Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen and wash on paper
  • 6 ⅞ × inches · 175 × mm
  • Inscribed: ‘GEORGIVS ∙ III ∙ D ∙ G ∙ MAG ∙ BRIT ∙ FR ∙ RT ∙ HIB ∙ REX ∙ F ∙D ∙ BRVNS ∙ ET ∙ LVN ∙ DVX ∙ S ∙ R ∙ I ∙ A ∙ T ∙ ET ∙ PR ∙ ELECT ∙’
    Drawn in 1784

    Accompanied by the original backing sheet variously inscribed: ‘A Drawing of the Great Seal of England in lieu of the one stolen the 24th march 1784 Thomas Major – John Major Dover the gift of James Major Esq.’ ‘The original design sent for approbation’, ‘to Chars Jas Major – Grandson the gift of Mr Dover – 5/6/47 to his son Mr [missing]ford Major Great Grandson 10/5/75’.
  • £8,000

Collections

  • Thomas Major (1720-1799), the artist;
  • James Major, son of the above; 
  • John Major Dover, nephew of the above;
  • Charles James Major; cousin of the above;
  • Christie’s, 14th November, 1972, lot.13 (£1,155);
  • W A Brandt (1902-1978), acquired at the above;
  • By descent to 2024

On the night of 23rd March 1784 thieves broke into the house of the Lord Chancellor, Edward, Lord Thurlow and stole the great seal of England, which was used to symbolise the Sovereign’s approval of state documents. This drawing was made by the engraver Thomas Major, chief seal engraver to the King and engraver to the Stamp Office, who made a perfect replacement of the Great Seal within twenty hours, and afterwards executed an example in silver, which was used until the union with Ireland. This remarkably finely worked drawing is an exceptional record of Major’s design for the Great Seal, showing with great precision the seated monarch surrounded by Hercules, Minerva, Justice, Britainnia and Faith.

The theft of the Great Seal from Lord Thurlow’s house in Great Ormond Street came at a moment of political turmoil. Thurlow had orchestrated – through the King – the defeat of the India Bill in December 1783. This led to the fall of the coalition government led by Lord North and Charles James Fox. William Pitt the Younger was asked to form a government and Thurlow became Lord Chancellor. Thurlow’s appointment ensured Pitt’s control of the Lord’s and in March 1784 he felt sufficiently secure to dissolve parliament and call an election, it was on the eve of this announcement that the seal was stolen from Thurlow’s house. The two events were linked in the popular imagination; the theory being that the Whigs had orchestrated the theft to prevent the dissolution of parliament. As the Orders in Council show, Major was commissioned to complete a hasty replacement with a few minor changes to the design. Major delivered the new seal within twenty hours and the King promptly dissolved parliament.

The present carefully worked drawing can be associated with the silver seal that Major was commissioned to replace his rapidly executed substitution. The order was made in Council on 2nd April 1784: ‘it is this day ordered by his Majesty in Council that his Majesty’s chief engraver of seals do forthwith prepare the draft of a new Great Seal of Great Britain, and present the same to his Majesty at this board for his royal approbation.’ It may well be that this drawing is the sheet that was presented to the King for his approval. On 14th May 1784 ‘His Majesty in Council having been this day pleased to approve the draft of a new Great Seal of Great Britain, doth hereby order that his chief engraver of seals do forthwith engrave the said Seal according to the said draft, and lay the same before his Majesty at the board for his royal approbation.’ Major completed the seal the following year and it was presented by the King to the Lord Chancellor on 15th April 1785.

This virtuosic, technical drawing, finely executed in pen, ink and wash on paper carefully records the verso of Major’s Great Seal, showing the monarch crowned and seated on his throne, beneath the canopy of state surrounded by the personifications of strength, wisdom, justice, Britain and faith. The drawing shows the elegantly designed and spaced motto running around the outside of the design and underscores Major’s abilities as both a designer and engraver.