WHEN in 1728 he was first referred to as Mr Read, he knew he had arrived. For in that era only gentlemen of some standing were given this title.

Mathias Read had started out painting and varnishing church pews when he first arrived in Whitehaven in the late 1600s and it wasn’t till later that his artistic talents were appreciated and put to full use. They were spotted by Sir John Lowther’s agent, William Gilpin, who was keen that Read be given artistic commissions to keep him in the area.

Gilpin told Sir John that though Read was no Raphael, he had talent, and he had high hopes for him and wouldn’t want to see him leave town.

Read, painter of the 1736 Bird’s Eye View of Whitehaven, which clearly shows the gridiron pattern of the town and records some early landmarks, had been born in Clerkenwell, London, in 1669 and as a young man in his twenties found his way to Whitehaven via Ireland, following the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, where his artistic talents had been employed by a sea captain in King William’s fleet.

He had been in Ireland in the company of Dutch artist Jan Van Wyck, working together as master and pupil. Van Wyck (1652–1702) is best known for his works on military subjects and recorded the Battle of the Boyne action. It is speculated that while he worked on the figures in the battle scenes, Read would be painting the landscaped areas. In Whitehaven, Gilpin spotted the talent of both men and commissioned work from them.

Van Wyck would advise Sir John Lowther on building up his collection of Dutch and Italian masters and Read’s work at the Flatt (Whitehaven Castle) soon led to commissions for murals and landscapes. Gilpin later wrote that Read became “celebrated for his abilities” and that “business flowed in upon him so abundantly that he was induced to settle in the town”. Gilpin had got his wish. , and would later employ Read to teach painting skills to his own son and two grandsons, William and Sawyer, who both made their names in the art world

It was in 1701 that Read bought a plot of land from Sir John for five shillings of lawful money of England’ on which he built himself a house on the corner of Cross Street and Irish Street. It still stands today, and as Read House operates as a guest house.

A year later finds him at St Nicholas Church in Whitehaven marrying a local girl, Elizabeth Hinde (1668-1748). In 1708 he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the same church and here he created one of his masterpieces, The Last Supper, followed by other works depicting Moses and Aaron. Sadly The Last Supper was destroyed in 1971 when the church was gutted by fire, but Moses and Aaron can still be seen in St James’ Church.

His bride Elizabeth was the daughter of Leonard and Margaret Hinde of Prestonhowes, Whitehaven. She had a brother, Joseph, whose portrait Read painted. The Hindes also bought a plot of land from the Lowthers, on Roper Street, but didn’t build themselves a home on it till 20 years later, in 1740.

Read lived at Cross Street until his death in 1747, aged 78, and is buried with his wife in Holy Trinity churchyard, which is now a park. Of his three children only one, Elizabeth, survived.

At the height of his popularity there was, according to Gilpin “hardly a house in Whitehaven” (whose master could afford it) which did not have a Read picture or two painted on over-door panels or chimneys. Indeed, such panels, usually painted on board, still turn up today at local auction houses.

It is also believed by some that the unsigned painting of Lawrence Washington, the half-brother of US President George Washington, that hangs in Mount Vernon, was painted by Read. Lawrence Washington had links to Whitehaven, corresponded with Joseph Deane of Whitehaven, a friend of the family, and was educated at Appleby Grammar School, so it not an unreasonable assumption.

However Read is best known for his Bird’s Eye View of Whitehaven which for the historian provides excellent detail of the town’s street layout in the 1730s. There are three versions – one can be seen at Holker Hall, one in Yale University, and the third right here in Whitehaven, at the Beacon museum.