Matthias Finucane: a speculative life

'There has always been a mystery over Matt Finucane’s origin. His name does not appear on family trees, and I have never been able to find him anywhere else.' Matthias Finucane's descendant, Julia von Bertele, has devoted a great deal of time to trying to solve the mystery of the birth—and life—of the Channel Island miniaturist and printmaker, Matthias Finucane (d. 1810). This is part of the Finucania project.

There is really no doubt that Matthias Finucane was Irish, and that he probably was born in the area that had been the home of the Finucane family for many centuries,  Ennis, County Clare. But since his birth does not appear to be recorded anywhere, who exactly was he?

The most eminent of the Finucane clan at that time was a Judge, the Hon. Matthias Finucane (1738-1814). Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, he married Ann O'Brien,¹ a member of a neighbouring family with which the Finucanes already had very close connections, in 1775. Respectable member of the ruling class or no, the Judge fathered several illegitimate children at the same time as his wife, Ann, was producing the legitimate ones. He and Ann had two daughters, Susanna born in 1776, and Jane, as well as a son, Andrew, born in 1779.  A family letter quotes 'Uncle Charlie,’ Matthias' great-grandson, who claimed that Matthias the artist was the Judge’s illegitimate son; that he had a brother called James; and that James had a daughter called Louisa.

If this were true, how did Matthias end up in Guernsey? Other family letters have it that in his youth Matthias killed a man in a duel, and that to avoid arrest he joined the army and fled with them to Guernsey. A friend of his father was said to have spotted him in a sentry box and to have bought him out of the army.

The only facts we have are these: Matthias married a Mary Astie in Guernsey in 1802. He signs the certificate and names his father as John Finucane from Ennis.

Julia's theory

The Judge Matthias Finucane had a cousin John, a Dublin attorney, who married Elizabeth O’ Brien from Ballicorrig in 1774. She brought the huge sum of £21,000 with her to the marriage. John and Elizabeth had three sons: the eldest, James, born 1774, was a major in the army, and married his cousin Jane Finucane, a daughter of the Judge. James and Jane had a son Michael, and nine daughters. One of these daughters was called Louisa, and is well documented, as she married Lord Inchiquin. So far this is consistent with the family tradition mentioned above, that Matthias had a brother, James, and a niece, Louisa.

John and Elizabeth had a second son called Morgan, born in 1776, a surgeon in the navy, and a third son called Christopher, born 1778, who is mentioned in family trees. Although there are several records of these sons, and information and dates for James and Morgan, there is no biographical information on Christopher other than his birth date.

Was Matthias was the illegitimate son of the Judge,² brought up in John and Elizabeth’s household as their son and christened Christopher, the name of Elizabeth’s father, later changing his name to Matthias, for his actual father? 

Both the Judge and John and Elizabeth were living in Dublin at this time.  

Matthias' birth date, if he is indeed Christopher, fits in well. His first known miniatures are dated 1794, and their poor execution marks them out as the work of a young man. Christopher/Matthias was born in 1778, which would make him sixteen when he ran away, or was sent away, with the army to Guernsey. Several regiments left Ireland for Guernsey that year. A search at Kew for either a Christopher or a Matthias Finucane proved fruitless, and one can only presume he used a false name when enlisting.

A letter by the Bailiff of Guernsey, Peter de Havilland, written in 1798, clarifies some parts of the story, however. In this De Havilland writes to his son, Thomas Fiott De Havilland, that he is having his portrait miniature painted by a very talented artist, a young Irishman who is in the garrison with the 81st Foot. The regimental commander, Huw Dalrymple, seems highly indulgent to this young man, allowing him to spend his time painting. In fact, Dalrymple's daughter is the subject of one of Finucane's first Guernsey miniatures. Finucane explains to De Havilland how he came to be in the army, a story in which he exculpates himself from all responsibility in ending up in a debtor's prison, from which he is allowed under a government scheme to enter the army. De Havilland scoffs at this story and is suspicious that the truth would paint a somewhat blacker picture, though as usual, it would seem, he is struck by Finucane's charm. De Havilland mentions that the miniature Finucane is painting of him is the first he ever produced in Guernsey. Finucane is making copies for him; it is an extremely good likeness, and very cheap. It has so far been impossible to trace Finucane's enlistment or service in the 81st Foot. Soon afterwards, Finucane is a civilian and making a living from his painting in Guernsey. It would not be at all surprising if Finucane had been under some sort of protection.

Matthias himself

By family tradition, Matthias Finucane was wild and witty and good looking. According to Métivier, Guernsey's 'national poet,' he was enjoué—of a cheerful disposition—and a bon enfant. There is a portrait held by the family, believed by them to be a self-portrait. He produced miniature portraits, caricatures, and prints.  His first large-scale painting was a scene of the Royal Square, in Jersey, now in the Art Gallery, St. Helier, made in 1798, and fairly crude in execution; he also reputed to have painted the Assize d’Heritage there. More may remain to be discovered about the time he spent in Jersey. He evidently settled permanently in Guernsey, and seems to have earned his living by painting miniature portraits, gaining 'society' commissions, as well as military ones.  He advertised a drawing school in Contrée Croix, off Mansell St, in St Peter Port.

If Julia's theory is correct, Matthias would have been very young when he began earning a living through his artistic talent. The date of his first painting is 1794, which would make him around sixteen years of age, and these early works are not the most finely painted or drawn. [Note: a series of his prints was published in London in 1797.] It should also be borne in mind when considering the variable quality of his miniatures that he almost certainly suffered from alcoholism.

Finucane married Mary Astie, from Plymouth, in the Town Church in St Peter Port in 1802, and produced four children.  Matthias was born 23 December 1802. He died a few weeks later, and was  followed by a second Matthias, born in 1804.  Mary Astie was born in 1806, and Matilda in 1808. She is Julia von Bertele's direct ancestor. Aged only two when her father died, she married Guernsey hatter and furrier James Francis Draper in 1833, and was a practising artist herself. Her son, James Finucane Draper, had a successful career as an artist in Jersey.

Her sister Mary Finucane remained in Guernsey and died here at the age of about 50, but there seems to be no further trace of Matthias' son,  Matthias Junior. In 1814 his mother, Mary Astie, married again, to a naval officer, James Uren. Matthias Junior would have been ten. No more records of him have yet been found in Guernsey; he may have followed his step-father into the navy or merchant marine.³ Mary Astie and her daughter Mary Finucane were living with the Drapers in Guernsey in 1861; both died in that year.

Matthias Finucane died in April 1810, perhaps aged only 32. The year before he died he finished his most familiar work, a painting of the Market Place in St Peter Port, Guernsey. This was a money-making exercise hoping to appeal to the vanity of the well-known personalities of the island, as it was said that all those who would not pay him a guinea to feature in it were caricatured in it instead.  It was published as a print. A letter to Edith Carey in the Priaulx library collection describes how Matthias drank very heavily at this time. In this letter, his friend Frederick Lukis is reported as saying that in order to get him to finish his Market Place, he used to 'entice' him to his house in the morning, and lock him up in a room with the pictures, so that he could not go off and get drunk. Sadly, the blatant attempt to make money from the Market Place painting and the excessive drinking points to Finucane being in both personal and professional trouble just before his death.

Edith Carey, in her Scrapbook 2 in the Priaulx Library, transcribed notes she found amongst Sir Edward MacCulloch's MSS, entitled Finucania, or Le Tableau de Finucane. They were written by George Métivier, who thus coined the word 'Finucania’, and contains biographical information on various of the subjects of his famous Guernsey Market Place painting. 

¹ Ann married Judge Matthias Finucane in 1775. She was the daughter of Edward and Susanna O'Brien, of Ennistymon. Twenty-two years younger than Matthias Finucane, she was aged only sixteen when they married. They had three children, but in 1793 they divorced. Captain Donat Finucane, a member of the same family, was co-respondent. Captain Donat was a member of the South Gloucester militia, and stationed in Brighthelmstone (Brighton). Ann and Donat married and lived in Brighton. They had five babies: Frederick, George, Patrick, and Charles (born 25 July 1800) and a daughter called Emma, who married Lieut.-Col. Horace Churchill in 1817. Seven years later, in 1780,  Donat died; Ann was around 41 years of age.

As the funeral cortège passed through Brighton, it was witnessed by the Prince of Wales. Julia has received two accounts of what followed from the Royal Archives. The Prince was so moved at the sight of Ann and her five young children that he made enquiries, and found that she had been left in very poor circumstances. She had led the large funeral procession, with a son of eight, and another of seven, in either hand. The Prince then took responsibility for the two oldest boys, paying in full for their education at Dr Brunel's school, Greenwich. Both joined the army; one was killed at the Battle of Salamanca, in 1812. The Prince then took on the education of a third son, Patrick, who joined the navy.

Ann lived to the age of 84, and died at Boulogne-sur-mer, in 1844.

² Julia suggests possibly by Elizabeth.

³ John Finucane, an illegitimate son of the Judge, was a shoemaker. He had a son, also called Matthias, born in 1804, the same year as Matthias’s son Matthias Junior in Guernsey. This Irish Matthias lived in Sixmilebridge, and had a daughter. John and Elizabeth’s son James had one son and nine daughters, but the son, Michael, never married. John and Elizabeth’s son Morgan did marry and had a son, Charles, with whom the line ended, as he in turn had no sons. The Judge's legitimate son followed his father's inclinations; he did not marry, but in his will mentions a natural son, Henry Andrew Pearson, and three daughters by his common-law wife, Honora Slattery.