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1805 The Sensation of the "Young Roscius"

The months leading up to the opening of the Royal Academy’s 1805 exhibition witnessed the emergence of a new phenomenon on the London stage—the thirteen-year-old child actor William Henry West Betty. The son of a Shropshire farmer, Master Betty—who swiftly earned the nickname of “the Young Roscius”—made his London debut in December 1804, playing at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane, where he performed a wide repertoire of tragic, sentimental, and heroic roles over the following months. His fame preceded him; on his first night in London, crowds thronged the streets surrounding the Covent Garden Theatre, their curiosity raised to a fever pitch. In the days and weeks that followed, his performances were applauded rapturously by insatiable audiences and analysed admiringly in the press.1 He became the toast of fashionable society, counting the Prince of Wales and Duke of Clarence among his admirers, and his talents were declared by some to be superior to those of Garrick and Kean. The apparently extraordinary emotional range and maturity of his performances was compounded by his physical presence on stage—his “wonderfully expressive” face, and a “graceful” and “elegant” physique, of a kind that seemed almost to approximate female beauty.2

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Inevitably, artists and admirers sought to commemorate Master Betty’s theatrical triumphs. As Gill Perry has noted, “the two forms of spectacle [theatrical performance and Royal Academy exhibition] enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, both fuelling and fuelled by the culture of celebrity”; the 1805 exhibition was no exception.3 On 29 April, the very evening that the Young Roscius was about to debut his Hamlet at the Covent Garden Theatre, the Academy’s exhibition opened, featuring two full-length portraits of the child prodigy by James Northcote and John Opie, and two bust sculptures by Anne Seymour Damer and George Bullock.4 Hung in close proximity on the same wall so as to elicit comparison, Northcote and Opie’s canvases depicted Master Betty in two of his most celebrated roles, as Hamlet, and as the young Norval from John Home’s 1756 tragedy, Douglas, written in blank verse.5 Both artists removed Betty from the physical context of the London stage and placed him within a more imaginative dimension that captured internalised, expressive qualities, rather than a theatrical moment.

Opie’s canvas (Fig. 1), depicting Betty as Norval striding through the Grampian Hills, was not only illustrative of the play’s most famous speech but also captured the quality of youthful innocence that audiences admired in the figures of both Noval and of Master Betty himself. Attired in a historicised version of Scottish clothing, rather than in the specific costume in which he performed the role on stage, Betty’s figure dominates the canvas, while simultaneously expressing the uniquely boyish heroism and sensibility which caused theatregoers viewing his performance as Norval to: “[lose] all control over their passions”.6

Northcote’s canvas (Fig. 2) meanwhile, portrays Betty leaning on a pedestal that supports a bust of Shakespeare, aligning the young actor with another genius of the British stage. The painting’s concept may well have been suggested to the artist by Ozias Humphry’s declaration on seeing Betty perform—“Oh, ‘tis the young Apollo come down from his pedestal!”.7 Northcote had produced a number of works over the previous two decades for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, depicting child characters from Shakespeare’s history plays in highly affecting dramatic moments; consequently, he had earned a reputation as a painter adept at reconciling the demands of ambitious historical painting with more sentimental aesthetic modes.

The press reception of Opie and Northcote’s 1805 exhibits indicates that they were, however, principally judged on the criterion of likeness, rather than pictorial conception, with Opie’s deemed the most successful in this regard. The celebrity of the sitter was clearly paramount—a fact which is underscored by Northcote’s subsequent recollections of Betty’s sittings to him in his Argyll Place studio, to which fashionable crowds sought admission in order to catch a glimpse of the young actor.8

The long-standing rivalry between Northcote and Opie—whose canvases had been in competition in the Summer Exhibitions since the mid-1780s—extended beyond the Great Room on this occasion, and was additionally complicated by the actions of their patron. Both canvases had been commissioned by the antiquarian Thomas Lister Parker, an admirer of Master Betty’s, who followed the child actor around the country and commissioned several portraits of him in addition to the two discussed here. In the run-up to the exhibition’s opening, he attempted to prevent the two artists from exhibiting their canvases, fearing that their display might diminish demand for the engravings that James Heath had been commissioned to produce after Northcote’s portrait; it seems that both Parker and Betty’s father, William Henry Betty, had a financial stake in the publication of the print, a scenario which is indicative of the extent to which the young actor’s fame was exploited financially by those around him, whether family, supporters, or those in the professional world of the theatre. Despite Parker’s threats of legal action, however, Opie was determined to exhibit the work, noting a previous authorisation in writing to do so, and an unprecedented dispute ensued between patron, artist, and the Academy, with opinion divided on the rights of Opie and Parker to display or withhold the work.9 Parker was still requesting that his commissions from Opie and Northcote be returned to him, even after their installation in the exhibition room, but the Academy refused to countenance their removal. In the meantime, Heath was also engaged to engrave Opie’s work—the prints after the two works were published in 1806 (Northcote) and 1807 (Opie), by which time Betty’s popularity was starting to wane. For a short time, though, his youthful celebrity had sustained a range of cultural productions—within the playhouses, the Academy’s exhibition room, and by print and book publishers—and been rigorously exploited by those close to him.

  1. Master Betty’s career is described in William Henry West Betty, Roscius in London: Biographical Memoirs of William Henry West Betty, from the earliest period of his infancy (London: B. Crosby & Co., 1805).↩︎

  2. Betty, Roscius in London, 48.↩︎

  3. Gill Perry, “The Spectacle of the Muse: Exhibiting the Actress at the Royal Academy”, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 111.↩︎

  4. The works by Damer and Bullock are untraced.↩︎

  5. Northcote and Opie’s canvases were separated by one other work; see The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c., 27 April 1805, 4.↩︎

  6. Betty, Roscius in London, 41. On the costuming of Opie’s portrait of Betty as Norval, see Anne Musset, Stage Costume and the Representation of History in Britain, 1776–1834 (PhD diss., University of Warwick and Université Paris Diderot, 2017), 184–185.↩︎

  7. James Ward, Conversations of James Northcote, R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists, Ernest Fletcher (ed.) (London: Methuen, 1901), 86.↩︎

  8. Stephen Gwynn, Memorials of an Eighteenth-Century Painter (James Northcote) (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898), 248–252.↩︎

  9. The controversy is described in The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c., 27 April 1805, 4; and in Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 7, 2537–2542.↩︎

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