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N° XLIII.-VOL. VII.] For JUNE, 1807.
JOHN OPIE, Esq. R. A. and Professor of Painting to the Royal Academy. HE feeling which leads us eager ly
tish of St. Agnes, in the county of Cornwall: his father and grandfather were reputable master carpenters in
aspect men of genius, to view them lated, that a maternal ancestor of in public and in private, to view them Opie's is the author of a valuable hisas men in the social circle, and as su- tory of Cornwall, which was left perior beings in the theatre of the nearly entire, and is at present in the world, is an instinctive homage which possession of Lord de Dunstanville. man pays to man, and from its uni- This, whether true or false, can neiversality it may be pronounced natural ther add to nor diminish from the into the human breast. But its ope- dividual fame of Opie; he can reration is much restricted during the ceive no aggrandisement of reputaexistence of its object: there are a tion from a distant consanguinity thousand causes perpetually working with an obscure author of an unpubon our minds, which prevent the full lished and unfinished work. and perfect emanation of this feeling; envy, prejudice, ignorance, pride, all conspire to turn aside the natural current of our emotions and dictate to us a false language. When death, however, removes the object from the sphere of competition; when praise can give no more delight, nor censure wound by its severity; then it is that we are eager to testify our admiration, and lavish forth encomiums with a spendthrift's hand. Sad reward of genius! that the meed of merit should be reserved only to enwreathe the dull sepulchre, when in the bosom of its cold inhabitant one pulse of joy can no longer be awakened.
He was early distinguished for an originality and strength of mind. What education a village school could afford he soon mastered, and was able in a short time to instruct others. He was called the "little Sir Isaac," as probably being a sort of phenomenon among the rustic youth of his own age. It may, indeed, be presumed that he attained to some degree of proficiency in knowledge, for we find him at twelve years of age setting up an evening school in St. Agnes, teaching arithmetic and writing, and reckoning among his scholars some nearly twice his own age.
It was the wish of his father that he should follow the trade of a carpenThese reflections were suggested ter, and indeed he followed that busito us by reflecting upon the life of the ness for some time. His father was inisubject of the present memoir. He mical to his wasting his time in drawburst forth in his outset into momen- ing and painting, and used sometimes tary splendour; he was neglected; to throw a hammer at the head of our and for many years his labours were young artist when he caught him so only sufficient for the day that was employed. A rough mode of correcpassing over him. Just when he was tion, but suited to the rude ignorance again reaching the envied height of of the corrector. tenown, when the glittering prize of public applause and public patronage was within his eager grasp, fate doomed him to the grave and left a nation to lament his loss.
John Opie was born in 1761. His birth place was the little obscure paUNIVERSAL MAG. VOL. VII.
It were vain to hope we could be able to ascertain by what gradations Opie proceeded in self-tuition. It is said, that his emulation was first excited in his tenth year, by seeing one of his companions drawing a butterfly; he looked eagerly on in silence;
and, being asked what he was think- tention: he thought he had powers ing of, he replied, "he was thinking for landscape, and indeed he has been he could draw a butterfly, if he were constantly heard to say, that had he to try, as well as Mark Oates." He devoted his talents to that branch of attempted; he succeeded; and felt, the art, he would have been still more perhaps, the first throb of exultation. eminent than he is. The following After this, he copied the picture of a anecdote relating to this period of Farm Yard, which hung in the par- Opie's life serves, in some measure, lour of a neighbouring lady, and suc- to confirm this idea; it has never becessively several other pieces. fore been given to the public.
About this time his talents became Dr. Wolcot used to take young known to a gentleman, who has since Opie with him into the fields, to give rendered himself eminently conspi- him an idea of landscape and the cuous in the literary world; we mean aërial perspective. One evening when Dr. Wolcot, better known by his cog- they were at Falmouth they walked nomen of Peter Pindar. The Doctor into the country, near Pendennis was practising as a physician at Truro, Castle; it was a calm summer's evenand, being upon a professional visit at ing; the sea at a distance added to St. Agnes, he happened to fall into the beauty and majesty of the scene; conversation upon the subject of our young artist contemplated it in sipainting with a lady there, who point- lence; he listened to the instructions ed to a well known print of a farm of the Doctor; and the next day yard, and informed him that there drew the whole from memory. It was a sawyer's lad in the parish who was finely coloured, and equal to any greatly admired that picture, and who of our first masters in composition. had copied several figures from it. Opie was at this time seventeen. Dr. Wolcot then enquired where he His patron, however, thought that worked, and being informed he im- personal vanity would insure him a mediately proceeded to the spot. better prospect of success in portrait There he found young Opie down in painting, and he therefore urged him a saw-pit, working with his father. to direct all his powers that way. The Doctor called to him, and ques- Opie was a constant inmate with the tioned him about his performances; Doctor, who used to call him up Opie replied, that he painted blazing every morning in summer at three stars! Duke William! King and o'clock, that he might commence his Queen! and Mrs. Nankivell's Cat! labours. The consequence was, that The Doctor requested to see a speci- in a few months he began to reap the men: Opie tucked up his leather fruits of them; for he now painted apron, bounced across the hedge, and half-lengths for five shillings. In the soon returned with Mrs. Nankivell's intervals of these pursuits, the Doctor cat, a red lion, and part of a huge devil, taught him the French language; the monstrous appearance of which endeavoured also to give him some (for, in conformity with the vulgar idea of the classics, but in this he was idea, he was equipped with a tremen- not very successful. We have been dous pair of horns, asses ears, and told that Opie taught himself the Laenormous goggling eyes) caused a tin language in his latter years. The hearty laugh to the Doctor. He de- German flute too formed part of the sired him, however, to call at his instructions of Dr. Wolcot. He house on the following Sunday. Opie aimed also at giving our artist a little was punctual to the appointment, and exterior polish, by divesting him of his patron provided him with some his rough and clownish manners, but materials for painting, such as brushes, this he found the most difficult of all. colours, &c. These visits were re- Many Chesterfieldian advices were peated, and Dr. Wolcot at length be- bestowed upon the Cornish Stanhope; gan to perceive some signs of genius, he remained, however, to a certain and he now seriously resolved to give degree unaffected by them. He adhim some practical instructions. He was vised him also to change his name for some time at a loss to ascertain to from Hoppy (for that is its original orwhat particular point to direct his at- thography) to the more genteel one
of Opie, aware of the influence even tured genius; that he was an untu
of a name in the outset of an active and ambitious life.
tored artist, and owed every thing to nature. The case is exactly the reOpie now began to be of some con- verse; his first attempts were so rude, sequence. His fame increased, and that Dr. Wolcot has been heard to with it increased his prices. He never say, it was a long time before he beyentured, however, to make any en- lieved him capable of any thing largement of demand without first higher than to paint signs, &c. One consulting the Doctor, who, in pro- of his earliest attempts was a head of portion as he discovered the increas- the doctor, which, we have heard, ing dawn of his pupil's talents, ad- was most frightfully incorrect. But vised him to fix a higher reward for he was enthusiastic, and this added to them. He proceeded gradually from perseverance overcame all. half-a-crown to five shillings; from The constant advice of the Doctor five shillings to seven and sixpence, to his pupil was for him to have two and then to half a guinea: at length ambitions; the first, to reach the head he proceeded to a guinea; but this of his profession; the second, to assist progression of pecuniary emolument his parents, and take his sister from was not made without niany exclama- servitude. How well he has followed tions on the part of young Opie that the first the world knows; the world he should ruin the county!'
also ought to know that his success was equal in the second: He was an affectionate son and brother, and justly offered at the shine of filial duty the first fruits of his labours.
Our artist now, however, began to rise into consequence. He bought a horse to go from town to town; he wore a ruffled shirt and a cocked hat, and sacrificed a little to the Graces. Returning home once In painting, as in poetry, genius after an excursion through the coun- often starts at once to perfection; try in which he had amassed about and remains afterwards stationary, or twenty guineas, he entered the Doc- sometimes even becomes retrograde. tor's room with manifest exultation, It has been said, that some of Opie's and exclaiming "I shall wallow in pieces which he did while he was in gold!" he actually threw the guineas Cornwall, are equal, if not superior, on the floor and rolled about in them like a pig.
in colouring, to any thing he afterwards executed. But these examples are rare, and perhaps have less of truth in them than is commonly imagined. Injudicious admiration of present excellence often leads us to transfer our immediate feelings to prior exertions; and seeing through à delusive medium, the accuracy of our estimations is problematical.
He paid great deference to Dr. Wolcot's instructions. This gentleman has himself devoted some attention to painting. Opie used to stand over him when he was at work, and exclaim sometimes, "Ah! if I could ever paint like you!" But his mentor began now to know the real powers of his pupil; and his constant re- The Doctor, pleased with the grow. ply was, "If I thought thou would'st ing excellence of his pupil, now renot exceed me, John, I would not solved to remove him to Exeter, take such pains with thee." For which is usually regarded as the Lonnearly two years young Opie would don of the West of England. Prenever paint a single picture without viously to his departure, much pains his friend leaning over him to correct were taken to improve his general him as he proceeded, and to give him appearance; to remove the barbarisms confidence in his labours. We men- that yet adhered to him; to give him tion these particulars, which we have a genteel deportment; to clear his from indisputable authority and which tongue from its provincial harshness; have never before been given to the and, in fact, to hit him as far as pospublic, because it has been confidently sible for acting a respectable part upon stated by the friends of Mr. Opie the great theatre of life. It was at and we believe by Mr. Opie himself, this period, we believe, that he changthat he started forth at once a ma- ed his name from Hoppy, which was
conceived to have something vulgar lowing curious note of hand is still in in it, for Opie, the appellation of a the possession of Dr. Wolcot; but genteel family in the duchy of Corn- whether it was given previously, or well. His success in Exeter was com- subsequently to the above, we are not imensurate to his abilities; and every prepared to affirm: thing seemed to point out the metropolis as the proper sphere now for the display of them.
"I promise to paint, for Dr.Wolcot, any picture or pictures he may demand, as long as I live; otherwise I desire the world will consider me as a d-d uugrateful son of a b―h.
Previously, however, to departing for London, Dr. Wolcot wrote to Humphries, at that time a celebrated "JOHN OPIE." miniature painter, telling him of the This is a curious document, and uncommon powers of young Opie, serves to shew the opinion entertained and of his intention to visit the capi- by Opie of the services rendered him tal. Humphries, probably from jea- by the Doctor. Nor does it appear lousy of the abilities of Opie, replied, that he ever swerved from this volunthat London was overstocked with tary obligation: but the reader will artists; that the chances of his suc- smile when he hears that he always cess were very few; and endeavoured made his friend pay 1s. 6d. for the as far as possible to check the idea of canvas. Such are the eccentricities
his establishing himself in London. of men of genius!
It is worthy of remark, that Opie, Mr. Opie had not been long in Lon after he became a Royal Academician, dan before his talents rendered him was solicited by Humphries for his conspicuous. Through the recom vote, to assist him towards attaining mendation of Dr. Wolcot, his pictures the same honour. were shewn to Mrs. Boscawen, and About this time, however, (1780), by this lady he was introduced to the Dr. Wolcot himself resolved to visit late Mrs. Delancy. It was she that the capital, for the purpose of essay- procured to our artist the royal notice, ing those talents which have since Having contrived an opportunity for rendered him so celebrated. He and the royal family to see his Old BegOpie therefore set off together; and gar Man,' the painter of that picture being both unmarried, they agreed to was soon afterwards honoured with a make a common purse, into which command to repair to Buckingham their mutual earnings should be put. House. Opie's account of this affair This plan continued for some time, was given, on his return, in a characuntil Opie, from his increasing con- teristical manner to the Doctor, who nexions, finding that he no longer has often been heard to relate it with stood in need of his patron's assist- great humour.
ance, signified the same to him while "There was Mr. West," said John, he was in the country, by letter, and "in the room, and another gentleconsequently dissolved the domestic man. First, her Majesty came in; union. This circumstance, we be- and I made a sad mistake in respect lieve, occasioned a coolness between to her, till I saw her face, and discothe Doctor and Opie, which was vered by her features that she was the never afterwards cordially removed. Queen. In a few minutes afterwards They visited each other; but the his M-y came hopping in; I supwarmth and sentiment of friendship pose," says John, because he did not had expired. It was from this pecu- wish to frighten me. He looked at niary union that arose the insinuation the pictures, and liked them; but he of the Doctor sharing half the profits, whispered to Mr. West,- tell the and, in fact, living upon the labours young man I can only pay a gentleof the man whom he affected to pa- man's price for them. The one he tronize. We believe this accusation bought was that of A Man struck to be false. blind by Lightning' the price given It does not appear, however, that was 10.; and with this John returned Opie was deficient in gratitude to his to the Doctor full of spirits. His friend, friend and benefactor. We have been when he heard the story, told him,— informed, that the original of the fol- "Why, John, thou hast only got eight