Henry Simons the Polish Jew

Thomas Worlidge British
Sitter Henry Simons Polish

Not on view

Worlidge's etching is the first known English portrait of a Polish Jewish sitter. Henry Simons (whose Polish name is believed to have been Zevi Hirsch ben Simeon), arrived in London in 1751 from Ostrog, carrying gold ducats to buy dresses and luxury goods for noblemen in his hometown. His clothing was characteristic of a conservative Jew from eastern Europe and, because of an uneventful visit several years earlier, he was confident of succeeding despite speaking little English. By this date, however, the growing number of Jewish merchants and peddlars traveling around England had stirred up prejudice. Simons encountered blatant mistreatment during his second visit, but also received help from members of the established Jewish community and legal establishment.

As he journeyed on foot towards Bristol to seek merchandise, Simons was accosted and robbed at an inn west of London. He took legal action against the innkeeper but the latter was acquitted. James Ashley, who testified on the innkeeper's behalf, likely was the actual robber and he then obtained a warrant against Simons for perjury. When the now impoverished merchant set off back to Poland, Ashley spread a false rumor that Jewish highwaymen were on the road, roused a mob, arrested Simons, and took him to Chelmsford where he was tried and convicted. Outraged at this injustice, members of London's Jewish community interviewed the jury, who testified that hubbub had prevented them from accurately hearing the judge's instructions. The trial was then declared invalid; something very unusual at the time. At a second trial with a new jury Simons received good legal representation and was acquitted. Ashley and two associates, meanwhile, had been fined by a London magistrate for wrongfully arresting the merchant (on the basis that they had used a warrant valid only in Middlesex to arrest Simons in Essex). These events were widely covered in the press and spurred the publication of a series of pamphlets.

Worlidge's print served as the frontispiece to an anti-Simons pamphlet titled "The Case and Appeal of James Ashley" (1753). This had been issued to counter the lengthy, lucid account of Simons's repeated mistreatment published by London's Jewish community and titled "The Case of Henry Simons, a Polish Jew Merchant; and his Appeal to the Public Thereon" (1753). Both publications should be seen in the context of the heated and often antisemitic debate that surrounded the passage of the Jewish Naturalization Act in 1753, and its consequent repeal in 1754.

The print's sympathetic portrayal of Simons seems to be odds with the negative tone of Ashley's pamphlet, which the author must have recognized, because, in a reissue he instructed the printmaker to add a negative line added below the title reading "Thou has forgotten the law of thy God. Hosea IV.6." The sitter's coat was also made to look more ragged, as if to imply that someone carrying a lot of gold could not have worn a tattered coat (there is an example of the second state at the British Museum).

Henry Simons the Polish Jew, Thomas Worlidge (British, Peterborough 1700–1766 Hammersmith), Etching; first state of two

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