Francis Jermy, Merchant of Leghorn (1705 - 1781)


Francis Jermy was the eldest son of Francis Jermy (1655 - 1722) and Diana Holder. Francis (senior) had inherited the heavily mortgaged Gunton estate from his father John Jermy in 1662 and subsequently sold it to the Harbord family in 1676. Around 1700 Francis (senior) apparently quarrelled with his wife and left her and their daughters in Hainford, Norfolk. He subsequently set himself up as a merchant in London and had a second family, consisting of three sons (Francis, John and Edward), with Diana Holder, his common law wife.

Francis Jermy (junior) was born in 1705. In 1724 he was apprenticed to John Enmett of St Martins in the Fields as a bookbinder, at a cost of £20. It is not clear whether he completed this apprenticeship, but it is unlikely that he did. By 1740 he was based in Livorno, Italy (called Leghorn by the English at the time), with the company Holder & Jermy. His business partner Simon Holder (June 1677 - 28 May 1760), was also a merchant in Leghorn, and presumably a brother of Francis' mother Diana Holder. By 1751 Francis Jermy was an established merchant in his own right in Leghorn and continued to prosper there for another thirty years.

Francis' brother John Jermy was a Captain in the Royal Navy, who between October 1745 and October 1748 was Commander of the bomb HMS Carcass, that was part of the Mediterranean fleet under the command of Admiral Medley. The ship patrolled between Minorca and Leghorn, and along the French, Corsican and Italian coasts in order to harass the French navy during the war of Austrian succession. It also took part in the bombardment of Nice. It is very likely that John visited his brother Francis when he was in port at Leghorn. John Jermy was subsequently made Captain of the sloop HMS Swan and died of a "fatal disease" off the coast of Africa on 28th August 1751.

Very little documentary evidence exists that records the business of Francis Jermy, but it is clear from notices in London newspapers that Holder & Jermy were involved in shipping oil and other items between 1745 and 1751. By 1756 only Francis Jermy's name was appearing on those notices. There is evidence that Francis was shipping assorted items of art, as well as books out of Italy to various collectors in England and Europe. In 1770 he was listed as a corresponding member of the Royal Society of Arts.

The only documents relating to Francis Jermy that are known to exist are in the Portland collection of the University of Nottingham, UK. They are two letters and a bill of lading that he sent to the Duke of Portland in London, concerning the shipment of paintings and other goods, in 1763 and 1764.

Amongst the published references to Francis Jermy is a letter dated Rome, 9 September 1767, to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German art historian and archeologist ..

The box with the 40 copies of the Italian work is already on its way on the English ship called Portsmouth, with Captain Thomas Custins, to Hamburg. Francis Jermy of Livorno arranged this and I will pay the freight costs from Rome to Livorno. I will receive the invoice with the costs tomorrow and I will also know whether you or I have to pay the 200 zecchini fee. I hope that the books will arrive before all the rivers are frozen.

Similarly, in a letter dated 2nd January 1769 from Pietro Crocchi to James Boswell in Edinburgh, he requests ..

I beg you, therefore, to let me have a copy of the aforesaid book, either by some traveller friend of yours or by arrangement with some merchant ship which might dock at Leghorn, in care of Signor Francesco Jermy, the English merchant, or another of your correspondents. I shall apply myself, on receiving advance notice from your excellency, to make the appropriate arrangements.

Thomas Jenkins wrote to Lord Bessborough on 19th May 1770 that he had just ..

.. sent to the care of Mr. Francis Jermy at Leghorn three Cases of such articles as follows... four Corinthian capitols found on the Calian (sic) Hill... a piece of ornament in three parts found in the Villa of Lucullus at Frascati the ancient Tusculaon, the Friars who proferred it made use of it as the Back part of a Seat in the gardens - in the same case are a Basso Relievo representing a tree with a Bird, ditto an Eagle with a Serpent, ditto a Cow, or Horse, a Tiger, and the front of a small Urn... and half all those pieces... ware (sic) found in Hadrians Villa... [and] ten pieces of ornaments chiefly sepulchral... all found near the Via Appia

What is clear is that Francis accumulated a lot of wealth from his business activities. He purchased a villa in the hills of Montenero, which enabled him to look out over the city and harbour of Leghorn to observe the shipping. The memoirs of Thomas Hollis, political philosopher and author, mention that he received a letter from Mr Jermy of Leghorn, dated 23rd April 1762, in which he described the very grateful thanks of the academy della Crusca at Florence for Hollis's present of Milton's poetical and prose works, Toland's Life of Milton, and a hitherto unknown manuscript entitled La Tina by Antonio Malatesti. At the end of the letter Francis Jermy says ..

Relying on your goodness, I must beg the favour of you to let me know the distance the best reflecting telescope of Newton's will distinguish a human person, so as to be known from a proper eminence, and what the import of such a telescope may be. I have one myself, of something more than two feet long, but it does not answer the purpose so well as I could wish, which makes me trouble you on this account. My house in the country has a very fine view of the sea, and I compute the distance from thence to the road of Leghorn, about ten miles; and it is there that I want to distinguish the ships, and those that are on board, if a machine can be had that will do it.

Francis Jermy, who had not married, died at 11am on 30th October 1781, aged 76. His brother John had died in 1751 and his youngest brother Edward, a lawyer in London must also have pre-deceased him, because Francis left the bulk of his estate to his godson Francis Henry Proby, the son of the Chatham Shipyard Commissioner Captain Charles Proby, on condition that he take the additional arms and surname Jermy. (King George III granted his royal licence and authority for this on 17th August 1784.) Francis also left £500 to Elizabeth Denn, the married daughter of his brother Captain John Jermy. Similar amounts were also bequeathed to members of the British & Italian aristocracy and local dignitaries in and around Leghorn. His villa, with all its furniture, vineyard, cattle, etc was to be let out annually, for the benefit of the clergy of the English church in Leghorn. His theatre box in Pisa was to be rented out annually for the benefit of the poor of Pisa, and his theatre box in Leghorn rented out annually for the benefit of the "decayed" familes of British families in Leghorn. All his paintings and £5 000 was bequeathed to the British consul John Udney, who, together with Commissioner Charles Proby acted as his executors.

The profligacy of his will provoked some comment from local observers. In a letter dated 20th November 1781, Sir Horace Mann, the British government's representative in Florence, wrote to Horace Walope in England that ..

A monument is to be erected in the English burying ground at Leghorn for a Mr Jermy, an English splendid merchant, who acquired a large fortune there, and having no relations, has left the greatest part of his fortune to a godson, a son of Commissary Proby, whom he has never seen or heard of since he christened him, but he was really at a loss how to dispose of his wealth, as you will be persuaded when I tell you that he has left a thousand zecchins to Lord Tylney because he was his banker, and six hundred to Lord Cowper because he is a prince, and that such names with the addition of his noble friends sound well in his will. To poor me he has left two hundred zecchins for a ring ...

Walpole replied in his usual acerbic manner that ..

Your Mr Jermy was an ostentatious fool, of whom there is no more to be said. Formerly when such simpletons did not know what to do with their wealth, they bequeathed it to the Church, and then perhaps got a good picture for an altar, or a painted window.

A letter sent by Major General Henry Pringle on 2nd November 1781, whilst on board ship at Leghorn, indicates that he was not quite so impressed with Francis Jermy's fortune ..

Three days ago, there died in the town, Mr Jermy, a Banker and Merchant, the principal here, and who has been making money these 55 years, yet died worth only about £30 000. He had few relations, to whom he has left nothing, but bequeathed it to friends - the most part of it to a son of Admiral Proby, because the Admiral formerly, when he commanded in the Mediterranean, was useful to him. He also left £5 500 to the Consul here, Mr Udney, whom he did not know above four or five years. He was buried yesterday, as he had never been married, we all got white silk scarfs.

Francis Jermy was buried in the English Cemetery in Leghorn on 1st November 1781, and an elaborate marble memorial erected by the British consul John Udney. The inscription reads ..

This monument is Erected
To Perpetuate The Memory
Of Francis Jermy Esquire
Who Died the
30 of October Anno 1781
Aged 76 years

In its heyday, Francis Jermy's 17th century two-storey Montenero villa had an elegant fašade with niches for statues, and was lavishly decorated with frescoes of cherubs and classical scenes on the walls and ceilings. It also had interior and exterior stone staircases, an elaborate garden with stone trellises and a number of water features. The villa was apparently called Villa Rossa because of the colour of its external walls. In his autobiography, Leigh Hunt describes his first visit to the villa in June 1822 to meet Lord Byron and the Countess Guiccioli ..

The day was very hot; the road to Montenero was very hot, through dusty suburbs; and when I got there, I found the hottest looking house I ever saw. It was salmon colour. Think of this, flaring over the country in a hot Italian sun! But the greatest of the heats was within....

According to Matteo Giunti, who has studied the deeds for the villa, it was originally owned by a Francis Jermy in 1682. This means that it must have been purchased by Francis' father Francis (senior) shortly after he sold his estates in Norfolk. It continued to be owned by Francis Jermy (junior) until his death in 1781. Ownership then passed to the English community of Leghorn between 1781 and 1784. It was then purchased by Giovan Niccola Bertolla in 1784, and sold to Abron Culely from Constantinople in 1790. (It has been recorded that there was once a small mosque in the villa, so possibly it was during the ownership of this person?) The villa was sold to wealthy banker Count Pietro Dupoy in 1793, and it is believed to be haunted by his daughter, whose lover he had decapitated with his sword, banishing her to a convent. It then passed to his son Luigi Dupoy in 1825, and to an uncle Francesco Dupoy in 1831.

Lord Byron rented the villa between May and June 1822 and installed his mistress Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli and her brother there. It was also at the villa that the American artist William Edward West painted the portraits of Lord Byron and Countess Guiccioli. Surprisingly, there do not seem to be any early paintings or drawings of the villa that have survived. Edward Hutton's guide "Florence and northern Tuscany with Genoa" of 1908, described it thus ..

Passing out by tramway by the Porta Maremmana, you come to Byron's villa, almost at the foot of the hills, on a sloping ground on your right. Entering by the great iron gates of what looks like a neglected park, you climb by a stony road up to the great villa itself, among the broken statues and the stone pines, where is one of the most beautiful views of the Pisan country and seashore, with the islands of Gorgona, Capraja, Elba and Corsica in the distance. Villa Dupoy, as it was called in Byron's day, is now in the summer months used as a girls' school; and, indeed, it would be easy to house a regiment in the vast rooms, where here and there a seventeenth century fresco is still gorgeous on the walls, and the mirrors are dim with age.

Another part of the guide states ..

Byron was about to establish himself just beyond Livorno, on the slopes of Montenero, in a huge and rambling old villa with eighteenth (sic) century frescoes on the walls, and a tangled park and garden running down to the dusty Livorno highway. The place today is a little dilapidated, and its statues broken, but in the summer months it becomes a paradise of a school for girls, a fact which I think might have pleased Byron.

The villa was the headquarters of the anti-fascist Committee for National Liberation during the second world war, but subsequent to its sparkling history, the villa has fallen into a state of disrepair, despite it being "one of the most beautiful and important villas on the hills of Livorno" according to Riccardo Ciorli, an architectural historian in Livorno.


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With special thanks to Matteo Giunti who has carried out a great deal of research into Leghorn Merchants, and who located Villa Dupoy and the grave of Francis Jermy in the English cemetery for me.

Refs:
Anon. 1770. Rules and Orders of the Society instituted at London for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce. The Society, London
Anon. Chapel Register of the Protestant Society of Leghorn (1707-1783).
Blackburne, Francis. 1780. Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, Esq. London
Callum, G. M. G., & Macauley, F. C. 1906. The inscriptions in the old British Cemetery of Leghorn. Leghorn
Cole, Richard C. (Editor) 1997. The General Correspondence of James Boswell 1766 - 1769. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Ciorli, Riccardo. 1994. Livorno. Storia di ville e palazzi. Ospedaletto, Pisa
Diepolder, H. 1956. Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Letters 1764 - 1768. Walter De Gruyter, Berlin
Finnegan, Rachel J. 2005. The Classical Taste of William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough (1704-93). The Journal of the Irish Georgian Society, 8. pp. 12-43
Hunt, Leigh. 1850. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Harper & Brothers, New York
Hutton, Edward. 1908. Florence and northern Tuscany with Genoa. London
Lewis, W. S. (Editor) 1971. Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann and Sir Horace Mann the younger. Volume IX. Oxford University Press, London
Portland Collection, Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham, UK
Vigo, Pietro. 1902. Montenero. Con 80 Incisioni. Guida Storico- artistico- descrittiva con Appendice di documenti inediti. Gius. Fabbreschi, Livorno