Wilson, Richard (DNB00)

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WILSON, RICHARD (1714–1782), landscape-painter, was born at Penegoes in Montgomeryshire, of which his father held the living, on 1 Aug. 1714. His mother was one of the Wynnes of Leeswold. His father was collated to Mold after Wilson's birth, and gave his son, who does not seem to have gone to school, an excellent classical education. With the assistance of Sir George Wynne, Wilson was sent to London in 1729, and placed with Thomas Wright, a portrait-painter, of whom little is known. Wilson began his artistic career as a portrait-painter, and attained some position in that branch of the profession. A portrait by him of John Hamilton Mortimer was valued by John Britton [q. v.] at 150 guineas in 1842. There are several portraits by him at the Garrick Club, and he painted (about 1748) a group of the young Prince of Wales (George III), his brother Edward Augustus, duke of York, and their tutor Dr. Ayscough. This picture is now in the National Portrait Gallery (London), as well as another of the two princes by themselves, evidently taken for or from the larger picture. In 1749 Wilson went to Italy, and there he painted a landscape which excited the admiration of Francesco Zuccarelli [q. v.], who advised him to take to landscape-painting. This was at Venice, and either there or at Rome Horace Vernet encouraged him to do the same. The French painter also exchanged landscapes with him and showed Wilson's in his own studio with generous praise to all comers. Wilson soon gained a considerable reputation in Italy as a landscape-painter, and Raphael Mengs painted his portrait in exchange for one of his landscapes. When at Venice he made the acquaintance of William Locke of Norbury [q. v.] (the patron of George Barret the elder [q. v.], Wilson's rival), for whom he painted some sketches and landscapes. Wilson was six years in Italy (principally at Rome) painting and giving lessons. He seems to have mixed with the best society. In 1754 he sketched Mæcenas Villa in company with the Earls of Pembroke, Thanet, and Essex, and Viscount Bolingbroke. He travelled from Rome to Naples with Lord Dartmouth, for whom he painted some landscapes, and reached England again in 1756. His reputation had preceded him to England, and his return excited much interest among his brother artists, but it is said that his merit was not at once appreciated even by them. Paul Sandby [q. v.] is noted as an exception. He recommended Wilson to the Duke of Cumberland, for whom Wilson painted his celebrated picture of ‘Niobe,’ which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760, and engraved by Woollett in 1761. Wilson painted the subject three times: his earliest painting of it belonged to Sir George Beaumont, and was engraved by S. Smith (figures by William Sharp), and is now in the National Gallery; another was bought by the Marquis of Stafford. His picture of a ‘View of Rome from the Villa Madama’ (exhibited 1765) was bought by the Marquis of Tavistock. These and other works brought him the reputation of the greatest landscape-painter of the day, but his fame gained him scanty employment.

Between 1760 and 1768 Wilson exhibited over thirty pictures at the Society of British Artists, including some of his best known pictures. Besides the works already mentioned there were ‘Temple of Clitumnus’ and ‘The Lake of Nemi’ (1761); a landscape with hermits (1762) (possibly that engraved under the title of ‘The White Monk’); ‘A large landscape with Phaeton's petition to Apollo,’ exhibited in 1763 and afterwards repeated; ‘A Summer Storm, with the Story of the two Lovers from Thomson (Celadon and Amelia)’ (1765), and ‘A Storm at Daybreak, with the Story of Ceyx and Alcione—Ovid's Metam.’ (the picture, part of which is said to have been painted from a pot of porter and a Stilton cheese). Many of his pictures of this period were engraved by Woollett, William Byrne, J. Roberts, and others, most of them for Boydell. Although the subjects were principally Italian, he exhibited a few English and Welsh scenes, including ‘View near Chester,’ ‘Carnarvon Castle,’ and ‘Snowdon,’ and ‘A View of a Ruin in Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales's Garden at Kew.’

Wilson was one of the first members of the Royal Academy who were nominated by George III at its institution in 1768, and he contributed regularly to its exhibitions till 1780. During this period there was little change in his art. In 1770 he sent his picture of ‘Cicero and his two friends Atticus and Quintus at his villa at Arpinum’ (engraved by Woollett for Boydell). In 1771 he sent ‘A View near Winstay, the seat of Sir Watkins W. Wynn, Bart.;’ one of Crow Castle, near Llangollen; and another of Houghton, the seat of the late Marquis of Tavistock. In 1774 he painted a large picture, six feet by five, of the ‘Cataract of Niagara, from a drawing by Lieutenant Pierie of the Royal Artillery’ (engraved by William Byrne), and a view of Cader Idris, perhaps the picture taken from the summit of this mountain which was engraved by E. and M. Rooker. In 1775 he exhibited ‘Passage of the Alps at Mount Cenis’ and three others, including a ‘Lake of Nemi,’ a favourite subject with him and his few customers. In 1776 he sent ‘A View of Sion House from Richmond Gardens,’ possibly the picture which at this date or before is said to have been the cause of the loss of court patronage. He asked sixty guineas for it, to which Lord Bute objected as too much, upon which the artist replied that if the king could not pay the sum at once, he would take it in instalments. This story is generally told of a date previous to the institution of the Royal Academy, but there is no trace of the picture before 1776. After this the only picture of importance by him which appeared at the academy was ‘Apollo and the Seasons,’ exhibited in 1779; but another celebrated picture, ‘Meleager and Atalanta,’ which was not exhibited, was engraved by Woollett and Pouncey and published in this year. The figures in this picture were supplied by Mortimer. A mezzotint by Earlom from the same picture, or a replica of it, appeared in 1771. In 1780 he sent a ‘View of Tabley, Cheshire, the seat of Sir F. Leicester,’ his last contribution to the exhibitions.

This was probably one of his commissions, and they were very few; for in spite of his reputation, which was always high, he had to suffer from almost continuous neglect—a neglect increasing with his years. At last the pawnbrokers were his principal customers, but he found it difficult to sell even to them. While he could get scarcely sufficient employment to live, other inferior artists, like George Barret the elder, George Smith of Chichester, and Zuccarelli, flourished exceedingly. Moreover, he had to suffer special mortifications. In a contest for fame with Smith of Chichester before the Royal Society that august body decided against Wilson. His picture of Kew Gardens was returned to him by the king, and, worst of all perhaps, he had to listen to a deputation of artists headed by Edward Penny [q. v.], who recommended him to adopt the lighter style of Zuccarelli. He is said to have offended them by the warmth of his remarks on this occasion.

For many years Wilson lived in the Great Piazza of Covent Garden, and from 1771–2 he was at 36 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, from which he was able to enjoy the view of the country away to Hampstead and Highgate. During 1777–8 he was at 24 Norton Street, and in 1779 in Great Titchfield Street, but as he grew poorer he had to seek more modest quarters, until at length he lived in a wretched lodging in Tottenham Street, Tottenham Court Road. He was reduced to such straits that when one day a young friend introduced a lady who gave him a commission for two pictures he had not money to buy paints and brushes to execute them. On another occasion he asked Barry [see Barry, James, 1741–1806] if he knew any one mad enough to employ a landscape-painter.

In 1776, on the death of Francis Hayman [q. v.], he applied for and obtained the post of librarian to the Royal Academy, for which he was well fitted by his education and taste, and its slender stipend was a welcome addition to his resources. A few years after this he inherited from his brother a small estate at Llanberis, which enabled him to live in comfort for the short remnant of his days. He retired into Wales in 1781, and died suddenly at Colomondie, the residence of his relative, Mrs. Jones, near Llanberis, on 15 May 1782. He was buried in the churchyard at St. Mary-at-Mold.

Wilson is now acknowledged to be one of the greatest of English landscape-painters. His art was based upon that of Salvator Rosa, Gaspar Poussin, and Claude. It was inspired by the scenery of Italy, and especially of the Campagna, with its clear bright skies and ancient ruins. It was somewhat formal and careless of detail, but in grandeur of design, in breadth of treatment, in the harmony of its rich but quiet colour, and in the rendering of space and air, Wilson has few rivals. His pictures of his own country, like the noble ‘Snowdon from Nantlle,’ lent by Mr. F. Worsley-Taylor to the 1899 exhibition in the corporation of London art gallery, are among his finest works; and, though they have a strong resemblance to his pictures of Italy, they contain much local truth of form and atmosphere. He used a very restricted palette, and painted with one brush.

In person Wilson was stout and robust, and above the middle size. In later years his face was blotchy and his nose red, the result possibly of large potations of porter, which is said to have been his only luxury. His fondness for this beverage was so well known that Zoffany introduced him with a pot of it at his elbow into his picture of the royal academicians (1773), but painted it out when Wilson threatened to thrash him. He was shy of society, especially when years of neglect and poverty had embittered him. He lived in and for his art, confident in his own genius and scornful of the opinions of others. His spirit never broke; his faith never faltered; he made no concession to popular opinion, but fought for his own ideals to the last. Even among artists he seems to have had few friends except Sir William Beechey, Paul Sandby, James Barry, and J. H. Mortimer. With Sir Joshua Reynolds he was not on cordial terms, but there seems to be no sufficient grounds for Cunningham's charges of hostility on the part of Reynolds. They seem principally based on the story of Wilson's retort to Reynolds when, ignoring Wilson's presence at a social gathering of academicians at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street, Sir Joshua proposed the health of Gainsborough as ‘the best landscape-painter,’ on which Wilson added aloud, ‘and the best portrait-painter too.’ On the other hand, Reynolds obtained commissions for two pictures by Wilson when the latter was in sore straits. Of his manner and character Cunningham tells us ‘he loved truth and detested flattery; he could endure a joke, but not contradiction. He was deficient in courtesy of speech. His conversation abounded with information and humour, and his manners, which were at first repulsive, gradually smoothed down as he grew animated. Those who enjoyed the pleasure of his friendship agree in pronouncing him a man of strong sense, intelligence, and refinement.’

Mengs's portrait of Wilson was engraved by W. Bond for John Britton's ‘The Fine Arts of the British School, ’ and appears as a frontispiece to Wright's ‘Life’ of the artist. A caricature profile of him with a red nose, and a maulstick on his shoulder, was drawn by Sir George Beaumont, and etched for the title-page of Thomas Hastings's ‘Notes from Etchings from the Works of R. Wilson,’ 1825.

It must have been when Wilson was dead or dying that Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) wrote his celebrated lines about ‘Red-nosed Wilson,’ which were published in his first volume of ‘Lyric Odes to the Royal Academicians’ (1782), and conclude as follows:

    But, honest Wilson, never mind;
    Immortal praises thou shalt find,
    And for a dinner have no cause to fear.
    Thou start'st at my prophetic rhymes:
    Don't be impatient for those times;
    Wait till thou hast been dead a hundred year.

This prophecy has been more than justified. In 1806 a ‘Niobe’ (belonging to the Duke of Gloucester) was sold to Sir F. Baring for 830l. In 1814 the Exhibition of Deceased Masters at the British Institution contained over eighty of Wilson's paintings. In 1827, at Lord de Tabley's sale, ‘On the Arno’ fetched 493l. 10s. These prices have been exceeded since, especially during the last five-and-twenty years, during which many of his finest pictures have been exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Grosvenor Gallery, and other exhibitions all over the country. At the Duke of Hamilton's sale in 1882 a ‘View of Rome—Sunset’ fetched 1,050l. Besides the ‘Niobe’ there are several small works by Wilson in the National Gallery, and two fine pictures in the South Kensington Museum. At the British Museum are a large number of Wilson's sketches in Italy. They are very slight—mere intimations of subjects for pictures. There is also the fine early drawing of a large head referred to in Edwards's ‘Anecdotes.’

Wilson had several pupils, the most important of whom were Joseph Farington [q. v.] and William Hodges [q. v.]

[Some Account of the Life of Richard Wilson, by T. Wright of Norwood, 1824; Hastings's Notes from Etchings from Works of R. Wilson; Cunningham's Lives, ed. Heaton; Edwards's Anecdotes; Smith's Nollekens and his Times; Redgraves' Century; Redgrave's Dict.; Leslie and Taylor's Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Heaton's Concise History of Painting, ed. Monkhouse; Catalogues of the Society of Artists, Royal Academy, and British Institution.]

C. M.