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1807 "Boiled Lobsters" and The Blind Fiddler

In the weeks building up to the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1807, the forthcoming spectacle at Somerset House was overshadowed by the grave illness of John Opie, the Academy’s Professor of Painting. Opie had arrived in London in 1781, where he was presented as an untutored prodigy—the so-called “Cornish Wonder”. Now, in middle age, as he lay in a deathbed delirium, Opie struggled to instruct his former pupil Henry Thomson on the completion of his full-length portrait of the Duke of Gloucester, one of six works he intended to show at the forthcoming Exhibition. According to Joseph Farington, Thomson—who carried the portrait physically into Opie’s bedroom—“did what was necessary” and sent it to the Exhibition.1 Opie died on 9 April, a few weeks before the Exhibition’s opening. His portrait of the Duke of Gloucester was duly lauded as “one of the best portraits from the pencil of this justly celebrated and lamented artist.” Nonetheless, the same critic acknowledged that there was a “want of harmony in the whole, which he would probably have altered had he lived to see it in its present situation.”2

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In truth, there were far more stimulating portraits in the Exhibition than Opie’s somewhat stolid society portrait of William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester. Tucked away in the Ante-Room was Thomas Phillips’ portrait of William Blake, “a brilliantly painted picture, the merits of which are not much the less apparent from its being hung in a rather obscure situation” (Fig. 1).3 Blake’s “rapt poetic expression” in Phillips’ compelling portrait was apparently captured as Blake conversed blithely about an encounter in his study with the arch-angel Gabriel.4 A more grounded portrait that captured the attention of critics and artists alike was Thomas Lawrence’s depiction of the banker Sir Francis Baring with his brother and son-in-law: “the best work of this artist, and as far the best picture of portraits which the present exhibition can boast of.”5 Commissioned as a companion to Baring’s triple portrait of three of his political cronies painted for him by Reynolds, Lawrence was also clearly influenced by the example of Titian, as revealed by the painting’s rich colour and texture. A critic in The Daily Advertiser commented astutely that the portrait could be called “a fine Venetian picture”.6 James Northcote, who viewed the painting as it was revealed to the Academicians prior to the Exhibition, noted their sense of surprise, and proclaimed that Lawrence “had never painted so good a picture before; one in which there was so much breadth.”7 His fellow Academician James Ward was even moved to declare that it was “equal to the works of Vandyke or Rubens”.8

In anticipation of the Exhibition, Northcote claimed that: “it would be the best that had ever been”, even if, in the event, William Wordsworth “thought it poor” and his sister, Dorothy, considered it “the worst she had ever seen”.9 They may, however, have enjoyed the sole exhibit by Wordsworth’s friend and patron Sir George Beaumont, who displayed a view of Keswick Lake; also the subject of one of three Lake District landscapes exhibited that year by John Constable. Although his own work attracted some admiring comments from Academicians,10 Beaumont was more conspicuous in 1807 in his role as patron of his new protégé, the young Scots artist David Wilkie, who had made a successful debut at the Academy in the previous year with his Village Politicians. This year, he exhibited a second genre painting, titled The Blind Fiddler, which Beaumont had commissioned from him in the previous spring (Fig. 2). Here, Wilkie’s energies were devoted to depicting in detail the varied facial expressions of the protagonists, introducing his own image, somewhat improbably, in the figure of the serving girl to the right of the composition.

Having hung briefly at George Beaumont’s home, The Blind Fiddler was now transferred under his aegis to the walls of the Academy. Before the opening of the Exhibition, Beaumont fretted about where Wilkie’s picture would be displayed, hoping that it would not be hung “near any ‘Boiled Lobsters’: i.e. glaring pictures”.11 Shortly afterwards, Paul Sandby reported to his fellow Academicians Beaumont’s eagerness to secure a prominent place both for his own and Wilkie’s exhibits. As it transpired, The Blind Fiddler was hung close to Turner’s genre painting, A country blacksmith disputing upon the price of iron, quite deliberately, it would appear, “as to invite and provoke comparison”.12 Between the two pictures hung Richard Westall’s brightly coloured allegorical confection, Flora Unveiled by the Zephyrs. According to The St. James’s Chronicle, Westall, who served on the Hanging Committee, deliberately “vents his spleen against the modest Northern youth, and endeavours to cast a deadly shade over the beauties of the Blind Fiddler”.13

In the run up to the Exhibition, Beaumont was tireless in his efforts to promote Wilkie, even suggesting to Paul Sandby that: “the Academy ought to set aside their law upon this occasion & elect Wilkie an Academician at once”, without requiring him to be elected first an Associate.14 He had also been unstinting in his praise of The Blind Fiddler, not least since he believed that he had orchestrated the Dutch-inspired composition, providing the artist, for example, with a small picture by Teniers as a model. However, during the course of the Exhibition, Beaumont became noticeably more critical of aspects of Wilkie’s picture, notably its muted tones and “slaty smoothness”.15 By mid-May, as reported by John Hoppner, “Sir George now begins to remark that Wilkie does not imitate the surfaces of objects faithfully, but rather makes them all appear as of the same quality.”16 He affirmed also that Wilkie “should not look any longer at the pictures of Teniers, but those of Ostade & Rembrant”.17 In the months and years that followed, Beaumont’s enthusiasm for The Blind Fiddler faded, to the point that he lent it to his friend Lord Mulgrave, informing him that: “he know not where to hang it, it being so-ill coloured”. Mulgrave, who knew how much Beaumont had prized the picture, was aware of his capriciousness as a patron, noting: “Haydon is now Sir George’s hero, who is with him every day. Wilkie is on the decline in favour.”18 In the event, Beaumont retained his respect for Wilkie, and presented The Blind Fiddler to the National Gallery in 1826 as part of his bequest of pictures to the nation—the only work in the collection by a living British artist.

  1. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. 8, 3012.↩︎

  2. The Cabinet, or Monthly Report of Polite Literature 1 (February–June 1807): 245.↩︎

  3. The Public Ledger, 18 May 1807.↩︎

  4. Allan Cunningham, The Cabinet Gallery of Pictures, Selected from the Splendid Collections of Art, Public and Private, Which Adorn Great Britain (London: John Major and George and William Nicol, 1834), 12–13.↩︎

  5. The Cabinet, or Monthly Report of Polite Literature 1 (February–June 1807): 248.↩︎

  6. Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for Yale University Press, 2006), 164.↩︎

  7. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 8, 3018.↩︎

  8. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3037.↩︎

  9. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3014 and 3037.↩︎

  10. The landscapist, Thomas Hearne, thought it was the best picture that Beaumont had painted, while Northcote, too, admired it as his “best picture”. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3003 and 3019.↩︎

  11. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3009.↩︎

  12. The Sun, 27 May 1807.↩︎

  13. Nicholas Tromans, Harry Mount, and Hamish A.D. Miles, David Wilkie: Painter of Everyday Life (London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002), 54.↩︎

  14. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3020.↩︎

  15. Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie; with his Journals, Tours, and Critical Remarks on Works of Art; and a Selection from his Correspondence, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1843), Vol. 1, 132–133.↩︎

  16. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3045.↩︎

  17. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 8, 3047.↩︎

  18. Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius: A Life of George Beaumont (New Haven, CT: the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 1988), 164.↩︎

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