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Sir William Beechey RA 1735-1838
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Sir William Beechey RA 1735-1838

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A brother and sister with their pet spaniel, the boy reading a broadsheet entitled “Robin Hood”

 

Oil painting on canvas 50 x 40 inches, and contained in a good Georgian carved and gilded frame

 

Painted Circa 1790

 

Exhibited: Perhaps RA 1791, number 257 as “A Gentleman's family, with a dog”

 

Literature: William Roberts, “Sir William Beechey” page 265

 

Beechey was born on 12 December 1753 in Burford, Oxfordshire, the first of five children of William Beechey (d. 1789) and Hannah Read. Beechey's parents were both apparently from Dublin. For unknown reasons they passed the care of their children to William Beechey's brother Samuel, a lawyer, who had settled in Chipping Norton. From family tradition, as published by William Roberts in 1907, it appears that Beechey had a natural aptitude for drawing but Samuel Beechey intended his nephew to become a lawyer. Accounts published during the artist's life testify to his being articled to solicitors in Stow-on-the-Wold and London. By chance Beechey met students from the Royal Academy Schools; he was attracted to their work, arranged for his release from his work with the solicitor, and entered the schools in 1772. Contemporary accounts suggest that Beechey married for the first time shortly after he entered the Royal Academy Schools. Nothing is known of the first Mrs Beechey apart from the facts that she was the mother of several of his children, including the painter and explorer Henry William Beechey (1788/9–1862), and must have died before 27 February 1793. Little is known of his studies at the academy; he is known to have painted panel decorations for coaches while living in London. Beechey exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1776 and continued exhibiting annually until he moved to Norwich after the 1782 exhibition. His early work consisted of ‘small portraits’ (as they were described in the academy catalogues), bust-length and full-length, on a scale much smaller than life. They have been described as being similar to conversation pieces such as were painted by William Hogarth and Johann Zoffany; one critic wrote that he had received training from Zoffany; precisely when this training occurred is unclear since Zoffany left for six years in Italy in July 1772.

It is likewise unclear what prompted Beechey's move to Norwich; one account related that ‘an opening’ at Norwich led to the change while his biographer quotes a source that ‘he was “invited to spend a month” in that city, where he “found himself in the immediate receipt of so many commissions in that town and neighbourhood that he was induced to take up his abode there altogether”’ (Roberts, 18). He may in addition have lived for several months in Yarmouth. In Norwich city directories he is listed as a medallion and portrait painter and a limner. His work in Norwich continued both in small scale and life-size (from the evidence of works submitted to the Royal Academy), and the few works that survive are precisely painted and pleasant. Among them is Beechey's first life-size full-length portrait, of Robert Patterson (St Andrew's Hall, Norwich), probably painted to celebrate his election as mayor in 1784. Beechey submitted three paintings to the Society of Artists exhibition in London in 1785 (two life-size and one family group of ‘small whole lengths’) and a similar division of small and life-size work to the Royal Academy in 1785 and 1786, in addition to some subject pictures. His work received little notice until 1787, when two frames containing fifteen small portraits (one of the miniature painter Edward Miles) were rejected by the academy council because the rules stated that all paintings must be framed separately. The pictures were taken up by the artist–dealer Benjamin Vandergucht, who in a brilliant example of public relations exhibited them in his own gallery, acquiring for himself and Beechey much free publicity as the newspapers covered their rejection by the academy while ignoring the reasons behind it.

After the exhibition in 1787 Beechey settled at 20 Lower Brook Street, near Grosvenor Square, London, moving to 37 Hill Street, Berkeley Square, before the exhibition in 1789. By autumn 1789 Thomas Gainsborough was dead and Sir Joshua Reynolds had ceased painting. Gilbert Stuart had moved to Ireland in 1787 and only John Hoppner was a serious rival among younger artists. From his account books for 1789–91 it appears that Beechey had stopped making small portraits by the middle of 1789, but not before completing his most ambitious work of the type, a large group portraying ten members of the family of Archdeacon John Strachey. On a large horizontal canvas and set in an outdoor loggia with views to surrounding woodland, Beechey arranged Strachey, his wife, Anne, and eight of their children engaged in conversation and reading, with one son posed in a variation of the celebrated Cleopatra (Vatican, Rome), reclining and resting on his left elbow, his right arm bent over his head, and looking at a portfolio of drawings. Strachey and the artist may have shared a Norwich connection, but the Monthly Mirror of May 1798 said that the cleric noticed a work of Beechey's by accident, and was so pleased ‘that he immediately employed the artist to paint himself and his family’ (p. 282). Beechey was paid £105 for the painting, considerably more than for any work recorded in his surviving account books for 1789–91. The painting is attractive, with particular attention paid to the white costumes of the female figures and small still lifes of flowers resting on a table and in a basket on the floor.

The Strachey portrait was not exhibited, and from 1789 Beechey exhibited only life-size portraits. His clientele consisted of clergy, gentry, and military officers, complemented by his brother artists. One of his exhibited portraits in 1789 depicted Charles Herbert, brother of Lord Carnarvon, to whom he had been introduced by the artist Paul Sandby. Herbert's portrait was well received and proved extremely profitable for Beechey; he painted nine portraits of the Herbert family in 1789–90, and this prompted a commission from the duke of Montagu that opened doors for further portraits of nobility, seven of which he exhibited in 1790.

Beechey's portraits from his early maturity are unadventurous, unpretentious, well-coloured, straightforward images. When the young Thomas Lawrence exhibited his sensational full-length portraits of Queen Charlotte and the actress Miss Farren in 1790, Beechey's clientele was not much affected since Lawrence's style was much more flamboyant and the younger artist's reputation impinged more upon Hoppner's clients.

Royal patronage and maturity, 1793–1810

On 27 February 1793 the widowed Beechey married at St George's, Hanover Square, Anne Phyllis Jessop [Anne Phyllis Beechey, Lady Beechey (1764–1833)], a miniature painter. Their children included Frederick Beechey, George Beechey, and Richard Brydges Beechey. She was born on 3 August 1764 at Thorpe near Norwich, the daughter of William Jessop of Bishopsgate, Norwich, and his wife, whose maiden name was Hart. She had a successful career as a miniature painter in Norwich, where she probably met Beechey during his residence there from 1782 to 1787. She exhibited five drawings at the Royal Academy in 1787 under her maiden name, given in the catalogue as Miss A. P. Jessup; she exhibited in 1795 and 1798 as Mrs Beechey, and in 1799, 1804, and 1805 as Lady Beechey. All her exhibits were portraits, including, in 1793, a self-portrait and a portrait of Mrs Wheatley (Clara Maria Pope (1767–1838)). Farington recorded that Lady Beechey ‘taught Mrs. Opie to draw’ (Farington, Diary, 3.1108). Lady Beechey died in Harley Street on 14 December 1833. The turning point in Beechey's life and career was his patronage by the royal family from about 1793. Spanning the decades when Hoppner and Lawrence were enjoying critical and commercial success, each painting portraits of socialites, aristocracy, and whig and tory politicians, Beechey's straightforward and superficially decorative style appealed to the unadventurous taste of George III and his queen. Beechey came to royal attention when a portrait of a nobleman who cannot now be identified was rejected by the Royal Academy exhibition hanging committee. The incensed sitter sent the portrait to be inspected by the king, and while the work was not reinstated to the exhibition, the royal family became in consequence attracted to the artist's work and began a generation of patronage. Some sources attest to Beechey's painting a portrait of the queen in 1793, but because it was not exhibited at the academy until 1797 others have suggested that the portrait was made in 1796. Beechey was appointed portrait painter to the queen in 1793 and in November of that year he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy at the same time as his rival John Hoppner. In that year Beechey painted a full-length portrait of Sarah Siddons portrayed with the emblems of tragedy (NPG) for exhibition in 1794. The picture was not well received; unlike Reynolds's portrait Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784), Beechey's is neither conventional portrait nor wholly allegory. Pasquin wrote of it that ‘it conveys the semblance of a gypsey in sattin, disporting at a masquerade, rather than the murder-loving Melpomene’ (Roberts, 45). Beechey exhibited prodigiously over the next few years but despite his title as portrait painter to the queen he did not exhibit portraits of the royal family until 1797. A reviewer in the Monthly Mirror (May 1796) surveyed Beechey's reputation, and accurately described his work:
Beechey has fewer eccentricities than his competitors—for he never distorts his figures for the sake of extravagant attitude—he is less fantastic in his design and less exuberant in manner, in short, he has more nature than [Hoppner and Lawrence]. … Beechey, who is more fixed and determinate, both in his colouring and outline, studies only to be chaste.

At the same time Pasquin used the term ‘delicate’ to describe Beechey's work, and it is precisely this lack of extravagance, and his delicacy and chastity in colour, composition, and finishing (even in his portraits of military officers) that give Beechey his distinct style and that caused him to appeal to a slice of British society for which the flamboyance of Hoppner and Lawrence was considered ‘eccentricity’. It was this ‘nature’ in Beechey's work that made him attractive to the king, who in 1795 opined that Beechey was ‘first’ in the Royal Academy exhibition that year (Farington, Diary, 2.339) and expressed favourable opinions on Beechey's works into the nineteenth century. The king's opinion of Beechey's work was such that Joseph Farington recorded gossip in 1796 ‘that a Mandate will come from the King requiring the Academy to make Beechy an Academician’ (ibid., 2.552) and in 1797 that ‘the King says Beechy was not elected an Academician because he is the best painter’ (Farington's emphasis; ibid., 3.884) . Beechey was eventually elected Royal Academician in February 1798, and received his diploma in November. At the exhibition that year Beechey had been commanded by the king to exhibit what many regard as his masterpiece, the 14 feet by 17 His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons (destroyed during the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992). The commission came after Beechey showed the king a sketch of a scene he had drawn in Hyde Park of the king reviewing the household troops. Beechey worked feverishly to finish the painting in time for the exhibition, even receiving an extension to the deadline for submission. It was given a place of honour over the fireplace in the Great Room at Somerset House, and resulted in a knighthood for the artist on 9 May 1798, ‘at the express intimation of the Queen’ (Monthly Mirror, May 1798, 282), the first knighthood given to an artist since Reynolds and the cause of some astonishment among Beechey's fellow artists.

Beechey was a conscientious courtier. However, the state of the mind of the monarch for whom he worked, combined with his own public pride at his unusual honours, made him the object of much attention from royalty and fellow artists alike. While the king's appreciation of Beechey's work is evident, it is unclear whether he was knowingly perplexing the artist with his art criticism or whether the royal comments were the result of his affliction. At one point the king remarked on Beechey's ‘red and yellow trees’ (Roberts, 63), a criticism he also levelled at John Hoppner. In 1806, when Beechey was supporting an unpopular but pro-royalist faction in Royal Academy politics, the king decided that the artist did not understand colouring and wanted no further pictures from him. In June that year the king discovered that Beechey had painted—for half price—a copy of his portrait for the impoverished bishop of Chester, and in a passionate outburst and advancing towards him said, ‘West is an American, and Copley is an American, and you are an Englishman, and were you all at the Devil I should not care’ (Farington, Diary, 17 June 1806; 7.2786). Beechey was so mortified at the episode that he fled from the royal presence into the nearest open room—a maid of honour's apartment—and fainted. These stories were repeated gleefully at the Royal Academy and recorded by Joseph Farington in his diary.

There are, however, more occasions of royal pleasure at Beechey's work; at one point the king even contemplated a separate room for the artist's many royal portraits. Beechey's familiarity with the king and the royal family, combined with his honours and his own idiosyncratic personality, made him an obvious target. In 1800 Farington had noted that Beechey gossiped about the royal family's opinions about art and artists, and in 1817 the elderly John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury (known particularly for his fine manners), related to John Constable how Beechey ‘took freedoms’ with the royal family, ‘which were laughed at [at] the time, but were remembered with disgust’ (Farington, Diary, 5 July 1817; 14.5047).

Beechey's obituary in The Times stated that the ‘leading features in [his] character were a genuine simplicity in mind and manner, united with a frankness and cheerful urbanity’ (Roberts, 14). This frankness may have led Lord Lyttelton to remark to Farington that he hesitated to invite Beechey to social events because he heard that he swore.

[H]e was of the old school, who did not abstain from the thoughtless use of unmeaning oaths. Calling on Constable, the landscape painter, he addressed him, ‘Why, d—n it, Constable, what a d—d fine picture you are making; but you look d—d ill, and have got a d—d bad cold’. (Redgrave and Redgrave, 341)

It is said that in his later years he complained of the increasing sobriety and decreasing conviviality of both artists and patrons of art:
At one of the annual dinners of the Academy he remarked that it was confoundedly slow to what was the wont in his younger days, when the company did not separate until a duke and a painter were both put under the table from the effects of the bottle. (ibid.)
Despite his ‘somewhat warm’ temperament, his obituarist related that ‘his disposition was very cheerful all through life’ (GM, 433). That cheerfulness manifested itself on one occasion when Beechey was painting the portrait of Princess Augusta. She told the artist Henry Edridge ‘that while Beechey was painting Her portrait when He thought He had succeeded He would dance about the room’ (Farington, Diary, 6 July 1809; 10.3508). His personality was distinct enough for Farington to record that the actor Charles Bannister entertained others with a Beechey imitation. Beechey was a liberal entertainer of colleagues and a mentor to a variety of younger artists, most notably John Constable.

Later career and death

Beechey exhibited at the Royal Academy annually from 1785 to 1805 and from 1807 to 1838 (and again, posthumously, in 1839). That he did not exhibit at the academy in 1806 was possibly the result of rancorous politics there (a number of other artists, including the president, Benjamin West, did not exhibit) and the establishment of the British Institution, at which Beechey exhibited landscapes and subject pictures from 1806 to 1808, and with some regularity from 1810 to 1831. Beechey's portrait style changed little as the nineteenth century progressed. From the mid-1790s and well into the first decade of the 1800s he was consistently regarded as highly as Hoppner and Lawrence, depending on who was making the comparison (although Lawrence's personal problems affected his work during those years). However, the opinion of Beechey that has dogged the artist's reputation for generations is, paradoxically, most apt for explaining precisely why he was so popular. In 1795 John Opie believed that Beechey's pictures were of that mediocre quality as to taste & fashion, that they seemed only fit for sea Captains & merchants: whereas Lawrence & Hoppner had each of them a portion as it were of gentility in their manners of painting. (Farington, Diary, 1.289–90)

This quality, mediocre or otherwise, was precisely what the vast number of sea captains, merchants, and their wives wanted, and led to countless commissions. His work at the turn of the century is perhaps his most successful, with inventive poses and cheerful interaction in group portraits. As his career progressed after 1810 his portraits became more formulaic although no less popular. He painted the occasional royal portrait, by 1814 was named portrait painter to the duke and duchess of Gloucester, and during the reign of William IV was described as principal portrait painter to the king. That he was extremely successful is reflected not only by the number of portraits he exhibited, but is also documented in his account books from 1807 to 1826, now in the Royal Academy library. On leaving his home in Harley Street in 1836 Beechey sent unsold works for auction on 9 and 10 June at Christies and Mansons together with his collection of old-master paintings, books, and prints. He died on 28 January 1839.

Posthumous reputation

Beechey's unparalleled royal patronage is the basis for his posthumous reputation. The seeming paradox of that patronage combined with Opie's opinion that his work was mediocre and fit only for merchants and sea captains has influenced most subsequent writers on his work. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Beechey's work was frequently mis-attributed to other more marketable artists, and later in the twentieth century his name was attached to countless works of serviceable quality by unknown artists. Ironically, perhaps the most attention he received after his death was the result of the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 which destroyed his monumental painting His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons. This even prompted a mention (although not by name) in Private Eye.

The present painting shows Beechey in relatively light-hearted, almost sentimental mode, and is one of a small group of portraits of children which the artist painted around 1790. The best-known of these is Beechey's exhibit for the RA 1793 (no. 82) of Sir Francis Ford's children, which is now in the Tate Gallery:

 

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