Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beechey, William

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BEECHEY, Sir WILLIAM (1753–1839), painter, was born at Burford, in Oxfordshire, 12 Dec. 1753. He is stated by Dayes to have begun life as a house-painter. From other accounts it would appear that he was articled to a solicitor at Stowe, in Gloucestershire, and was afterwards transferred to a lawyer in London. In London he made the acquaintance of some art students, who led him to get his articles cancelled, and he became in 1772 a student of the Royal Academy. In 1775 he exhibited some portraits, and from that time he practised in London with tolerable success. In 1781. however, he removed to Norwich. He stayed there some four or five years, painting subject pieces ('in the manner' of Hogarth) and portraits. Returning to London he settled in Lower Brook Street, and got both work and fame. In 1793 he was elected A.R.A., and painted the same year a portrait of Queen Charlotte, which procured him the appointment of portrait painter to her majesty. A large equestrian group of George III, with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, reviewing the 10th hussars and 3rd dragoons, gained great celebrity. It was painted in 1793. This work, now hanging at Hampton Court, is considered his best. 'Although a clever and somewhat showy group of portraits, it has little of real nature, and is full of painters' artifices.' In 1793 he was knighted and elected a full member of the Royal Academy.

He was for a long while a fashionable portrait painter; but the great reputation of Lawrence had outshone his own some years before he finally retired. 'His colouring,' according to Redgrave, 'was pleasing. He excelled in his females and children; but his males wanted power. His draperies were poor and ill-cast, and he showed no ability to overcome the graceless stiffness which then prevailed in dress. Yet he possessed much merit, and his portraits have maintained a respectable second rank.' In 1836 he sold his collection of works of art and retired to Hampstead. 'He was twice married, and had a large and highly accomplished family.' His wife, Lady Beechey, was an artist who painted miniatures with ability. His sons, Frederick William, George D., and Henry William, are separately noticed. In the print room of the British Museum are two of Sir William Beechey's drawings landscape studies, sketched freely with a pen. Amongst his most distinguished sitters (besides royal personages) were the Marquis Cornwallis, Earl St. Vincent, John Kemble, David Wilkie, and Joseph Nollekens. Outside the region of portraiture one of Sir William Beechey's most important pictures (as well as his own favourite) was the 'Infant Hercules.' The painter afterwards, with happy versatility, copied the same picture, and made it do duty as 'John the Baptist.' Sir William Beechey died on 28 Jan. 1839 at the age of eighty-six.

[Gent. Mag. April 1839; Dayes's Works, 1807; Pilkington's Dict. of Painters; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School; Redgraves' Century of Painters, 1866.]

E. R.