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Collections20th September 2023

Disability Histories

James ‘Alfie’ Merryweather
Born 1854 – Died 1935

Alfie – A Ship Painter’s Assistant

Until recently, a full-length portrait painting of “Alfie” Merryweather (c.1930), had been exhibited in our Steel, Steam & Submarines gallery.

Alfie is depicted in the painting as a man of noticeably short stature standing upright and looking sideways on. He is clad in a yellow oilskin waterproof jacket, a pair of heavy-duty trousers and worn work boots, suited to outside working conditions. Alfie has a well-trimmed beard and moustache and is standing on a wooden box whilst holding a paintbrush. Alfie’s short stature is interesting due to his physical role at the Dockyard as a ship painter’s assistant.

A Portrait of a painter’s assistant

Our research into Alfie’s life and upbringing, has led us to believe that Alfie’s short stature in adulthood was most likely attributed to childhood malnutrition. He was born in exceptionally impoverished circumstances.

The portrait of Alfie Merryweather was completed around 1930 by local artist P.V. Jarvis – appointed by the Dockyard as Inspector of Painters. Jarvis was an amateur artist, but a gifted one.

Throughout his painting career (1930 – 1948) Jarvis specialised in painting senior officials linked to the Dockyard’s Ship Painting Department. Alfie was not a senior official and therefore not a typical subject matter for Jarvis to paint.

WHAT’S REALLY INTRIGUING IS the question, WHAT MOTIVATED JARVIS TO PAINT ALFIE MERRYWEATHER?

Through our research and interpretation of the paining, it may be that Jarvis was drawn to Alfie’s skill as a ship’s painter, by not letting his physical stature get in the way of his working life.

RESEARCH PROJECT OF ‘ALFIE’ PAINTING WITH DISABILITY HISTORY FOCUS GROUP

The Historic Dockyard Chatham in partnership with Curating for Change Fellow, Suchitra Chatterjee, has formed a Disability History Focus Group. The group, consisting of volunteer researchers, have spent the past 12 months uncovering and exploring disability histories within our collections.

One of the researchers, Zara Parker, took a personal interest in researching the painting of Alfie due to her own lived experience.

Zara has shared that her own life had been difficult due to her being neurodivergent and having to undergo an operation that hindered development and growth of some of her bones and muscular tissue.

Curate for Change Fellow Suchitra Chatterjee believes that “in looking at Alfie, Zara was able to look into herself.”

Zara said she instantly felt a connection with Alfie after seeing the painting for the first time. Zara’s response to the painting was that Alfie ‘seemed so determined…” unashamedly poised whilst standing on a box to afford him more height.

Uncovering Disability Histories…

AT THE HISTORIC DOCKYARD CHATHAM

Researchers such as Zara, are continuing to curate items in our collections that enable audiences to understand historic perceptions and attitudes towards disability. Some of the objects within our collections symbolise the challenges faced for disabled naval workers. Also, the evolving role of Royal Navy support from the mid 16 century to 1984.

The history of Alfie Merryweather is intended to be one of the many stops along a Disability Trailblazers exhibit currently being developed at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. Alfie’s story stands shoulder to shoulder with the hidden stories of notable figures such as Admiral Horatio Nelson and Billy Waters.

BIOGRAPHY OF ALFIE MERRYWEATHER

Where is the painting now?

In July 2023, the painting of Alfie was removed from public view and taken into our conservation lab to assess its condition.

Deterioration to the painting was spotted during a routine check when it was noticed that the canvas had begun to warp and was slipping from its frame.

The painting has been removed from display, whilst the Collections Team determine a conservation plan.

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