Gentleman exhibited at the RA.
Graves, 1905
1781 Living at Mr Ireland's, 8 Bow St. Miniature of a Young Lady and 3 portraits of gentlemen exhibited at the RA Graves, 1905
1782 6 portraits exhibited at the RA, including some that attracted comments in the press. Graves, 1905
Wins silver medal. The British Magazine and Review (1782)
September - paints miniature of Peter the Wild Boy "Calcuttensis", 1882
1783 2 portraits of gentlemen, frame with 5 miniatures, Miniature of Peter the Wild Boy and A Fancy Head exhibited at the RA; painted portrait for performances of The Young Quaker Graves, 1905 
c1784 Marries Maria Jane Curd or Evans and moves to 25 Bow Street.  
1784 Four theatrical portraits (including Harlequin and Columbine and John Edwin as Lingo), frame with 5 miniatures and a portrait of a gentleman exhibited at the RA Graves, 1905
Bartolozzi engraves portrait of Peter the Wild Boy "Calcuttensis", 1882
In December, prepares to leave for India.  
1785 January 11 makes will. National Archives PROB11/1266 fo. 138LH-138RH
February 12 leaves Torbay on the Montagu, arrives in the Hugli October 2. Foster, 1931; Archer, 1979
December 29 Humphry reports him "melancoly mad" Williamson, 1918
Portrait of a Gentleman exhibited at the RA Graves, 1905
1786 January 25 Humphry reports suicide attempts.
Devis, the artist with whom he appears to be living, in Mirzapur, Calcutta, sells various of John's paintings and materials to raise money for him. John advertises for their return September 21, attacking Devis for his actions. Devis replies in November.
Williamson, 1918; Foster, 1931
Paints Portrait of Mrs Graham of Kinross Eyre & Hobhouse, 1979
1787 March Advertises loss of medals. Living in Court House St., opposite Larkin's Lane. Foster, 1931
August - moved to Durrumtollah, opposite Esplanade. Foster, 1931
October - restores Zoffany's Last Supper Firminger, 1909
Portrait of a Gentleman exhibited at the RA Graves, 1905
1788 In London, Bigg paints picture of Mrs Alefounder. This is displayed at an exhibition in the Royal Academy in April. London Chronicle, 26 Apr 1788, issue 4915, p415
April - moved to 4 Larkin's Lane
July/August - scheme for raffle of 28 pictures
September/October - scheme for 36 pictures of natives etc (this scheme probably failed for want of support); produces etchings for Gambado's The Academy for Grown Horsemen, according to the advertisement
December - Artist R. Miller living at same address
Foster, 1931; Long, 1929; Archer, 1979
1789 February 10th, Bigg's portrait of Mrs Alefounder, painted the previous year, is published as an engraving. O'Donoghue, Freeman (1908), Smith, J.C. (1883)
July - living at Loll Bazar opposite the late residence of Mr. Motte. Lowers prices.
November - living at Bow Bazar. 28 picture lottery.
Foster, 1931; Archer, 1979
Frame with 3 miniatures exhibited at the RA. Graves, 1905
1790 Living at 36 Tiretta's Bazar. Lowers prices. Foster, 1931
Etches Sanscrit for Sir William Jones Cannon, 1990
1791 Portrait of a Dog exhibited at the RA. Graves, 1905
1793 November - living at Boitah Connah.
Plans to leave and live at 1 Alfred Place Blackfriars Road London.
Foster, 1931; Archer, 1979
Portrait of an Artist exhibited at the RA. Archer, 1979
1794 February - departure delayed. Painting rooms at Mr. Solvyn's. Prices raised again.
June - paints miniature of the late Sir William Jones. Painting rooms at Dr. Fontana's, Tank Square.
December 20 - commits suicide in a fresh bout of depression.
Foster, 1931
December 21 - buried at Fort William. Register transcript, Tho. Blanchard, Senior Chaplain of the Presidency
1795 Death noted in The Times. Will proved.  


Peter the Wild Boy

Peter the Wild Boy was discovered aged about 12 in 1726 by George I, who was hunting near Hamelin in Hanover. He was brought to England and entrusted to the care of Mrs King who housed a number of pupils of Harrow School, including Sir William Jones. John Alefounder's miniature depicts him at the age of about 73. He was eventually buried at Northchurch, Hertfordshire, the church having a brass plate with a sketch from Bartolozzi's engraving of the miniature (Cotton, 1927). The gravestone, sketch and accompanying inscription may be seen on the St. Mary's Northchurch web site. A print of the engraving was offered for sale, priced at 2s 6d, in Todd's Catalogue for 1794.

The National Portrait Gallery has an engraving of the picture, but without attribution to either artist or engraver. This is indeed Bartolozzi's engraving, as can be seen from the British Museum's version of the image.

Caufield (1820) disputes that the miniature depicts Peter the Wild Boy at all. According to his account, the picture is actually of a Mr. White, a paviour (layer of paving slabs) who "suffered his beard to grow to an immense size" in order to attract fees by sitting for artists wanting to depict unusual characters. "Alefounder, the miniature-painter, has palmed on the public White's portrait for that of Peter the Wild-boy, which is engraved as such by Bartolozzi, though there are not less than three original resemblances of that singular person, preserved by Falconet, Kent, and Drost."

Prints of John Alefounder's painting were offered for sale in the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, Tuesday 30 March 1784, issue 1068:

Just published, price 5s a PRINT of
PETER the WILD BOY, as he appeared in the year 1782. Engraved by Mr Bartolozzi, from a picture painted by JOHN ALEFOUNDER.
  This extraordinary person was found in the woods near Hanover, and brought to England by King George the First, and was then supposed to be about 11 years old, and he is now living near Berkhampstead, in Herts, upwards of fourscore. He could never be brought to shew any sign of reason or understanding : he is very harmless and inoffensive, and so much pleased and affected by sprightly music, that he will express his pleasure by dancing, tumbling, and many antic gestures. When he was first caught, he had a companion with him seemingly about the same age, who though closely followed by the horsemen, was so swift of foot, as to elude their pursuit and escape, and was never heard of since.
  Prints to be had at Mr. Boydell's, Cheapside ; Mr. Ryland's in the Old Bailey ; Mrs. Bull's, Ludgate-hill ; Mr. Dickenson's, Bond-street ; Mr. Bradshaw's, James-street, Covent Garden ; and of Mr. Alefounder, No. 25, Bow-street, Covent-Garden, where the original Picture may be seen.
  N.B. Mr Alefounder begs leave to inform the Subscribers that their Prints are ready.

Portraits, 1782

In reviews of a Royal Academy exhibition, the London Courant Westminster Chronicle and Daily Advertiser said, on Wednesday 1 May 1782:

41. A portrait. J. Alefounder.   So, so.
and on Saturday 4 May 1782:
94. Portrait of a young Lady, and Dog. J. Alefounder. Hung near the cieling. God forbid, the Painter should ever be hung so high ; as a reward for works of so much merit.

Portraits, 1784

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, April 29, 1784, from a letter signed "Candid":

Mr. Alefounder's Sir Fretful Plagiary, No. 9, and his Edwin in Lingo, promise great things from his pencil in that line

Same newspaper, May 4, in an article headed "The EXHIBITION":

Alefounder's portrait of Parsons, in Sir Fretful Plagiary (No. 9.) is not without resemblance to the countenance of this excellent actor—one obvious defect it has, is an excessive bulk of figure. It is so far no more like, than Parsons is to Hercules.

"The EXHIBITION" on May 11 was less complimentary about Lingo:

No. 82. Alefounder's portrait has not made as much of Lingo as the actor did. Independent of any subtleties of the art, it has not even the humble merit of a correct likeness.

The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser had this to say on Wednesday, 14 May 1784:

9. Mr. Parsons in Sir Fretful Plagiary, by Alefounder. —This has character, but not that of Mr. Parsons.
182. Mr Williamson and Miss M. Stagledoir, as Harlequin and Columbine, in the last scene of Harlequin Junior, by J. Alefounder. It is a very patched piece of business, and as flat as the side of a door.
198. Mr. Suet and Mrs Wrighten, as Ralph and Fanny, in the Maid of the Mill, Act II. Scene 19, by J. Alefounder. —This young man is all hand—we would recommend it to him to borrow a head.

Advertisement from John Alefounder, 1784

Advertisement in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, Tuesday, December 7, 1784, issue 4856:

MR. ALEFOUNDER begs leave to acquaint those Ladies and Gentlemen whose Pictures he has unfinished, that he will be extremely obliged to them if they will make it convenient to sit as early as possible, as Mr. Alefounder expects to go abroad in the course of a few weeks.

Pleasing Intelligence.
Copyright © Trustees of the British Museum.
Click on picture to enlarge.

Pleasing Intelligence

A portrait of Maria Jane Alefounder, the artist's wife, with a child - George Alefounder, a godson of John's brother George and son of his cousin John, and not his own son (O'Donoghue, 1908) or nephew (Smith,1883). This we learn from the will of George's grandmother Alice Alefounder who leaves him, among other items, the Copper Plate Picture of him my said Grandson with his cousin Anna Maria Jane Alefounder as the same Picture is framed and Glazed and called "Pleasing Intelligence". A print of this engraving is in the British Library (O'Donoghue, 1908). The "intelligence" is presumably good news from John, contained in a letter clearly addressed Mrs Alefounder Bow Street London Pr Swallow Packet.

In the London Chronicle for 26th April 1788 p415, can be found a list of "Names of Persons whose Pictures are in the Royal Academy", at the end of an article on the twentieth Exhibition held at that place. Mrs. Alefounder is listed as number 27. There can be little doubt that it is Pleasing Intelligence to which it refers.


Advertisement from John Alefounder, 1786

Advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette and Oriental Advertiser, quoted by "Calcuttensis" (1882).

Mr. Alefounder, Portrait Painter in Oil and Miniature,

Begs leave to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Presidency, that he is perfectly recovered from his late indisposition, and continues to take likenesses as formerly at Mr. George Forbe's, late Colonel Hampton's, Garden, Mirzapore; and any letters addressed to him at Messrs. Forbes & Ullman's in Calcutta, will be punctually attended to.

N.B. - During Mr. Alefounder's illness, his pictures (which were, in general, Portraits of his friends), with his colors, canvas, &c., were all sold, by Mr. Davis's order, at Burrell & Gould's, entirely unknown to him, and without his being once consulted in the business, though at the very time he was perfectly capable of practising his profession. To those Gentlemen who have been so kind as to return him Pictures, Prints, Painting Utensils, &c., Mr Alefounder cannot sufficiently express the gratitude he feels on the occasion.

The Gentleman who is in possession of a large whole-length of a Lady and Child, Mr. Alefounder will esteem it a particular favour to have it returned, as it cannot be interesting where the party is unknown, and from the Lady being a portrait of his wife, who is at present in England.

A miniature Picture of Peter, the Wild Boy, painted from the life in September, 1782; a frame containing five miniatures of his acquaintance in England; a copy from Sir Joshua Reynold's picture of a Lady and Child (Mrs. Hartley), with a number of others in Oil and Miniature; he will be greatly obliged to any Gentleman to consent to favour him with them, as they are of the utmost consequence to him, and will render him the most essential service. If the purchaser of the Match Boy will acquiesce to return it, it will be a most particular favour, as it is a portrait of a very near relation, painted in that character, to whom he is much attached, and a portrait of a child, three-quarters, painted with a balloon hat and white drapery, with a sky background (a show picture). As the quantity of Fitch Pencils were considerable that he brought, if the purchaser will favour him with part of them, they will be gratefully received, as there are none to be met with in Calcutta, and he has not any of them to paint with. Calcutta, September 21st, 1786.

At least some of the missing items were returned. The original of Peter, the Wild Boy and a copy of Reynold's Mrs. Hartley and Child were offered as prizes in the scheme for a raffle in 1788.

Restoration of Zoffany's Last Supper

In 1787, John Alefounder restored a painting by Zoffany in St. John's Church, identified by Archer (1979) as the Last Supper. This is recorded in the vestry proceedings, quoted by Firminger (1909):

1787, 15th October. - The picture made by Mr. Zoffani and hanging over the Communion Table having been represented by Mr. Alefounder (a painter and friend of Mr. Zoffani) to be damp and in some degree injured, the Churchwardens accepted the proffered services of Mr. Alefounder to have it dried, and this has been done as well as circumstances would admit, as appears from the following letter from Mr. Alefounder:-


SIR, - I have this forenoon aired and cleaned the mildew of the picture with the utmost care and attention. I fear the painting is injured by the mould, as it remains spotty after cleansing it off. The cause I believe to have arisen from a canvas having been fixed behind the picture to preserve the original one, and being oiled after it was nailed on. The damp air remaining between the two must have in some measure occasioned it. I took the liberty of having it un-nailed sufficient to admit a small quantity of air.

   I am (etc)
11th October 1787  JOHN ALEFOUNDER.

Mr. Alefounder attending the Vestry represents that the cloth or canvas put at the back of the picture ought to be removed, that the admission of air may prevent any injury from the dampness of the wall.

Ordered that the cloth be removed from the picture without delay.

Advertisement for a Raffle, 1788

The advertisement as it appeared in the Calcutta Chronicle on August 14th, 1788. It was also printed, without the final paragraph, on July 31st and 7th August.

Twenty Eight Pictures,
The Prizes to be thrown for with three Dice, Doublets ; and the Fifteen Highest Throws to be entitled to the Prizes. —The Choice to be made in Rotation.
The Prizes to be delivered, the Day after the Raffle, by Mr. ALEFOUNDER ; at whose House, in Larkin's Lane, the Pictures may be viewed, every Day until the Raffle takes Place, —timely Notice of which will be given.
150 Tickets, at 50 Rupees each.
MR. SUETT and Mrs. Wrighten, in the Characters of Ralph and Fanny, in the Maid of the Mill, Small whole length. — Mr. Williamson and Miss M. Stageldoir, in the Characters of Harlequin and Colombine, in the Siege of Gibraltar, or Magic Cestus, (ditto)
Second.—Mr. Parsons, in the character of Sir Fretful Plagiary, in the Critic, (ditto). — Mr. King, in the Character of Puff, in ditto, (ditto)
Third.—The Moorman's Holiday, or Houssain Houssain
Fourth.—The Churack Poojah, or Swinging.
Fifth.—Mr. Palmer, Comedian, (whole length, size of life)
Sixth.—The original Miniature Picture of Peter the Wild Boy, painted from the Life, in 1782.
Seventh.—A Miniature of Mrs. Hartley and Child, copied after a Picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds's.
Eighth.—A remarkable Fakeer, (three quarters) — A Native Girl, sitting, (ditto)
Ninth.—A Bearer, smoking his Hubble-bubble, (do.) — A Portrait of a Spaniel.
Tenth.—A Lady and Child, (kit kat) copied after a Picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds's.— Samuel, (kit kat) copied from the same.
Eleventh.—A Lady and Child. — Love and Harmony.— A Lady contemplating, after Angelica Kauffman.
Twelfth.—A Miniature of a Hindoostanee Lady.
Thirteenth.—A Miniature of Mr. Baretti, after a Picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds's — A Drawing in Colours, in the Stile of Miniature Painting.
Fourteenth.— A Portrait of a Mogul Man.— Master Bunbury, after Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Fifteenth.— Five Landscapes
TICKETS to be had of Mr. ALEFOUNDER and of Messrs. STUART and COOPER, at the Printing-office.

Scheme for 36 pictures, 1788

The following advertisement appeared in the Calcutta Chronicle and General Advertiser, Thursday, October 2, 1788:

MR. PATERSON, on Mr. ALEFOUNDER's arrival in CALCUTTA, suggested to him the idea of painting PICTURES of the MANNERS and CUSTOMS of this COUNTRY : but as he wished then only to paint PORTRAITS, he relinquished the idea : out since that period Mr. ALEFOUNDER has attempted two or three Subjects of this Kind, and finds from the Novelty great Pleasure in the painting of them.— Mr. PATERSON, and others of Mr. ALEFOUNDER's Friends, have offered him very liberal Assistance. The following are the Paintings intended to form the Collection :
I. A Collection of Twelve PORTRAITS—of Nabobs, Rajahs, High Gentoos, Bramins, and remarkable characters.
II. A do. of 12 Small Whole Length Figures, characteristic of the Natives.
III. A do. of 12 Pictures, Customs and Manners of the Country, being the principal Holidays, and other occurrences, as hereafter named :
    No. 1. The Hindoos, from a great Height, falling on Swords, &c.
2. The Swinging.
3. The Procession of Men, Women, and Children, with Iron Rods through their Tongues, others with Turbans through their Sides, and dancing in Triumph, &c. &c.
4. The burning of a Bramin on the Banks of the River, with Priests attending.
5. The Mussulman's Holiday of Houssain Hassan.
6. The Raut, being drawn by a number of Hindoos.
7. A Woman attending her Husband's Funeral Pile, and preparing to burn herself with him.
8. A Hindoo Nautch.
9. A Hindoo Marriage.
10. A Pagoda with Priests attending before their God, and others worshipping the Idol.
11. A Procession attending the Gentoo Gods, when carrying them to throw in the River.
12. The Mussulman's Procession of Boats, when carrying for the same purpose.
DRAWINGS to be made of the Pictures, and the first Masters to engrave them.
The Sale of the Pictures to defray the Expence of engraving, &c.
Mr. ALEFOUNDER hopes those Gentlemen who wish their friends at home to be made acquainted with these Representations, will assist him in the Undertaking, as his present Circumstances render it impossible for him to pursue it by himself, without such a Protection.
If a number of Gentlemen would agree to deposit a Sum of Money for the Execution of this Work, the Interest of which Money to be sufficient to enable Mr. ALEFOUNDER to prosecute the Work with Vigour, or by a Monthly Subscription, whichever may be judged the most accommodating to the Gentlemen.
And the Pictures, as finished, to be sent to either of the Subscriber's Houses who shall be nominated to receive them, or any other Place that may be judged proper for the Reception of them, as Security for the Interest-money from time to time received for the Execution of the Work.
And in case of any accident happening to Mr. ALEFOUNDER, then the above Pictures deposited as aforesaid, to be disposed of by LOTTERY, to pay the Interest-money from time to time received by Mr. ALEFOUNDER.
Mr. ALEFOUNDER will, in the course of a Month, request the favour of a Meeting of such Gentlemen who may in the interim favour him with their Names as Encouragers of the Work, in order that a Plan may be fixed for carrying the Work into Execution immediately.
Calcutta, September 25th, 1788.

An initial advertisement for the scheme appeared on September 11, but did not give details of the third set of paintings.

The Academy for Grown Horsemen

In the Calcutta Chronicle and General Advertiser, 25 September and 2 October, 1788, appeared the following advertisement:

(Price Eight Rupees)
Embellished with Etchings, executed
an octavo edition
riding master,
master of the horse, and grand equerry to the doge of venice.
Gentlemen wishing to receive Copies of the above Publication, are requested to send their Names to the Printers, who will send them immediately on Publication.
Calcutta, 24th September, 1788.

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones (1746-1794), known as the father of modern linguistics, was a founder member of the Asiatic Society. He noted the links between Latin, Greek and Sanscrit and was the first to propose the existence of the language now known as Indo-European. John Alefounder etched the Sanscrit for Davis's paper On the Astronomical Computations of the Hindus which was proofread by Sir William Jones and published in the Asiatic Society's journal Asiatic Researches vol. 2 (1790) (Cannon, 1990).

Last updated 31st May 2019 by Peter Alefounder