Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self Portrait 1790c.

Sir William Beechey RA (1753-1839)

Self Portrait, Sir William Beechey
Oil on canvas
18th Century
18 1/2 x 13 1/4 inches 46.5 x 34.5 cm
The beginning of Sir William Beechey's career is picturesque, as a parable of an aspiring painter, but it is recent enough history that we need not doubt its account of the young artist overcoming his family's prosaic intentions, and fulfilling his desire to become a painter.

His career that took him from obscurity from in the small Oxfordshire town of Burford to a Knighthood and the favour of King George III is an inspirational story for any with similar intentions. The Beecheys had been local to Burford for many generations. William Beechey Sr died when the painter was still young, leaving the care of his childen to his elder son Samuel, a solicitor who lived nearby in Chipping Norton. The uncle intended that the young Beechey should become likewise an attorney, and kept him at this study despite his continual objections.

At an appropriate age he was entered as a clerk with a conveyancer near Stow on the Wold, but as the Monthly Mirror later recorded in July 1798, he was: ''Early foredoomed his [uncle's] soul to cross/ And paint a picture where he should engross.'' An engaging picture is suggested by family tradition, of the young Beechey''s notebooks covered with sketches and caricatures, and of an appetite eager for whatever local sources might provide for pictorial inspiration. Certainly he would have studied the famous Lenthall portraits then hanging in the old hall at Burford.It is said that, having been locked in a room with his books, he escaped from a window, eluded his guardian and swam a river to make his way to London. Presently he took refuge with a carriage painter - very often the starting point for painters without great patronage - and by steady stages impressed enough to achieve recognition as a youth of considerable abilities.
A less romantic history states that he arrived in London still intent on a legal career, being eventually articled to a Mr Owen of Chancery Lane. During this time, however, he became acquainted with a number of students of the Royal Academy Schools. Long-standing ambitions were kindled by the association, ''his disgust for his original profession increased, and he determined to change his pen for the pencil, his ink-stand for the colour-box, and his desk for the easel.'' (Public Characters 1800 - 1801).

He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, where he is thought to have studied under Johan Zoffany, and his earliest surviving portraits are small-scale full-lengths and conversation pieces in Zoffany's manner (e.g. The Custance Conversation Piece, c. 1786; Private Collection). Beechey first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776. In 1782 he moved to Norwich, where he gained several commissions, but he was back in London by 1787. In 1789 he exhibited a portrait of John Douglas, Bishop of Carlisle (London, Lambeth Palace) that is remarkable for its facility of handling. Beechey would occasionally paint similarly inspired works, but his career is marked by a succession of unflamboyant but competent portraits in the tradition of Joshua Reynolds.
In 1793 Beechey was named portrait painter to Queen Charlotte, and his work for the royal family increased considerably; he exhibited six royal portraits in 1797. In 1798, the year he was elected RA, he exhibited his gigantic group portrait of George III Reviewing the Dragoons (Royal Collection), which won for him a knighthood. Beechey struggled honestly to be a good courtier, but the vagaries of George III''s mind caused him temporarily to fall from favour in 1804, just as Benjamin West had done. Joseph Farington's Diaries give many accounts of Beechey's relations with the royal family.

Beechey's portraits of the turn of the century are his most colourful and lively. The poses of his sitters are often inventive, but not flashy, and his colours border on the pastel. In terms of the handling of paint, he paid lip-service to Rembrandt in a somewhat unenthusiastic impasto, but his application of white paint is a delicate, personal use of the freer techniques of his contemporaries John Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence. In 1795 John Opie told Farington that Beechey's ''pictures were of that mediocre quality as to taste & fashion, that they seemed only fit for sea Captains & merchants''. His straightforward style perfectly suited the stolid and conventional taste of the royal family; moreover, Beechey had no shortage of clients throughout his long career. (At Hoppner''s death in 1810, it was probably Beechey's strength, more than any other reason, that prevented Lawrence from raising his prices for over a year.)

He was appointed (c. 1813) portrait painter to William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, and (after 1830) principal portrait painter to William IV. Although an impetuous and cantankerous man, he was known for his generosity to students; in particular, he took a close interest in the career of John Constable. Beechey moved to Hampstead, north London, in 1836; the contents of his studio and his collection were sold at Christie''s on 9-11 June that year.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.