image fairbairn p0039
Image number: RS.9706
Credit: ©The Royal Society
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Portrait of William Fairbairn


19th century


William Fairbairn (1789-1874, British), Engineer


Benjamin Rawlinson Faulkner (1787-1849, British), Painter

Object type

Archive reference number



height (painting): 1240mm
width (painting): 985mm


Content object


Three-quarter length seated portrait of Sir William Fairbairn. The engineer holds a quill pen in his right hand, the left elbow leaning against a table to the sitter’s left, his face leaning lightly on his left hand. The table is covered in a green cloth and contains a glass inkwell held on a silver stand with a second quill. There is an angled writing stand with papers on it. Another set of papers to the foreground is headed: “Observations of the Cold blast” [referring to Fairbairn’s published researches “On the strength and properties of cast iron obtained from the Hot and Cold blast”, presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838]. Fairbairn is dressed in a black suit and tie with a white shirt. A pair of gold spectacles hangs from a black ribbon around his neck and there are two seals set in gold hanging at his waist. Behind is a seascape with two vessels, the most prominent an iron steamship of a type constructed by Fairbairn’s company.

William Fairbairn was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1850.


B.R.Faulkner 18-
prepared by Robertson and Miller 51 – Longacre London R & M 1871.
Royal Society Frame 1

Object history

Bequeathed by Sir William Fairbairn, 1874.

The gift is recorded on Council Minutes: “Read a letter from Mr. Thomas Fairbairn, Bart., addressed to the President, to the effect that, by a Codicil to his Will dated Nov. 6, 1869, the late Sir William Fairbairn bequeaths to the Society: ‘My own Portrait by Faulkner as a memorial of the encouragement I have invariably received from that distinguished and learned body in furtherance of my researches in practical science;’ and intimating his readiness to give directions for the delivery of the painting to the Society. The Secretary was instructed to accept the bequest, and return the thanks of the President and Council to Sir Thomas Fairbairn.” [Royal Society Council Minutes, Printed, CMP/4 1870-1877, meeting of 30 November 1874, p.246].

Sir Thomas Fairbairn’s original correspondence is preserved in the Society’s archives and provides more small details. Fairbairn noted that “The Picture is at my late Father’s residence in Manchester...” [Letter, Thomas Fairbairn, 23 November 1874, to Sir Joseph Hooker, Royal Society Miscellaneous Correspondence MC/10/170]. By late November he had arranged delivery: “I gave instructions last week to Messrs Agnew of Manchester to pack & deliver...and hope it has already been safely deposited.” [Letter, Thomas Fairbairn, 17 December 1874, to Thomas Henry Huxley, Royal Society Miscellaneous Correspondence MC/10/180].

Associated place

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