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Francis Wheatley RA 1747-1801
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Francis Wheatley RA 1747-1801

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A view of Glen Molaur in County Kilkenny with figures resting by a stream

 

Oil painting on canvas size 8 ½ x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm in a giltwood period frame

 

Provenance: ……….Sir Hugh Sealy, Bart, Brook House, Isle of Wight. His sale, Christies 16th May 1930 (lot 57) as “Potter” (= Paulus Potter (!)) “A river scene with cattle on the bank and figures bathing"

 

Literature: William Roberts “Francis Wheatley: his life and works, with a catalogue of his engraved pictures”, London 1910, page 49
Mary Webster “Francis Wheatley” (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art / Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) page 162

 

Engraved: Thomas Milton “Select views from the seats of the nobility and gentry in the Kingdom of Ireland” (1793) plate XVI, engraved and dedicated to Samuel Hayes.

 

Francis Wheatley was born in London in 1747, and died in the same city in 1801. He was initially self-taught, but was subsequently trained at Shipley’s Academy; he won Prizes for drawing at the Society of Artists in 1762-3, and was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools aged 22 in 1769. He worked as an assistant to the Royal Academist John Hamilton Mortimer in painting the Saloon ceiling at Brocket Hall in 1771-1773, and always acknowledged the profound debt he owed to his distinguished teacher. He exhibited pictures himself at the Society of Artists from 1765-1777, and was made a Director thereof in 1783. From 1778 onwards he exhibited regularly at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, being made as Associate (ARA) in 1790 and a full member (RA) the following year.

Wheatley seems to have been incompetent with money, and was frequently in debt, despite numerous commissions. He moved from London to Dublin to escape his debtors (and a cuckolded irate husband: he was accompanied by) from 1779 to 1783, and painted numerous highly accomplished paintings whilst there. His masterpiece of these years is the remarkable The Irish House of Commons, 1780, now in the City Art Gallery, Leeds, which depicts a vast series of faithful portraits of all the Members of Parliament in Dublin. Wheatley was at the height of his powers during his years in Ireland, and the types of painting he undertook were numerous.

The present picture is one of a series of delightful and fresh topographical landscapes which were later engraved by Thomas Milton for his book of Irish views (see above); another example, from the collection of the Knight of Glin, was recently sold at Christies (7th May 2009: see below).

Wheatley was a versatile painter, executing straightforward portraits, conversation pieces, domestic and sentimental genre paintings and theatrical illustrations. He seems to have taken a particular interest in the depiction of rural life from the 1780’s onwards, and executed such pictures as “The Industrious Cottager”; “The return from Market”; “The return from Shooting”; “Haymaking: a view near a wood”; “The Harvest Home”; “A Harvest Dinner” and “Evening, a Farmyard”.

In about 1793 the artist began to suffer from a debilitating attack of gout, which ultimately rendered him a cripple, virtually unable to hold a paint brush. The last few years of his life saw a distressing descent into poverty, though he was frequently helped by his fellow Royal Academicians. The onset of tladies”. (Obituary, Gentleman’s Magazine 1801, p.857). All his contemporaries agreed, though, that his “habits of expense became too unbounded for his means” (Gandon, Life 1846, pp.207)

“Wheatley’s life is strictly that of a hard working professional artist……….” (Webster, p.113). “He was a handsome man, of elegant manners, and generally a favourite in genteel company. He understood his art, and spoke with taste and precision on every branch of it” (A Chalmers, Biographical Dictionary, 1817). He was “A very personable man, fond of dress, and polite in his manners, which makes him a great favourite with thehe Napoleonic Wars, and the consequent collapse in demand for art, added to his financial problems, and he was ultimately forced into the Debtors’ Prison of The King’s Bench. By the time of his death at the age of 54, he was an emaciated and wasted figure, incapable of caring for his wife and family of four children. His widow was granted a pension by the Academists until her own demise.

He was “A very personable man, fond of dress, and polite in his manners, which makes him a great favourite with the ladies”. (Obituary, Gentleman’s Magazine 1801, p.857). All his contemporaries agreed, though, that his “habits of expense became too unbounded for his means” (Gandon, Life 1846, pp.207)

Wheatley at his best shows a remarkably fluidity and freedom of expression in his oil paintings, though his drawings are much more tightly controlled. Along with George Morland, he is the most accomplished English painter of the Rural Scene of his date; his range, though, is much wider than that of Morland, and some of his conversation pieces, for instance, rank with those of his friend and fellow-academist Johann Zoffany.


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