Extract of painting of James Figg by William Hogarth

My mate Jimmy at the NPG has done a runner

When Westminster Guide Jonathan Grun popped into the National Portrait Gallery to renew an old acquaintance, he discovered that his old friend had disappeared. Now he is looking for a new best mate. 

By Jonathan Grun

You know how it is, you keep bumping into someone and you begin to feel like mates. It is always great to see him, although you have the feeling that he might not be so cheerful if he got the hump about something.

Then Covid comes along and you lose touch – social distancing and all that stuff.

It was like that with Jimmy Figg. I used to meet him hanging around in the National Portrait Gallery. I wasn’t sure why he was there with all those grand people, although he obviously had good contacts, because he let slip that he was helping the British Museum offload “surplus stock”, which is starting to make a lot of sense to me now.

But when the gallery re-opened and I popped in to renew my acquaintance, there he was – gone. I thought he might be lying low. He is that sort of man.

The elusive Jimmy is, of course, William Hogarth’s portrait of the 18th century prize-fighter James Figg, the best character that I have met in the National Portrait Gallery – and now sadly no longer there. So, I am looking for another best mate in that superb collection.

The NPG is home to the Great and the Good. Jimmy is Great but he is Not So Good. And that is why I like him. 

After feverish swotting and rehearsal for my NPG guiding exam, I would go and seek out Jimmy. His twinkle always seemed to say: “Cheer up governor – it might never happen”.

What a brilliant portrait this is. Change his clothes and he could blend into the streets of Westminster today, talking discreetly into his mobile phone, sorting out a nice little deal, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.

He could be an associate – almost a double – of Grant Mitchell, back in the days when that hard man could be found brooding in the Queen Vic, although to be fair, Jimmy is a lot more likeable. He would pop in, radiating bonhomie – but you would tread carefully around him.

He is a man who, with complete conviction, could deliver that famous line of Michael Caine’s in the classic film Get Carter: “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full-time job. Now behave yourself.”

You would know he means it. You would behave yourself. Then he is all smiles again.

James Figg fought with his fists and assorted weapons, including the sword, staff and cudgel. But he cannily came to the conclusion that there is easier money to be made if you promote fights in which other people hit each other.

He opened an amphitheatre at a pub called the City of Oxford in what is now Oxford Street and gentlemen flocked there.

As someone remarked at the time:

“From Figg’s theatre, he will not miss a night,

Though cocks and bulls, and Irish women, fight.”

And women did fight, sometimes in mixed-sex bouts. In 1725 at Figg’s Amphitheatre, Edward Sutton and a Kentish woman took on James Stokes and his wife, Elizabeth, the “City Championess”. Jimmy just counted the takings that night.

Another person who called in at the City of Oxford was folk-hero thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard – perhaps the original Jack the Lad – who drank a pint of sack on his way to his execution at Tyburn in 1724.

I did find out what happened to Jimmy. It turned out he was only on loan at the NPG and on December 15, 2020 he was sold at auction for £375,000. 

That wasn’t the only bit of business done that day. One of Downing Street’s Lockdown parties took place – and I suspect Jimmy might have been responsible for supplying the booze. Well, someone had to and times were tough. You know how it is.

Maybe I will see Jimmy again one day across a crowded gallery. In the meantime, a reproduction of his portrait occupies a suitably shady corner of my study and sometimes I think I hear him muttering genially: “Wotcher, governor, cheer up, it might never happen.”

Image is taken from Christies catalogue of the sale

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