In Focus: Francis Wheatley, the Londoner who immortalised everyday Georgian life across the strata of society

Francis Wheatley RA (1747–1801) is best known today for his ‘Cries of London’, but, as Matthew Dennison explains, he was also a painter of delightful and accomplished portraits and landscapes.

Posterity has cocked a snook at the verdict on Francis Wheatley that was expressed in 1772 by the authors of Candid Observations on the Principal Performances Now Exhibiting at the New Rooms of the Society of Artists. This pithily titled critique made bold claims for the painter, not least that he ‘[bid] fair to be of the first class’.

Alas, it was not to be. Wheatley’s career spanned three decades, beginning in the early 1770s. It included a series of small-scale group portraits or conversation pieces, landscapes in oil and watercolour, full-length portraits, so-called ‘fancy pictures’ (genre studies of sentimental realism), scenes from Shakespeare and contemporary literature and a noteworthy handful of large group scenes, including The Irish House of Commons in 1780 and the glorious The Earl of Aldborough reviewing Volunteers at Belan House, County Kildare, commissioned in 1782.

Francis Wheatley’s The Earl of Aldborough reviewing Volunteers at Belan House, County Kildare, commissioned in 1782. Credit: The National Trust / Waddesdon Manor

In all, Wheatley demonstrated both adroitness and liveliness of spirit, without achieving consistently the hallmarks of an artist ‘of the first class’. Until a century ago, he enjoyed immortality of sorts thanks to the enduring popularity of his best-known print series, his ‘Cries of London’.

The pictures — painted in the 1790s — showed a series of 20 down-at-heel street sellers in and around Covent Garden. There is none of the glittering archness of his earlier fancy pictures: here was a vision both kindly and picturesque, celebratory and charming. They were reproduced by engravers and sold well into the 20th century, even finding fame on biscuit tins and chocolate boxes. Today, however, his work attracts a small following.

‘Two bunches a penny primroses, two bunches a penny’, from Wheatley’s ‘Cries of London’.

Wheatley’s career got off to a promising start, with prizes in his teens for drawing and draughtsmanship, admission to the new Royal Academy Schools in 1769 and to the Society of Artists the following year. Late in his career, he was elected a Royal Academician. That his contemporaries thought highly of him may not be surprising: among Wheatley’s talents was his ability to assimilate key features and mannerisms from the work of his fellow painters. Early influences included the portraits of John Hamilton Mortimer.

Wheatley’s first surviving landscape in oils, The Harvest Wagon of 1774, is modelled closely on a painting of the same name by Thomas Gainsborough. This was more than simple copying and the painter demonstrated considerable dexterity, not only of technique, but in the omnivorousness of his borrowing. View on the Banks of the Medway of 1776 clearly shows the influence of earlier Dutch landscape painting.

Wheatley built his early reputation on portraits of prosperous, but not necessarily top-drawer sitters. Invariably depicted in rural settings, his male subjects struggle to suggest patrician insouciance.

Francis Wheatley’s ‘Figures and cattle by a lake’. Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.

There is nothing cruel in Wheatley’s gaze; indeed, most of his work is characterised by a warmth of feeling that is charming in itself. Best examples, such as his portrait of Lord Spencer Hamilton of 1778 in the Royal Collection, combine a successful composition with flashes of genuine insight.

The same applies to the group portraits Wheatley undertook, again influenced by Mortimer in addition to other exponents of the conversation piece, notably Arthur Devis and Johan Zoffany. The Saithwaite Family of about 1785, a gift to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, is a bravura exercise in the form. The characters of mother, father and little daughter are all clearly indicated in a setting that is both visually rich and harmonious.

The same is true of A Family Group in a Landscape, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Family Group of about 1775 in the US National Gallery of Art. Both are highly decorative; both appear to reveal truths about their sitters.

All three pictures, however, also point to a flaw in much of Wheatley’s portraiture, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, with individual figures existing in apparent isolation from one another, despite their proximity within a canvas. This does not always matter.

 

Increasingly, as the 1780s progressed, despite recurring problems in his private life, usually related to chronic debts, Wheatley produced work of gentle elegance and, apparently, tenderness of feeling. More than others of his countrymen, he embraced the sentimental vision of French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The results, as one observer noted, are deliciously limpid: save to the harshest critic, they are never simply vapid.

Recently, I found a copy of Mary Webster’s 1970 monograph on Wheatley on the charity table in the entrance to a City church. It made for a costlier than usual Sunday Eucharist. As did the church in question, it offered wonderful food for the soul.


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