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1798 An Upturn in the Career of William Beechey

When fire raged through Windsor Castle in 1992, one of the casualties was a huge painting on display in the State Dining Room, its proportions such that rescue from the flames was impossible.1 This was William Beechey’s His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons, commissioned by George III (Fig. 1). It showed the king inspecting a mock combat exercise taking place in Hyde Park during the French Revolutionary Wars, accompanied by his two eldest sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, at a time of intense invasion scares. Beechey’s painting had dominated the Royal Academy exhibition of 1798, both literally and metaphorically.2 Its sheer scale had inevitably been the first thing to strike the critics, but they had largely agreed that its substantial proportions were matched by pictorial success: “the largest Picture in the room, and … perhaps most conspicuous also in point of merit.”3 It had also been shown in a prime position at Somerset House, over the fireplace in the Great Room.4

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The year 1798 was crucial in William Beechey’s career, which, it is fair to say, had progressed only steadily to that point.5 Largely overshadowed by his competitors, especially John Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence, the catalyst for this notable improvement in his fortunes was the approval and subsequent patronage of the royal family, beginning in 1793 with his appointment as portrait painter to Queen Charlotte. Beechey had been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in November of that year, at the same time as Hoppner, but he was not to achieve full membership until considerably later than his rival. In early 1798, he was up for election as an Academician against John Flaxman and Henry Tresham, and Joseph Farington filled his diary with the gossip:

Beechey calld … [James] Northcote told him He shd. vote for a more proper person than either him or Tresham—supposed Flaxman—but wd. prefer him to Tresham—[Thomas] Lawrence told him shd. vote for Flaxman but Him before Tresham.’6

Beechey, however, triumphed on 10 February, and his five works shown in the exhibition a few months later were duly accompanied by the title: “R.A. Elect.”7

Royal approval surely had a fair amount to do with Beechey’s election, and his painting of the Review had injected that approval with renewed enthusiasm. The work had apparently originated with an impromptu sketch that Beechey had made one day, when travelling through Hyde Park on his way from his cottage in Bayswater to his London town house on Great George Street. He had spied the king, together with his son, Frederick, Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and Generals David Dundas, Philip Goldsworthy, and Sir William Fawcett, reviewing the household troops:

The day was fine, and the exhibition so agreeable to the painter that he remained to witness the evolutions; and having made a sketch of the scene, with the portraits of the King and the Duke of York in the foreground, he took an early opportunity of showing it to his Majesty.

The king, impressed, commissioned the large oil version as a result.8 According to Farington, its exhibition at the Academy was at the king’s command, and its enviable position in the Great Room owed much to Beechey’s royal patron: the “King approves that situation”.9 Indeed, this royal backing probably also helped Beechey gain extra time to get his picture finished before the exhibition opened: it finally arrived only four days beforehand.10

With Britain alone in the war against Revolutionary France by this date, and invasion a very real threat, it is understandable that George III was keen publicly to project martial prowess, and to associate himself with the war effort.11 George is garbed in military uniform, seated high on his white stallion, Adonis. The dramatic lighting, swirling smoke and dynamic gesture of the Prince of Wales, raising his sabre in the air, suggest military leaders in the thick of battle. Indeed, the scene is notably reminiscent of Mather Brown’s Memorable Attack upon the French Camp on the Hills of Famars, published as a print in 1796, ultimately rooted in John Singleton Copley’s seminal Siege of Gibraltar (1791) (Fig. 2).12 The king is thus depicted as a comparable figure to the Duke of York or General Elliott in the midst of warfare—but this was a monarch, who had been seriously ill, approaching his sixtieth birthday, watching manoeuvres in a London park. The nature and setting of the combat on the left is notably ambiguous, with one critic remarking that: “the PRINCE seems to be commanding a squadron of horse in the clouds, where he is looking for them.”13

The Prince of Wales, no great military figure, is not mentioned in that first account of the scene encountered by Beechey. One apocryphal tale states that he was not initially included, but that his figure was only subsequently inserted at the prompting of his mother, to the horror of his father who demanded the painting be incinerated as a result (an order which was not carried out). However, even though the prince does not appear in preliminary sketches, there are sufficient conflicts between this account and records of George’s sittings to make it clear that this was a fanciful elaboration on the undoubtedly bad relationship between father and son.14 It is much more likely that the prince was deemed an appropriate addition to the original composition, included as colonel of both the depicted regiments. He here wears the uniform of Colonel of the Tenth Regiment of Light Dragoons, complete with his Tarleton cap which remains in the Royal Collection.15

Despite a few criticisms of the painting—primarily about the likeness of the Duke of York who, it was pointed out, appeared too old—Beechey’s painting was widely praised: “admirably composed”; “a very fine work”; “the work of a master, and will be so considered by posterity”.16 This praise in the press mingled with reports of a further triumph for Beechey in 1798, followed close on the heels of his election as a Royal Academician. On 9 May, while his painting of the Review remained on show at the Academy, Beechey received the high accolade of a knighthood: the first Royal Academician to have achieved that honour since Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1769.17 His career had fully taken off.

  1. “Painting Lost in Castle Fire Angered King George III with Am-Britain-Windsor”, AP News Archive, 24 November 1992, Accessed 1 May 2017. See Oliver Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (London; Phaidon, 1965), 6–7, no. 660. As well as the print by Ward, a number of copies exist, including one by Beechey’s son, George, ca. 1830, at the National Army Museum [1971-05-30-1].↩︎

  2. No. 178, His Majesty Reviewing the Third, or Prince of Wales’s Regiment  of Dragoon Guards, and the Tenth, or Prince of Wales’s Regiment of Light Dragoons, attended by HRH Prince of Wales, HRH Duke of York, Sir W. Fawcett, General and Adjutant-General, and Knt of the Bath, Lieutenant-General Dundas, Quarter-Master General, and Major-General Goldsworthy, His Majesty’s First Equerry.↩︎

  3. The True Briton, 24 April 1798. See also The Sun, 23 April 1798 and The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 24 April and 7 May 1798.↩︎

  4. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds), 16 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 3, 996, 1 April 1798.↩︎

  5. See William Roberts, Sir William Beechey (London: Duckworth and Co., 1907); and John Wilson, “Beechey, Sir William” (1753–1839), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/1949. Accessed 1 May 2017.↩︎

  6. Garlick et al. (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 3, 967, 13 January 1798. See also, for example, 978, 2 February 1798.↩︎

  7. As well as his painting of the review, Beechey showed three single female portraits (nos 169, 215, and 234) and a group portrait of the Wedderburn children (no. 221).↩︎

  8. Alaric Watts, The Cabinet of Modern Art, and Literary Souvenir (London: Whittaker and Co., 1836), 101. Millar suggested the sketch may be that in watercolour at the V&A [134–1890], see Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, 6.↩︎

  9. Garlick et al. (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 3, 996, 1 April 1798.↩︎

  10. Garlick et al. (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 3, 1000, 19 April 1798: “Beechys picture just come”; see also vol. 3, 997, 8 April 1798. Bell’s Weekly Messenger claimed that Beechey had said that the painting had been completed in two months, see 22 April 1798.↩︎

  11. The walls of the Academy exhibition that year were full of patriotic images, such as no. 17 by Stephen Rigaud,  Britannia, crowned by Victory, trampling under her feet the colours of France, Spain, and Holland, and waving the standard of Great Britain; a sketch for a medallion, and no. 182 by Richard Dodd, His Majesty’s frigates, the Indefatigable and Amazon, engaging Le Droits de l’Homme, a French 74-gun ship, on her return from an unsuccessful expedition to Ireland, 13th Jan. 1797.↩︎

  12. Daniel Orme after Mather Brown, The Memorable Attack upon the French Camp on the Hills of Famars near Valenciennes by the Hanoverian Corp de Garde & Combined Armies under the Command of His Royal Highness on the 23 May 1793, 1796, National Army Museum, London [1971-02-33-163].↩︎

  13. The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 7 May 1798.↩︎

  14. Roberts, Sir William Beechey, 62–63. See, for example, Garlick et al. (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 3, 981, 8 February 1798. Oliver Millar refutes the story given by Roberts in Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, 7. One sketch is in Sheffield [VIS.2297].↩︎

  15. RCIN 67185.↩︎

  16. The London Chronicle, 21 April 1798; The Sun, 23 April 1798; The Monthly Mirror, May 1798, 283. For criticisms of the Duke of York’s portrait, see The London Chronicle, 21 April 1798; The Whitehall Evening Post, 21 April 1798; The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 24 April 1798.↩︎

  17. See, for example, The St James’s Chronicle and The Whitehall Evening Post, both on 10 May 1798. See also The Monthly Mirror, May 1798, 282; and William T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700–1799, 2 vols (London: The Medici Society, 1928), vol. 2, 217.↩︎

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