The artist I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today is the English portrait painter, Sir William Beechey. William Beechey was born in Burford Oxfordshire in 1753. He was the eldest of five children of William Beechey and Hannah Read who both came from Dublin. Young William Beechey was not brought up by his mother and father but by his uncle Samuel Beechey who was a lawyer and it was his intention to have William study law and made arrangements for him to be articled to a solicitor in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold and later in London. Whilst in London training to become a lawyer William made friends with some students from the Royal Academy Schools. In 1772, despite the displeasure of his uncle, William managed to gain a release from the solicitor’s articles and achieved admission to the Royal Academy schools.
Some historical records of his life state that at around this time William Beechey married Mary Ann Jones and the couple went on to have three daughters and two sons, one of whom was his son, Henry William Beechey who became an explorer and artist. William Beechey first put forward paintings for inclusion at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1776 and continued to submit works to their annual exhibitions for the next seven years. At this time, most of his work consisted of what was then termed as “small portraiture”.
In 1772 he left London and moved to Norfolk, living in Norwich and for a short time, Great Yarmouth. This move out of the capital city would appear to have been a strange one for London was an ideal place to sell his work but the author, William Roberts explained the reason for going to Norwich in his 1907 biography of the artist, entitled Sir William Beechey R.A.
“…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…”
He was still submitting and having his works of art accepted by the Royal Academy for their exhibitions but they received little mention. However in 1788 he submitted two framed works which incorporated fifteen smaller portraits. The Royal Academy jury, who decided on which paintings would be allowed to be exhibited at the Exhibition, rejected his two submissions because the R.A. rules stipulated that all paintings must be framed separately. An art dealer Benjamin Vandergucht took the two works and exhibited them in his own gallery. The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” kicked in as the press heard about the R.A. rejection of Beechey’s works and wrote the story of the R.A.’s rebuff. Beechey had managed to obtain free and excellent publicity for his art work.
Beechey had returned to live in London. A number of his contemporary portraitist had died, such as Gainsborough or ceased painting, such as Joshua Reynolds and so there was a great demand for his portraiture. It was at about this time that Beechey moved away from miniature portraiture and started to concentrate on life-sized portraits. His first wife, Mary died in 1793 and that same year he remarried. His second wife was a miniature painter, Anne Phyllis Jessop, a lady some eleven years his junior. The couple went on to have eighteen children! The final breakthrough for Beechey in his artistic career was receiving royal patronage which came in 1793. King George III and his wife loved Beechey’s portraiture style. In a round-about way, Beechey had the Royal Academy to thank for this for they rejected another of his works, a portrait of a courtier. The nobleman was so incensed when he heard that his portrait was not to appear at the R.A. Exhibition that he took the painting and showed it to the king and queen. They thought it was a magnificent work of art and a generation of royal patronage began and Beechey was made the queen’s portrait painter. One will never know fully how this influenced the Royal Academy but by a strange coincidence the R.A. elected Beechey as an Associate of the Royal Academy that same year. This was also the year that the R.A. conferred the same honour to his portraitist rival John Hoppner.
An art critic of the Monthly Mirror journal wrote about William Beechey’s work and that of his rivals of the time, John Hopper and Thomas Lawrence:
“…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…”
Beechey’s work was often described as being delicate and lacking extravagance and it was these very qualities that appealed to his patrons and clients who disliked the ostentation and flamboyance of his two main rivals. It was also these virtues of Beechey that appealed to King George. King George was vociferous in his praise of Beechey, much to the chagrin of John Hoppner. William Beechey was elected as an Academician of the Royal Academy in 1798 and in that same year, on King George’s specific instructions, he exhibited his great and mammoth masterpiece, measuring 14ft x 17 feet, entitled His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons in which he depicted King George reviewing his household troops. Sadly this beautiful work of art was destroyed during the 1992 fire in Windsor Castle. The king was so delighted with the work that in May 1798 he conferred a knighthood on Beechey. The knighthood was the first such honour to go to an artist since Joshua Reynolds was knighted back in 1769. Sir William Beechey’s artistic rivals were astounded by this royal award! Beechey remained a favourite of King George III.
Sir William Beechey continued to exhibit work at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions until his death in January1839, aged 85.
The featured painting fo My Daily Art Display today is by Sir William Beechey and is entitled Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy, which he completed around 1793 and is housed at the Tate Britain in London. The beggar in the painting is not depicted as a dirty and scruffy sad-looking urchin as we have seen in works such as The Beggar Boy by Murillo (My Daily Art Display, January 25th 2011) as this would have upset the sensibilities of the Victorian public. There were many portraits of beggars during the late 18th century, most of which could almost be considered as being “prettified” versions of reality. Such pictures would be more likely to home in on, not the pathetic state of the begging child, but of the kindness of the charity givers. So is this just another one of these charitable depictions. Well actually I am not so sure but then maybe I am just a cynic. Why?
We have to suppose that when a patron approaches an artist to paint a picture, they know what sort of painting they want. They know not only who or what is to be depicted but they will make the decision as to how something or someone is to be portrayed. They will know whether there is to be a certain reasoning behind the depiction other than what is visible at a first glance to the casual observer. By now you must be used to looking at the paintings I have featured and together we have delved into the interpretations and symbolism of the works. So now let us look a little closer at what William Beechey has painted and try and work out if there was a reason for such a portrayal.
The first thing to consider is who had commissioned the painting. The client was Sir Francis Ford. Ford was the heir of a Barbados planter of the third generation. His family originally came from Devon. In 1793, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the day he was elected he was given a baronetcy. He was now a member of William Pitt’s administration but was in favour of procrastination as far as the abolition of the slave trade was concerned. He disagreed with the government over the slave trade question and did not seek re-election as an MP.
Besides being a politician he was a plantation owner with estates in Barbados and the Dutch colony of Essequibo. Being a plantation owner he needed labour to work his estates and thus was a great advocate of slavery. However in England in 1793, at the time of this painting, there was the start of a movement against slavery and a steady outcry with regards the terrible conditions of the plantation slaves, although it would be another forty years before slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
In the painting we see portraits of Thomas Ford’s son and daughter giving a coin to a beggar boy. Could it be that Sir Francis Ford wanted to remind the people of Victorian England that there were beggars in their own country, who were in desperate need of food and lived in unacceptable conditions, and that the English public should show more concern about the fate of their own “home-grown” poor rather than worry about the living and working conditions of the plantation slaves in some far-off distant lands. Could Sir Francis Ford be stating in a roundabout way that “only those without guilt have the right to cast the first stone”! Was Thomas Ford using the artistic talents of Beechey as that of a spin doctor?
Sir Thomas Ford died in Barbados in 1801.