7 . Weston Longville Church, Norfolk: the portrait of James Woodforde

This portrait of the Revd James Woodforde, the only likeness of the diarist known to survive apart from a silhouette, immediately strikes visitors to All Saints' Church. It hangs at the western end beside the tower arch, and is visible from the south door.

The Revd James Woodforde (1740–1803) by Samuel Woodforde, RASamuel Woodforde painted this portrait of his uncle three years after the diarist's death. It is dated 1785 however as he based it on a sketch he made that year at Weston [reproduced courtesy Weston PCC: photo Kiffy-Stainer Hutchins]A parishioner Charles Clutsom secured it for the church in the early 1950s by buying it at auction. Mr Clutsom had reason to feel a close connection with Woodforde's world. In 1952 he converted the stables and coach house of Weston House, John and Frances Custance's demolished hall, into a private home.

The widowed Mrs Clutsom, one of the churchwardens, welcomed more than sixty members of the Parson Woodforde Society on their first expedition to Weston Longville on 6 July 1968, as described in an early Journal featuring the Society's first 'expedition': vol. 1 no. 3: Autumn 1968. This marked the first of many frolics during which the Society's members and their guests would view the portrait and explore the church Woodforde served for 27 years. When possible the 'frolickers' would attend a church service led by one of Woodforde's successors as rector.

A happy time

Although the portrait was not painted in its final form until 1806 by the subject's nephew Samuel Woodforde RA it is based on a sketch Sam had made at Weston Parsonage on 3 December 1785, as recorded in James Woodforde's diary. Sam himself gives the date he took his uncle's likeness as 29 November 1785.

The back of the painting confirms the two dates 1785 and 1806. The front bears this inscription, in the lower right-hand corner: 'James Woodforde BD [Bachelor of Divinity], S.W. Pinxt [painted it] 1785'.

We are thus looking at James Woodforde in his prime, aged 45, and before the ill-health, isolation and depression of his last decade.

Sam Woodforde had joined his brother William and sister Nancy at the parsonage on 19 November, having travelled overnight on the new mail coach from London to Norwich; the fast service had only been introduced in March that year. Suddenly journey times were cut by well over a half. The costly mails ran at 8–9 mph with only one stop permitted, whereas the much cheaper stage coaches ran at 3–4 mph.

The three young Woodfordes very rarely managed to spend time together, their uncle writing on 20 November 1785 that 'It gave me much pleasure to see Nancy and her two brothers appear so happy here – and so in each other.' It was at this high point for the family that 22-year-old Sam Woodforde made crayon sketches not only of his uncle but also of himself and William and Nancy. Two days later he set off for Norwich, to board the London mail coach again. Nancy's crayon drawing may later have been copied in chalk.

Woodforde's quiet spirituality

Too often James Woodforde is cast as a spiritual sluggard lacking in religious devotion. In fact his diary records his quiet spirituality. Numerous spontaneous prayers and thanksgivings intersperse his narrative and may also have peppered his speech.

He adhered to a Broad Church tradition. His tolerant, undemonstrative Latitudinarian leanings were already emergent at the age of 35 in his New College sermon of 1 January 1776. From his words it is evident he trusted in pious living, knowledge, natural reason, conscience and Scripture as the foundations of his faith. By living a good life unostentatiously he was confident he would lead others to Christ.

His retiring, inclusive brand of Christian witness contrasted strongly with the Calvinism of the thrusting young Anglican Evangelicals who were starting to be active in Norfolk in the 1790s, as suggested in an article on the forces of change in the Parson Woodforde Society Journal for Winter 2014: vol. 47 no. 4.

Extracts from his Oxford sermon of 1776

Example is a living precept, and a good life has more of persuasion in it than all the flourishes of a Tully or Demosthenes [the Roman and Greek orators, Tully being more commonly known as Cicero] . . . Very few, except the wise and knowing, will be disputed into a good life . . .

Therefore the pious liver is and will be a better advocate for the faith of Christ than he that is able to dress up the finest oration in the praise and defence of it . . .

Let us therefore put on this armour of Righteousness, and we shall prove successful champions for our holy religion. Let us live up to the knowledge we have, and practise suitably to the dictates of our natural reason and conscience, and God's Word; and this, by the blessing of God, will supply the want of all other arguments, and not only bring glory to God and proselytes to his Church, but confirm our own and the faith of our brethren to the eternal salvation of our souls.
[E.J. Longmate, ed., 'The Sermons of Parson James Woodforde (unpub. external PhD thesis, University of London, 1997), pp. 393, 399, 400; the 802-page thesis by Elizabeth Longmate contains the text of Woodforde's surviving 59 sermons preached in Somerset and Norfolk 1764–94]

Leaving Somerset: his sad year of 1773

James Woodforde memo book 1773 prayerJames Woodforde's unhappiness at the end of 1773 and his prayer to God for a better year to come. His prayer was amply answered [From the printed Complete Memorandum Book 1773: Woodforde Family Collection]By the time he composed this sermon Woodforde had known many disappointments and had come to realise he needed to leave behind the county of his birth and upbringing. In this extract from a tiny memorandum book he makes the sad statement that 1773 had been a year of 'many difficulties'. He prays to God that 1774 will prove 'more pleasant to me':

Mem[orandum]: In this Year 1773 – have met with many Difficulties and have been made very uneasy many Times ———
Pray God this [?] succeeding Year 1774 – might be more pleasant to me and myself better to please thee O God –.

As we know, Woodforde's prayer was answered. The year 1774 marked a complete change in his fortunes after the pain of being denied his father's livings of Ansford and Castle Cary; these went to his first cousin Frank Woodforde. The diarist also realised he had lost Betsy White, the young woman he had thought in 1771 he might marry. Instead he came to think of her as 'a mere jilt'.

This little book, bound in light tan leather, is just one of the notebooks Woodforde used in addition to his diary to record income and expenditure, notable events and uplifting or sustaining thoughts. To come to a fuller understanding of the man we need to consult these little volumes.

His West Country connections

Woodforde was a West Country man through and through. His Somerset connections meant a very great deal to him, and he devoted a good deal of energy – and money – in helping his extended family.

The presence of first Nephew Bill and then Nancy at Weston Parsonage would without doubt have been a comfort in reinforcing his family ties, despite the occasional irritations the siblings brought him. He took care to return to Somerset from his Norfolk base at regular intervals, despite the great expense of the journeys and the need to find a temporary curate to serve his parish in his absence.

Woodforde of Ansford armsThe coat of arms of Woodforde of Ansford; the crest is 'a woodman with his club' [Woodforde Family Collection] A highly educated man, he wrote his diary in what we can recognise as standard English. His spelling, while identifiably eighteenth century, is not phonetic, as it is with diarists with little schooling. It thus does not yield any hint of his pronunciation. Nevertheless he will have proclaimed his Somerset upbringing in his speech.

In his schooldays at Winchester and during his Oxford years this would not have been remarked upon: both institutions recruited heavily from the West Country. In Norfolk however his speech would have identified him as 'different', perhaps exacerbating the sense of dislocation and lack of self-confidence discernible at times in his record.

Despite his loyalty to his family there is no suggestion in his diary that he took an interest in Woodforde genealogy. This became one of his nephew William's antiquarian pursuits, and it is likely that it was William who commissioned the College of Heralds to research the Woodforde antecedents and prepare the folder of spectacular artwork still held by his descendants. Also William very probably chose the woodman crest and three leopards' heads for his uncle's mural tablet in Weston Church.

James Woodforde lies in his adopted county. He was buried under the chancel of the church he served faithfully; a small lozenge-shaped stone bearing his name marks the spot near the sanctuary rail. He lives on in the pages of his great work.

The painting was cleaned and restored in 2020–21 by the specialist Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins at her studio in Norfolk. As we meet the diarist's calm gaze his gentleness and humanity shine forth through the skill of his nephew Sam as a portraitist.