Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Benjamin
WILSON, BENJAMIN (1721–1788), painter and man of science, born at Leeds in the latter part of 1721, was the fourteenth and youngest child of a wealthy clothier named Major Wilson, by his wife, Elizabeth Yates. He was educated for a short time at Leeds grammar school, but after a disagreement between his father and the headmaster he was removed to a smaller school in the neighbourhood. His love of art was awakened at an early age by the decoration of his father's house on Mill Hill, near Leeds, by the French artist Jacques Parmentier, and he afterwards received nearly twelve months' instruction from another French artist, named Longueville, who was engaged in executing historical paintings for Thomas Lister of Gisburn Park in Craven. While Benjamin was still a youth his father fell into poverty, and he resolved to seek a livelihood in London. He walked most of the way, and on his arrival received from a relative a suit of new clothes and two guineas as a start in life. The money, he states, kept him in food for a twelvemonth, and at the end of that time he gained employment as a clerk in the registry of the prerogative court in Doctors' Commons, where he saved two-thirds of his salary of three half-crowns a week. These achievements rest on Wilson's personal statements, but as he esteemed frugality the first of virtues, it is possible that in his old age he exaggerated the abstemiousness of his youth. When he had amassed 50l. he obtained a more remunerative post as clerk to the registrar of the Charterhouse, and, finding his duties less laborious, he resumed his artistic studies. In these he received some encouragement from the master of the Charterhouse, Samuel Berdmore [q. v.], and some instruction from the painter Thomas Hudson (1701–1779) [q. v.] By perseverance and ability he made himself known, and became the friend of Hogarth, George Lambert [q. v.], and other leading painters. In August 1746 he visited Dublin, and in the spring of 1748 returned to Ireland to paint some portraits for which he had received commissions. He remained there till 1750, when he went back to London, and established himself in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in the house previously occupied by Sir Godfrey Kneller [q. v.], to which he afterwards added the adjoining house, formerly the dwelling of the great physician John Radcliffe (1650–1714) [q. v.] Among his first sitters were Martin Folkes [q. v.], Lord Orrery, Lord Chesterfield, David Garrick, Samuel Foote, and in 1759 John Hadley, the physician. In Great Queen Street also he painted Garrick as Romeo and Miss Bellamy as Juliet in the tomb scene; the picture was engraved by Robert Laurie. His reputation as a portrait-painter steadily increased, and it is said that he enjoyed an income of 1,500l., and declined partnership with Hogarth. John Zoffany [q. v.] painted draperies for him, and, according to common belief, frequently rendered him more material assistance (cf. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, 1828, ii. 134).
Among Wilson's portraits may be mentioned those of John Parsons in the National Gallery, of the poet Gray at Pembroke College, Cambridge, of Lord Lyttelton, Lord Mexbrough, Sir Francis Delaval, Lord Scarbrough, Clive, the Marquis of Rockingham, and two of Sir George Savile at Osberton and at Rufford. He painted a portrait of Shakespeare for the town-hall at Stratford on the jubilee of 1769; and in 1779, on the outbreak of the Spanish war, he executed a statue of Queen Elizabeth on horseback, which was placed in the Spanish armoury at the Tower. Several of his works were engraved, among them Garrick as Hamlet, Benjamin Franklin, and Simon, earl Harcourt, by James McArdell; Rockingham, John Thomas, bishop of Winchester, and Romeo and Juliet by Richard Houston; Garrick as King Lear and Lady Stanhope as the Fair Penitent by Basire; and John Dolland by John Raphael Smith. He made several drawings after pictures by the old masters for Alderman John Boydell [q. v.] He also engraved in mezzotint, and of his etchings have been preserved a portrait of Lady Harriet after Francis Cotes and a portrait from life of Maria Gunning dated 1751.
Wilson, who was a student of chemistry, took a great interest in the problems of electricity, and in 1746 he published ‘An Essay towards an Explication of the Phænomena of Electricity deduced from the Æther of Sir Isaac Newton’ (London, 8vo), which he followed in 1750 by ‘A Treatise on Electricity’ (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1752). He invented and exhibited a large electrical apparatus, and on 5 Dec. 1751 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In conjunction with the physician Benjamin Hoadly (1706–1757) [q. v.] he carried on other electrical researches, the results of which were made public in ‘Observations on a Series of Electrical Experiments’ (London, 1756, 4to; 2nd edit. 1759). About 1757 he visited France, and repeated many of his experiments at St. Germain-en-Laye. He had a long controversy with Benjamin Franklin on the question whether lightning-conductors should be round or pointed at the top, and was supported in his view by George III, who declared his experiments were sufficient to convince the apple-women in Covent Garden. He was nominated by the Royal Society to serve on a committee to regulate the erection of lightning-conductors on St. Paul's Cathedral, and was requested by the board of ordnance at a later period to inspect the gunpowder magazines at Purfleet. In 1760 he received the gold medal of the Royal Society for his electrical experiments. His reputation as an electrician won him many friends among contemporary men of science both at home and on the continent (cf. Ann. Reg. 1760 i. 149, 1761 i. 128–9, 1769 i. 85).
In 1760 and 1761 Wilson exhibited portraits in the Spring Gardens rooms. About this time the versatility of his talents gained him an influential patron. Through Sir John Savile, earl of Mexborough, he became known to the Duke of York, and won his favour as manager of his private theatre in James Street, Westminster. On the death of Hogarth in 1764 he succeeded him as serjeant-painter; and on the death of James Worsdale [q. v.] in 1767 the Duke of York procured for him the appointment of painter to the board of ordnance. He shared the emoluments of the position with Worsdale's natural son until 1779, when his colleague died, and he received a complete investment of the office. In 1767 Wilson lost his great patron by death; but in 1776 he attracted the notice of the king, who, after carefully ascertaining that he was not the landscape-painter Richard Wilson [q. v.], treated him with great kindness, patronised his electrical researches, and encouraged him to come to Windsor.
Wilson, according to a friendly critic, endeavoured to introduce a new style of chiaroscuro into his paintings, and his heads had more warmth and nature than those executed by the generality of his contemporaries. He etched with great ability, and is said to have produced a landscape in imitation of Rembrandt's ‘Companion to the Coach’ which deceived Thomas Hudson and several other connoisseurs. Early in 1766, to please Rockingham, who had made him some promises of patronage, he etched the caricature entitled the ‘Tomb-Stone’ on the occasion of the death of the Duke of Cumberland, in which he represented Bute, George Grenville, and Bedford dancing ‘the Haze’ on Cumberland's tomb, and held several other members of their party up to ridicule. The print met with much applause, and Edmund Burke and Grey Cooper besought him for another. The result was the famous caricature etched in 1766 at the time of the repeal of the American Stamp Act, in ridicule of the same political party, called ‘The Repeal; or, the Funeral of Miss Ame-Stamp.’ It was sold at a shilling, and brought him 100l. in four days. On the fifth day it was pirated, and two inferior versions produced at sixpence. Copies of several versions of these prints are in the British Museum (Cat. of Satirical Prints, iv. 356–7, 368–73).
Wilson from the hardships of his early days acquired habits of parsimony. He was also fond of speculation, and in 1766 was declared a defaulter on the Stock Exchange. Some years before his death he found himself compelled to resign the post of painter to the board of ordnance on refusing to allow a dependent of the Duke of Richmond to share his salary. After these reverses he was accustomed to bewail his poverty, but to the surprise of his friends he left a good fortune at his death. He died at 56 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, on 6 June 1788, and was buried in St. George the Martyr's burying-ground. He was a member of several foreign learned societies, among them of the Instituto delle Scienze ed Arti Liberali at Bologna, of which he was the first English member. His portrait, painted by himself, in the possession of Earl Spencer. He made more than one engraving from it. One of them is prefixed to the edition of his ‘Treatise on Electricity’ which appeared in 1752. About 1771 he married Miss Hetherington, whom he devotedly admired, and whose excellences he characteristically summed up in the statement that ‘he saved more money from the time he first knew her than he had ever done in the same space of time.’ By her he had seven children. His third son, General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, is separately noticed.
Besides the works already mentioned, Wilson was the author of: 1. ‘A Letter to Mr. Æpinus,’ on the electricity of the Tourmalin, London, 1764, 4to. 2. ‘A Letter to the Marquess of Rockingham, with some Observations on the Effects of Lightning,’ London, 1765, 4to. 3. ‘Observations upon Lightning and the Method of securing Buildings from its Effects,’ London, 1773, 4to. 4. ‘Further Observations upon Lightning,’ London, 1774, 4to. 5. ‘A Series of Experiments relating to Phosphori,’ London, 1775, 4to; 2nd edit. 1776, 4to. This work was communicated to several foreign learned bodies, and was the subject of a memoir by Leonhard Euler, read at the Academia Scientiarum Imperialis at St. Petersburg (Hagen, Index Operum L. Euler, 1896, p. 48), and of a ‘Letter’ from Giovanni Battista Beccaria of Bologna, to both of which Wilson replied. 6. ‘An Account of Experiments made at the Pantheon on the Nature and Use of Conductors,’ London, 1778, 4to; new edit. 1788, 4to. 7. ‘A Short View of Electricity,’ London, 1780, 4to. Wilson also published fifteen communications on electricity in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ between 1753 and 1769. A manuscript volume of letters to Wilson from leading men of science and others, including John Smeaton [q. v.], William Mason (1724–1797) [q. v.], the poet, the Abbé Guillaume Mazéas, Hugh Hamilton (1729–1805) [q. v.], and Tobern Bergman, professor of chemistry at Upsala, is preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 30094), as well as a letter to Hogarth (Addit. MS. 27995, f. 14). Wilson left a manuscript autobiography, which he had carried down to 1783, but he strictly enjoined that it should not be published. This injunction was disobeyed in the spirit by his son-in-law, Herbert Randolph, who gave an abridgment in ‘The Life of Sir Robert Wilson,’ 1862.[Life of Sir Robert Wilson, 1862; Thoresby's Ducatus Leod, ed. Whitaker, 1816, pp. 2–3; Smith's Cat. of Mezzotinto Portraits; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists, 1878; Gent. Mag. 1788 i. 564, ii. 656, 1791 ii. 819; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 468, ii. 239, 6th ser. xii. 407, 433; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc., App. p. xlvi; Edwards's Anecdotes of Painters, 1808, pp. 145–50; Athenæum, 1863, i. 150; Wheatley and Cunningham's London Past and Present, iii. 193.]