Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir William Sterndale-Bennett (1816 - 1875). 1830c.

Thomas Henry Gregg 

Portrait of Sir William Sterndale-Bennett (1816 - 1875)., Thomas Henry Gregg
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Anon. sale Robinson & Fisher, London 1st July 1937, lot 126 Anon. sale Christies 20th December 1962, lot 180 European Private Collection
Sir William Sterndale Bennett was one of the most important English composers and pianists of the nineteenth century. This portrait, a rare study of prodigious genius, was most probably painted before he was twenty years old, and coincides with the sudden and rapid rise to fame that accompanied his first public performances in the early 1830s.

Bennett, the son of a piano teacher, first drew the attention of the musical world when a chorister in King’s College chapel, Cambridge. At the age of nine he received the unprecedented offer of a free place at the Royal Academy of Music in London. By 1828 he was receiving prizes for composition and performing, although a serious illness in 1829 temporarily checked his progress. In 1832, however, Bennett performed both his first symphony and piano concerto to great critical and popular acclaim. He was twice summoned to Windsor Castle to play for William IV and Queen Adelaide, and first became friends with his lifelong supporter Mendelssohn. A contemporary comparison may seem incongruous, but Bennett was without doubt the Pop Idol of his day.

Thereafter followed a series of successful compositions and performances, such as Symphony no. 4 in A major, an overture ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, and his second piano concerto, with which he caused a sensation on his debut at the Philharmonic Society. In 1836 Mendelssohn wrote, “I think him the most promising young musician I know…” [1].

Unlike so many child prodigies, Bennett found little difficulty in living up to his early expectations. After leaving the Royal Academy in 1836 he embarked on a series of performances and tours, most notably to Germany, then the centre of European classical music. He became friends with Robert Schumann, who wrote, when reviewing Bennett’s third piano concerto, “…were there many artists like Sterndale Bennett, all fears for the future progress of our art would be silenced.” [2] In 1838 he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians and the Garrick Club.

However, for all his critical success, Bennett found that composing and playing classical music did not, in the long term, pay well enough to provide for his wife (Mary Anne Wood, to whom he was engaged in 1841) and three children. He would have to teach it as well. The remainder of his career was spent combining teaching, most notably as a Professor of music at Cambridge, with composing, and conducting. All three roles, though particularly the latter, meant that his days as a concert pianist were over. And yet, with the baton he further secured his musical fame. In 1849 he founded the English Bach Society, and conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion in England, while in 1856 he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society, succeeding Richard Wagner. It was in this last position that Bennett cemented his reputation as the most important English conductor of the mid nineteenth century. Bennett was still publishing popular works when he died in 1875. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Thomas Henry Gregg specialized in portraits, portrait miniatures and figurative subjects. He was educated at the Royal Academy Schools from 1821, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1824-72. It is possible that this portrait is that catalogued simply as a “Portrait” in the Royal Academy exhibition catalogue of 1836. The illustrative nature of the portrait, with harpsichord, pen and sheaf of music, together with the subject’s fame, would have made it the perfect picture to exhibit and further Gregg’s ambitions. It may also account for the prominent signature at the base of the canvas.

[1] & [2] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
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