Opie, John (DNB00)
OPIE, JOHN (1761–1807), portrait and history painter, was born at St. Agnes, about seven miles from Truro, Cornwall, in May 1761. His mother's maiden name was Tonkin, and he was descended on both sides from old Cornish families, but his father and his grandfather were carpenters. Though educated only at the village school, he made such progress, especially in arithmetic and Euclid, that at ten years old he began to instruct others, and at the age of twelve set up an evening school for poor children. In his mathematical bent he was encouraged by a maternal uncle, John Tonkin, who called him ‘the young Sir Isaac.’ But his tendency to art was stronger still, and prevailed in spite of the objections of his father, who wished him to follow his own trade of carpentering. His mother, as is usual, was on his side; and some copies of pictures which he made from memory, and a portrait he drew one Sunday morning of his father in a rage (he is said to have irritated him on purpose to catch the expression), probably helped to turn the scale in his favour. He soon got employment as a travelling portrait-painter, and when about fifteen attracted the attention of Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) [q. v.], who was then attempting to establish himself at Truro. On one of his expeditions he went to Padstow, and at Place House, Pawston, the seat of the Prideaux family, he painted the whole household, down to the dogs and the cats (for an account of these pictures and others by Opie in Cornwall, see letter on the ‘Antiquity of the Family of Opie,’ Mag. of Fine Arts, iii. 210, &c.) From Padstow he brought twenty guineas, which he gave his mother, and said that in future he should maintain himself. Other patrons were Sir John St. Aubin and Lord Bateman, who employed him in painting old men, beggars, &c., and Opie painted his own portrait for Lord Bateman in 1777. He had a number of Cornish sitters between 1776 and 1778, and he painted the notorious Dolly Pentreath [see Jeffery, Dorothy] shortly before her death on 27 Dec. 1777. Of this portrait Opie made an etching, the only one by his hand.
It was, however, Dr. Wolcot who exerted the chief influence upon him. Conflicting stories are told of the early relations between the two, but there is no doubt that the doctor detected his talent, provided him with materials, instructed him in their use, lent him pictures and drawings to copy, and took him into his house. Soon there was a demand for portraits by Wolcot's protégé, and the doctor made the youth raise his price to half a guinea a head. At length it occurred to Wolcot that he might improve his own prospects, and Opie's also, by moving from Truro, and in 1779 he went to Helston, and practised there or at Falmouth for the next two years. He appears also to have stayed awhile in Exeter, and at the end of 1780 the two settled in London. The doctor, who claimed to have 'lost an income of 800l. to 400l. a year by the change of scene, entered into a written agreement, by which it was agreed the two should share the joint profits in equal divisions.' The plan lasted for a year, 'but at the end (Wolcot writes) of that time my pupil told me I might return to the country, as he could now do for himself.' Though their relations were never so cordial after this, their intercourse was maintained for many years, and Opie contrihuted the life of Reynolds to Dr. Wolcot's edition of Pilkington's 'Dictionary,' which appeared in 1798. It was not till Opie*s second marriage that their estrangement was complete; Mrs. (Amelia) Opie thoroughly disliked the doctor. Yet Wolcot never attacked Opie in print, though he is said to have complained privately of his ingratitude; and all that Opie is reported to have said when any one spoke of the doctor is: 'Ay, in time you will know him.'
Wolcot, in working for his 'partner,' was no doubt working for himself also, but his services to Opie were inestimable. He noised his genius abroad, and on the young artist's arrival in London in 1781 he introduced him to artists and patrons, and showed about his pictures. The doctor had earned the gratitude of Mrs. Boscawen, widow of Admiral Boscawen [see Boscawen, Edward], by some verses he he had written on the death of her son, and he made use of her interest to introduce Opie to the court. This happened before March 1782, and George III bought one of Opie's pictures, and gave him a commission for a portrait of Mrs. Delaney (now at Hampton Court). He also received commissions to paint the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Lady Salisbury, Lady Charlotte Talbot, Lady Harcourt, and other ladies of the court. During the spring of 1782 Opie's lodgings at Mr. Riccard's, Orange Court, Castle Street, Leicester Fields, were crowded with rank and fashion every day, and the 'Cornish wonder' was the talk of the town.
Sir Joshua Reynolds gave Opie advice and encouragement, and was surprised at the natural power shown in his paintings of a 'Jew' and a 'Cornish Beggar.' When Northcote returned from abroad in the summer of 1780, Reynolds said to him: 'Ah! my dear sir, you may go back; there is a wondrous Cornishman who is carrying all before him.' 'What is he like?' said Northote, eagerly. 'Like? Why, like Caravaggio and Velasquez in one.'
In 1780 a picture of him was exhibited in London at the Incorporated Society of Artists. This work is described in the catalogue as 'Master Oppey, Penryn; a Boy's Head, an Instance of Genius, not Inning seen a picture.' As Mr. Claude Phillips, in his article on Opie in the 'Gazette des Beaux-Arts' (1892, p. 299), has pointed out, this Master Oppey is clearly the same as John Opie, the future academician. In Redgrave's 'Dictionary' he is treated as a different person, and the place and date of his death are given as Marylebone, 26 Nov. 1785. The confusion is probably due to the 'Gentleman's Magazine' (1785, pt. ii. 1008), which contains an entry of the death of John Opie at that place and date; but it is plain from the context that the person erroneously supposed to be dead is none other than Dr. Wolcot's protégé, the one and only 'Cornish wonder.'
In 1782 Opie began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending 'An Old Man's Head' and 'An Old Woman,' and three others, none of which are now traceable. In 1783 he exhibited 'Age and Infancy' and 'A Boy and Girl,' with three portraits, one of which has been identified as that of William Jackson of Exeter, the organist and composer. Dr. Wolcot, in his 'Lyric Odes,' 1782, introduced a sonnet to Jackson, with these lines referring to the painter:
Speak, Muse. Who formed that matchless head?
The Cornish boy, in tin-mines bred,
Whose native genius, like her diamonds, shone
In secret, till chance gave them to the sun.
Opie's first cares in his new prosperity were to surround his mother with comfort, and to provide himself with a wife. On 4 Dec. 1782 he married Mary Bunn at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. She was a daughter of Benjamin Bunn of St. Botolph's, Aldgate, who combined the business of a solicitor with that of a money-lender. The match was unhappy. In 1795 the lady eloped with one John Edwards, and in the following year Opie obtained a divorce. Meanwhile his sudden popularity waned. But he had not allowed his sudden elevation to turn his head, and, realising that his popularity was due to unusual circumstances, he was not surprised when the reaction came and his studio was deserted by the fashionable crowd. He merely increased his exertions to supply those defects in his art of which no one was more conscious than himself, and also to improve his education by the study of French and Latin, and by assiduous reading of English literature. He had confidence in his natural gifts, and though conscious that his manners were rough and unpolished, and that his education was defective, he did not on this account shun the companionship of others better equipped than himself. Moreover, though the fashionable world ceased to throng his studio, he had still plenty of employment as a portrait-painter, and his reputation in the profession increased. In 1786 he sent seven pictures to the academy, including five portraits and two subject-pictures, 'A Sleeping Nymph—Cupid stealing a Kiss' and James I of Scotland assassinated by Graham at the instigation of his Uncle, the Duke of Athol.' In 1787 he sent 'The Assassination of David Rizzio,' which produced a powerful impression, with the result that Opie was elected an associate, and in the following spring a full member, of the Royal Academy. The two pictures of assassinations were purchased by Alderman Boydell, and were presented by him to the city of London. They are now hung in the City Gallery at Guildhall.
For the next seven years he only exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy, but he was largely employed in painting pictures for the important illustrated works of the day. For Boydell's 'Shakespeare' (1786-9) he painted 'Arthur supplicating Hubert,' 'Juliet on her Bed surrounded by the Capulets,' 'Antigonus sworn to destroy Perdita,' and four others. He also painted three pictures for Macklin's 'Poets,' four for Macklin's Bible, and eleven for Robert Bowyer's edition of Hume's 'History of England.' Of these works the most celebrated were 'Jephtha's Vow' (1793), 'The Presentation in the Temple' (1791), 'Mary of Modena quitting England' (now in the town-hall at JDevonport), and 'Elizabeth Grey petitioning Edward IV,' painted in 1798.
Meanwhile he had married again, and this time his choice was very fortunate. It was at an evening party at Norwich that he first met Amelia Alderson, the daughter of a doctor of that town, and cousin of Baron Alderson [see Opie, Amelia, and Alderson, Sir Edward Hall]. He fell in love at first sight. They were married at Marylebone Church on 8 May 1798, and lived till his death at 8 Berners Street, whither he had moved in 1791. They were thoroughly suited to each other; she appreciated his genius and character. A grace was afterwards observed in his works, especially his female portraits, which they had lacked before. At first fortune did not seem to favour them, and there was a short period at the end of 1801 and the beginning of 1802 when he was wholly without employment; Mrs. Opie considered these 'three alarming months' as the severest trial in her married life. Then a 'torrent of business' came, and never ceased to flow till the day of his death.
In 1800 Opie addressed a letter to the editor of the 'True Briton' on the proposal for erecting a public memorial of the naval glory of Great Britain; and in 1802 Opie and his wife went to Paris and saw the wonderful collection of pictures which Napoleon had looted from all the galleries of Europe. In 1805 he was elected professor of painting to the Royal Academy. He had been a candidate for the appointment in 1799, when Barry was elected, but withdrew in favour of Fuseli. Opie refused to avail himself of the grace of three years allowed to the professor for the preparation of his lectures, and commenced their delivery in February 1807. He had previously delivered some lectures on art at the Royal Institution, which had been well received in spite of some want of method and abruptness. He now threw his whole mind into his task, and embodied the result of years of sincere thought in four lectures on (1) design, (2) invention, (3) chiaro scuro, and (4) colouring. With the exception of those of Sir Joshua Reynolds, no series of lectures emanating from the Royal Academy are better worth reading. Their views are original and just, and they contain much excellent criticism in language which is clear and vigorous. They are permanent contributions to critical literature.
The anxiety and labour spent in the composition of these lectures are supposed to nave hastened his death. He was busily engaged at the same time on his paintings, and 'laboured so intently the latter end of 1806 and the beginning of 1807 that he allowed his mind no rest, hardly indulging in the relaxation of a walk.' A disease of the spinal marrow, affecting his brain, ensued, and he strove in vain to finish his works for the academy exhibition. His pupil, Henry Thomson [q. v.] (afterwards R.A.), volunteered to work on one of them—a portrait of the Duke of Gloucester—and Opie was able in one of his lucid intervals to give a direction, and to express satisfaction when it was carried out.
He died on 9 April 1807, and was buried, with some pomp, in St. Paul's Cathedral.
In the National Portrait Gallery are portraits by Opie of himself, Bartolozzi, and Thomas Holcroft. Another portrait of Opie by himself is in the Dulwich Gallery. In the National Gallery are portraits of William Siddons, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and the 'Head of a Young Man.' A picture of 'Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus' is in the Manchester Gallery, on loan from the National Gallery. In the diploma gallery of the Royal Academy is his 'Old Man and Child,' and at the Garrick Club a group from 'The Gamester,' with Stukeley and other actors. At the Brompton Consumption Hospital are some works by Opie bequeathed by Miss Read in 1871. Among the great men of the day Opie painted Dr. Johnson (for whom he had a profound admiration) three times, Bartolozzi, John Bannister, Munden, and Betty (the young Roscius), Fox and Burke, John Crome and Northcote, Fuseli and Girtin, Southey, Dr. Parr, Mrs. Inchbald, and Mrs. Shelley. Altogether he executed 508 portraits (counting each head in family groups), all of which, with a very few exceptions, were in oil. Others of his pictures numbered 252.
The notes of Opie's character, both as an artist and a man, were originality, manliness, and sincerity. A carpenter's son in a remote village, without any regular instruction in art and without opportunity to study the works of great artists, he, at the age of nineteen, produced pictures which aroused the admiration and envy of the most distinguished artists in the country; at the age of twenty-five he had achieved the highest honours of his profession, and he fully sustained his reputation till his death. The merits of his work, in some respects, are perhaps even more perceptible now than when he painted. The unusual largeness of his manner, the contempt for small attractiveness of any kind, the freedom and force of his execution, the noble gravity of his feeling, distinguish his pictures from those of all his contemporaries, in a manner more favourable to their appreciation than in days when the public were accustomed to the polished grace and vivacity of Reynolds and Gainsborough, Hoppner and Lawrence. The reputation of Opie, which has risen considerably of recent years, was greatly increased by the reappearance of his fine picture of ‘The School’ (an early work engraved by Valentine Green in 1785), which was lent by Lord Wantage to the collection of English pictures (1737–1837) at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888. Its rich but sombre colour, its fine chiaroscuro, the grave feeling in the heads, suggested at least affinity with the unimaginative side of Rembrandt. It is to this class of art that Opie belongs, the class of serious realism and strength of light and shade. His realism was not only serious but intellectual, for he painted with his brains as well as his brush. Authentic testimonies to his mental endowments, his talent for repartee, the weight and pith of his observations, are numerous. His memory was extraordinary. He knew Shakespeare, Milton, and many other poets ‘almost by heart.’ Horne Tooke said: ‘Mr. Opie crowds more wisdom into a few words than almost any man I ever knew; he speaks, as it were, in axioms, and what he observes is worthy to be remembered.’ Sir James Macintosh remarked that, ‘had Mr. Opie turned his mind to the study of philosophy, he would have been one of the first philosophers of the age.’ More convincing still is the testimony of Opie's caustic rival, Northcote, who never allowed his jealousy to interfere with his admiration of the wonderful Cornishman. But even from his devoted wife's testimony it is evident that he never overcame entirely the roughness of his manners. His very candid friend, Mrs. Inchbald, wrote after his death: ‘The total absence of artificial manners was the most remarkable characteristic, and at the same time the adornment and deformity, of Mr. Opie.’
[Redgrave's Dict. of English Artists; Redgraves' Century of Painters; Bryan's Dict. (Graves and Armstrong); Royal Academy Catalogues; Northcote's Life of Reynolds; Knowles's Life of Fuseli; Taylor and Leslie's Life of Reynolds; Leslie's Handbook to Young Painters; Nollekens and his Times; Pilkington's Dict.; Seguier's Dict. of Painters; Polwhele's Biographical Sketches; John Taylor's (author of ‘Monsieur Tonson’) Records of my Life; Memoirs of Thomas Holcroft; Redding's Personal Reminiscences; Cunningham's Lives of Painters (Heaton); Cunningham's Lives of Eminent Englishmen; Lectures on Painting by the late John Opie, with Memoir by Mrs. Opie, and other accounts of Mr. Opie's Talents and Character; Opie and his Works, by John Jope Rogers (1878); Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, vol. ii. and Supplement. A very full list of authorities will be found in the two works last named.]