James Williams, the son of John and Sarah Williams of Walthamstow, was a successful wine merchant who lived in a fashionable Georgian town house in Lea Terrace, Blackheath, London. With offices based in Crosby Hall Chambers in the city and at the docks in Bristol his business predominantly imported, wine, brandy and sherry from Southern Europe. Painted around 1800, Williams is shown seated at his desk with many papers, caught whilst checking through some orders, presented at once as both industrious and businesslike. The informal pose suggests a man relaxed and at ease with himself, whilst the use of chiaroscuro in the composition displays the influence of the painter’s time in Italy.
Williams’s offices were at the chambers at Crosby Hall a medieval house, built in 1466 in Bishopsgate, City of London by the wool merchant John Crosby. A series of illustrious occupants followed, including Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Northampton. In 1621 it became the headquarters of the East India Company but following a catastrophic fire in 1672, the building eventually became a Presbyterian meeting house and subsequently a warehouse, rented to businesses, including Williams wine merchants. Due to re-development in Bishopsgate the remains of the hall with its minstrels’ gallery and richly carved ceiling, was carefully taken down and re-erected in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in 1910.
John Francis Rigaud was born in Turin and studied there with the history painter Claudio Beaumont. After traveling variously in Italy he completed his training in Rome where he met James Barry (1741-1806), who may have been responsible for suggesting he move to London in 1771. Not only did he quickly find success as a portraitist but also as an architectural painter receiving many commissions for neo-classical ceilings and other decorative schemes. In 1782 he completed his famous triple portrait of fellow Academicians Sir William Chambers, Joseph Wilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds now at the National Portrait Gallery, London. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy where he was elected a full member in 1784.