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The painting which put Whitehaven on the map?
Belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special Features Producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

Birds Eye View of Whitehaven in Cumbria
The house at the centre of the picture was where Matthias Read lived when painted this

The Birds Eye View of Whitehaven by Matthias Read is a true depiction of a bygone age.

There are big sailing ships in the harbour, people on horseback and the town is a lot smaller than it is today.

The painting was commissioned in 1736 by Sir John Lowther who was from an influential local family.

He made his money from the coal trade but wanted to improve the living conditions of his workers


To this end, he laid out the town in a grid system of streets and housing.

Three versions

This was the first designed town in England since medieval times. Before the time of the painting towns tended to grow bit by bit and so the layout was always a little more haphazard. It is said that the design may have inspired the famous grid pattern of streets in New York.

Matthias Read is seen by many as the father of painting in Cumberland. He came to Whitehaven from Ireland and stayed after meeting and marrying a local girl. As well as pictures he also painted figureheads for local ships and frescoes in the houses of wealthy merchants.

There are only around seven known paintings by Read in the world. The Beacon Museum in Whitehaven has three of them. There are three versions of the Birds Eye View picture in existence. The other two are in leading galleries in London and America.

Whitehaven & the start of the town plan

The one that is on display at the Beacon was in a private collection and not much is known about where it was before it came to the museum. The curator at the time the painting was bought, Harry Fancy, says it was a private sale and they did not have to bid against other people to buy it. He says it was vital to buy the painting as it shows the town in its heyday.

Lowther's vision

He says that if you draw an imaginary line through the middle of the painting from each of the four corners the lines intersect at the house Read lived in at the time he did the painting. The house is now a bed and breakfast and the woman who owns it has a copy of the painting in her dining room. But even though the original is just around the corner from her she says she has never been to see it!

The Bielby goblet
The Bielby Goblet comes from the same period as the painting

Charlotte Read, the current curator at the Beacon, says they believe the painting was used almost as a sales tool and to show off Lowther's vision for the town. There are some empty plots in the foreground so perhaps the painting was used to try and sell those plots.

She also says the perspective of the painting is odd and that Read would have had to have been up in a hot air balloon to get the view of Whitehaven that you see in the painting!

For anyone who knows and loves Whitehaven this picture is a fascinating snapshot of the town over 250 years ago.


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