Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Actor William Powell 1735-69, as Posthumous in Cymbeline 1765

Francis Wheatley 

Portrait of the Actor William Powell 1735-69, as Posthumous in Cymbeline, Francis Wheatley
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches 91.4 x 71.1 cm
Amy, Marchioness of Huntly, 1885 (according to an old label on the back); private collection; to estate of private collection, until 1994
Hayward Gallery, London, 1975, The Georgian Playhouse. no. 26 illus., as by John Zoffany
The brief career of the English actor William Powell (1735-1769) lasted only six years. Trained as a brewer, Powell early on developed an interest in amateur theatricals. Through an introduction from the actor Charles Holland, Powell met David Garrick, who began to coach him for the stage. Powell made his debut at Drury Lane on October 8, 1763, in the title role of Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher, to wide critical acclaim. During the theatre's first season, while Garrick was abroad, Powell took on several leading roles, including Othello, Oroonoko, Hamlet, and Posthumous, as well as various comedy parts.

Upon Garrick's return to the theatre in 1765, the two men shared the major roles. In 1767, Powell, with Thomas Harris, took on a managing position at Covent Garden, and continued to perform there for the next two years. In 1769, however, during his third summer season as manager and leading actor of the new theater at Bristol, he caught pneumonia and died. At only thirty-three years of age, his style was instinctive, passionate, and physical, and had not yet developed the studied discipline required of the great actors of his day. Powell had first played the part of ''Posthumous'' in Shakespeare''s Cymbeline at Drury Lane in December 1763. A review of that performance in the Public Advertiser observed (3 Dec. 1763, quoted in Hayward Gallery):

The versatility of Jealousy, Love, Tenderness, and Resentment, so variously interspearse throughout this Tragedy, are very stongly marked in the features of his face and Tones of Voice; which, like Strings Upon Musical Instruments, justly answered to the Impression made on them by the mind.

This portrait relates to an engraving that appeared as number 30 in Sayer''a Dramatic Portraits, printed for Robert Sayer & Co,, London/ and J. Smith, London, 1770. Another version of this portrait, attibuted to Zoffany and depicting Powell without a sword, was sold at Christie's, London, June 20, 1975, lot 89.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.