Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Astley, John (1730?-1787)

ASTLEY, JOHN (1730?–1787), portrait painter, was born at Wem in Shropshire, was sent to London and placed under the portrait painter, Hudson. Leaving him, perhaps in 1749, he visited Rome, where he was the companion of Reynolds (from whose accounts a little later it appears that Astley was indebted to him in the sum of 12l. 15s. 6d.), of Richard Wilson and other well-known English artists. James Northcote is the author of the story that at Rome Astley was so poor that he was forced to patch the back of his waistcoat with a canvas of his own painting which represented a magnificent waterfall. Returning from Rome, probably with Reynolds, he secured the patronage and high favour of Horace Walpole. In 1759 he left London for Dublin, and in three years of portrait-painting made a large sum of money. Painting his way back to London, he revisited his birth-place, and met, in that neighbourhood, a rich widow. Lady Duckenfield Daniell, whom he married. This lady and her daughter died shortly after the marriage, and Astley, who was now a wealthy man, married a second time. He bought Schomberg House in Pall Mall (afterwards Gainsborough's), and fantastically re-arranged it for his convenience. 'He was a gasconading spendthrift, and a beau of the flashiest order. When the Dublin ladies sat to him, he is said, by way of flourish, to have used his sword as a maulstick.' He had slight gift as a painter, and little merit as a man, but his good fortune never failed him. He had wasted much money in speculation, when the accidental death of a brother put 10,000l. in his pocket. Quite late in life he married his third wife : it is recorded that at this time he experienced a strange moral quickening and reflected with gravity on the past. He left a son and two daughters. Leslie enumerates Astley, 'a clever, conceited, out-at-elbows, and reckless fellow,'amongst the forgotten artists who were Sir Joshua's companions in youth. His best works, according to one writer, were copies from Italian pictures.

[Edwards's Anecdotes of Painters, where Michael Adams's 'Biographical History' (Hogg, Paternoster Row) is referred to as the ultimate source of information about Astley ; Leslie's Life of Reynolds ; Northcote's Life of Reynolds ; Redgrave's Dictionary ; Nagler, 2nd ed.]

E. R.