John Opie, 1761 - 1807
A Young Boy Playing with a Cat
A Young Boy Playing with a Cat
oil on canvas
76.20 x 63.50 cm. (30 x 25 in.)


Colognaghi, Faulkner, 1930

Artist biography

Opie, John (1761–1807), portrait and history painter, was born in May 1761 at Blowing House, Mithian, St Agnes, near Truro, Cornwall. He was the son of Edward Opie (pronounced Oppy in Cornwall and sometimes so spelled), a mine carpenter, and Mary Tonkin (1713–1805), of the Tonkin family of Trevaunance. (The house, renamed Harmony Cot by Opie's first wife, survives.) He was educated at the village school where he proved precocious, not least in mathematics, which he was teaching to other children by the age of twelve. By ten years old, he had already shown skill in drawing and painting, beginning with a copy of a landscape hanging in Mithian, the house of Benjamin Nankivell in the same parish, and a portrait of his own father. His father, however, disapproved both of this pursuit and of his studying, and early on bound him as his own apprentice and subsequently to a sawyer called Wheeler.


When he was fourteen or fifteen, Opie was ‘discovered’ by Dr John Wolcot (pseudonym Peter Pindar), an amateur artist and critic who was both a pupil and a friend of Richard Wilson, and who had valuable acquaintances in the artistic world (a portrait of him by Opie is in the National Portrait Gallery, London). Wolcot proved to possess something of genius as a publicist and he and Opie went into partnership in the promotion of Opie's career. To begin with Wolcot took Opie into his own house in Truro, where he evidently coached him to some extent: ‘I want to polish him … he is an unlicked cub yet, I want to make him respect himself’ (Earland, 14). It became important, however, that he should not become too polished, as Wolcot perceived that Opie's greatest chance of swift success in London was to cultivate the impression of a kind of ‘noble savage’, ‘a wild animal of St. Agnes, caught among the tin-works’, as the Revd Richard Polwhele put it (Earland, 15). Opie's incapacity to change assisted this impression, and he remained (allowing for the animosity which he sometimes incurred) ‘a man of invincible vulgarity’. Opie's first exhibit at the Society of Artists in 1780 was duly billed as ‘Master Oppy, Penryn, A Boy's Head, an instance of Genius, not having seen a picture’ (ibid., 25). This was nothing like the truth, and by this date Opie had been working for about four years as an itinerant portrait painter in Cornwall, producing works which have been described as having ‘unaffected virtues of a high order’ (Waterhouse, 263).

Wolcot had attempted in a letter of 25 October 1777 to get Ozias Humphry to take his protégé on as an assistant, without success. In 1779 the two moved to Coinage Hall Street, Helston, and Opie worked there and in Falmouth, with a brief interlude at Exeter and then at Plymouth in 1780, until they both arrived in London in autumn 1781. Wolcot and Opie took lodgings at Mr Ricardo's in Orange Court, Castle Street, Leicester Fields (behind what is now the site of the National Gallery), living at the top of the house, with an agreement that they should share all expenses between them. Opie was now launched as the ‘Cornish wonder’, and he can certainly not have had any more training than Wolcot was able to give him. His unpromising personal appearance, carefully preserved and touched up by Wolcot, gave credence to the near-fiction created, and he was described at this time by Thomas Hearne, the engraver and publisher, in unflattering terms as ‘a rude, clownish boy with lank, dark hair, and a green feather’ (Earland, 28), the latter detail presumably being Wolcot's hint at ‘savagery’. Sir Martin Archer Shee, who became a friend and wrote valedictory verse in Opie's praise (published in the preface to Opie's Royal Academy lectures, 1809) described him in 1789 as ‘in manners and appearance, as great a clown and as stupid a looking fellow as ever I set my eyes on’ (Earland, 73).

Wolcot's stratagem was successful and Opie was immediately inundated with visitors and sitters. As a fashionable curiosity he was presented to George III and Queen Charlotte at the end of 1781 or beginning of 1782. He took with him four or five pictures to the Queen's House (Buckingham House, now Palace), of which the king bought two: A Beggar and his Dog, and a portrait of Mrs Delany (Royal Collection), apparently commissioned earlier by the king. Hanoverian parsimony meant that Opie was not well rewarded, a point made by John Williams (pseudonym Anthony Pasquin): ‘the zealous youth … carried [his payment] triumphantly home that he might ruminate upon the bounty of his sovereign: he arrived, and, unfolding the paper with a panting heart, saw nine guineas and a half and sixpence!’ (Earland, 37). The tale is substantiated by a letter from William Mason to Lord Harcourt (Whitley, 1.378). A second version of Mrs Delany (NPG) was commissioned by Lady Bute and originally had a frame designed by none other than the exacting Horace Walpole, who approved of the picture: ‘Oui vraiment, it is pronounced [i.e. striking] like Rembrandt’ (letter of 14 Feb 1782 to the Revd William Mason, Earland, 36).

Solid patronage

Wolcot introduced Opie to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was very much impressed and rather crushed his former pupil James Northcote, who was then trying once again to establish himself in London: ‘You have no chance here’, Northcote recorded Reynolds as saying to him, ‘There is such a young man come out of Cornwall … Like Caravaggio, but finer’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.341–2). Northcote nevertheless became a lifelong friend of Opie, for whom he retained the highest regard, remarking to Hazlitt, ‘He was a true genius’ (Earland, 31), and Opie's portrait of Northcote dates from about 1799 (priv. coll.; see Peter, no. 60).

On 4 December 1782, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Opie married, unhappily as it turned out, Mary, daughter of Benjamin Bunn, a solicitor and moneylender of St Botolph's, Aldgate. Her father was described as ‘a Jew broker to whom Opie used to sell his pictures’ (Earland, 46). Alfred Bunn, the tyrannical theatre manager, was apparently a relation of his wife's with whom Opie stayed in touch.

The marriage led to Opie's parting from Wolcot. Opie was earning more than Wolcot, but now had a wife to support. Wolcot, on his side, was later wont to point out that he had given up his medical practice and £300 or £400 a year in order to promote Opie. While they were in partnership Wolcot earned some money with his Peter Pindar satires, which also provided a useful vehicle for favourable publicity on Opie's behalf as, for example, with one of two portraits of the organist and composer William Jackson, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783. This was the year after Wolcot had written:

Speak, Muse, who form'd that matchless head,
The Cornish boy, in tin-mines bred;
Whose native genius, like his diamonds, shone
In secret, till chance gave him to the sun?
'Tis Jackson's portrait—put the laurel on it,
Whilst to that tuneful swan I pour a sonnet.
(Lyric Odes to the Royal Academicians for 1782, Ode III)

The break with Wolcot was not final at this stage: Opie and his wife together with Wolcot visited Wales in 1783 or 1784, and Wolcot and he toured the south-west in 1783–4, for example, but in 1783 Opie was set up independently by a patron, Richard Wyatt (1730–1813) of Egham, Surrey, in a house in Great Queen Street. His first early success as a curiosity to the fashionable beau monde was thus succeeded by solid patronage, and for Wyatt he painted a number of portraits of the Hoare and Burrell families (Wyatt was the nephew of Sir Merrik Burrell, bt, whose portrait by Opie remains with the family (Peter, no. 16). Opie's particular gift for child portraiture was demonstrated at this time (c.1784), with paintings of the children of the fifth duke of Argyll and his famously beautiful duchess, the former Elizabeth Gunning (priv. coll.). One of Opie's finest fancy pictures, A Peasant's Family (Tate collection) is also of children and was painted c.1783–5, while Opie further demonstrated his range in a groundbreaking genre group showing a schoolmistress and her varied pupils (priv. coll.). It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 under the title A School and drew Walpole's approving note, ‘Great nature, the best of his works yet’ (Earland, 54). At the same time in his more original portraits, for example, Thomas Daniell and Captain Morcom, with Polperro Mine, St. Agnes, in the Background (1786; Truro, County Museum and Art Gallery; another version ex Sothebys, London, 13 July 1994, no. 66), Opie developed this same rare seam of realistic genre, of a kind which seems to reach back to John Riley's portraits in the preceding century.

Opie was also attracted, however, by that chimera of the British school, history painting on a large scale. By the winter of 1786 he was signed up to create a substantial number of canvases for Alderman John Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery, a commission mentioned in a letter to the Revd John Owen (Earland, 62–4). This commission followed close upon Opie's dramatic success with his first large history picture, The Assassination of James I of Scotland, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. It was bought by Boydell, as was its successor at the next year's academy exhibition, The Murder of Rizzio, which itself features prominently on the left wall of the engraving by Pietro Martini after J. H. Ramberg ofThe Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787. Boydell gave both paintings to the Guildhall in the City of London but The Assassination of James I was destroyed in the Second World War. Photographs of them, and of a smaller-scale oil replica (on panel) of Rizzio (ex Sothebys, London, 25 November 1998, lot 88), referred to by John Jope Rogers as ‘the beautiful reduction … which Opie himself made’ (Rogers, 56), reveal the influence of Caravaggio, not only in the lighting but also in the gestures, although contemporary reference was more often made to the influence of Lo Spagnoletto (Jusepe Ribera).

One can only speculate about how these influences came to bear upon Opie, since the tracks of his artistic education were so carefully covered by Wolcot, but prints after Caravaggio were certainly in circulation in eighteenth-century Britain. At the time, however, Opie was even more widely talked of as an ‘English Rembrandt’ and Caravaggio's influence would have been mediated through the many works of Rembrandt which Opie could have come across in English collections. He also gained firsthand knowledge of Rembrandt in summer 1786 with a trip to the Low Countries in the company of his father-in-law and ‘Mr Gardner, a painter’ (possibly Daniel Gardner, c.1750–1805) . They took in Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and The Hague, and Opie particularly remarked in a letter to Owen upon Rembrandt: ‘We saw some fine Rembrandts—he was wonderfully simple in his heads, & his compositions singularly grand, with prodigious force and roundness, & his colouring sometimes exquisitely true’ (Earland, 63).

Royal Academician and second marriage

The success of Opie's history pictures assisted his election as associate of the Royal Academy in 1786 and as Royal Academician in 1787, at an early age, although he had failed to become an associate at his first attempt, even earlier in his career, in 1782. From 1791 he lived at 8 Berners Street. His career is one of more or less unbroken success from then onwards but was interrupted by his wife's leaving him in 1795. Opie had apparently been too absorbed in his work, which also included, however, teaching the attractive young Jane Beetham. His wife went out of the house on 20 May 1795, saying she was going to dine with her father, and never came back, having run away to Clifton, Bristol, with a Major Edwards. The marriage was dissolved by act of parliament in 1796, leaving both free to marry again. Mary married Edwards; Opie did not marry Miss Beetham, despite rumours in the press. In 1796, also, he wished to marry another of his pupils, Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of Benjamin Booth (whose portrait by Opie of about 1790 is in a private collection) but in 1797 Booth refused to allow the match. Opie's name was also linked with that of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 according to Joseph Farington, but she married Opie's friend William Godwin in March 1797. (Opie's portrait of her, c.1797, is in the National Portrait Gallery.) Instead, on 8 May 1798, at Marylebone Church, Opie married Amelia (1769–1853) [see Opie, Amelia], the daughter of a Norwich doctor, James Alderson. One of Opie's several portraits of her dates from this year (NPG).

His second marriage was successful, although Opie became more highly strung (or just difficult) as he got older, and, with his encouragement, Amelia became a successful novelist, her first book, Father and Daughter, appearing in 1801. She for her part championed Opie, almost to a fault, but Wolcot she refused to tolerate. The break in 1798 between Opie and Wolcot was never explicit, but clear enough for Wolcot to grumble about ingratitude. Following his second marriage the number and size of Opie's fancy pictures at first increased, perhaps reflecting the influence of his wife. In 1802 the two of them went to Paris, a hard-won holiday on Amelia's part, since Opie was inclined to be careful about money. For him it was primarily a chance to study the huge number of paintings looted by Napoleon from all over Europe, and then displayed in the Louvre. Opie was thus able to see Raphael'sTransfiguration without travelling to Rome, and Raphael forms a touchstone in Opie's lectures to the Royal Academy, where he became professor of painting in 1805. While in Paris the couple dined with Charles James Fox, in the company of Benjamin West (Opie painted Fox in 1804, a picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1805; priv. coll.); visited the studio of J. L. David; caught a glimpse of Napoleon; and met Maria Cosway, and went with her and West to look at the fabled collection of the then Archbishop (later Cardinal) Fesch.

Like many another English artist, Opie was frustrated by having to paint portraits for a living rather than grander history paintings, and his income was also augmented by a few pupils: Henry Thomson RA; Theophilus Clarke ARA; Thomas William Stewardson; Jane Beetham; William Chamberlain; John Cawse; and the amateurs Elizabeth Mary Booth and the Revd John Owen (both referred to above) and Katherine St Aubyn. However, despite his yearning for fancy pictures and histories, and his skill at them, Opie exhibited his last historical painting at the academy in 1804, a scene from Gil Blas, and thereafter painted only portraits. The focus and freshness of his vision in portraiture gave way in his last years to imitative eclecticism, picking up a hint of Gainsborough here or a touch of Hoppner there.

Opie's further ambition to become professor of painting at the Royal Academy began unpromisingly with a course of lectures at the British Institution in 1804–5 which he failed to finish. Nevertheless, when, on his becoming keeper, Henry Fuseli resigned the professorship at the academy in 1805, Opie was elected to the post, and the four lectures he managed to deliver in February and March 1807 were both better written and better presented than his earlier series. They were published as Lectures on Painting (1809). The last lecture was given on 9 March and, after a visit to Henry Tresham a few days later, Opie caught cold and subsequently a fever. He died in London on Thursday 9 April 1807. Opie's death, which followed the intense preparation of these lectures, and his customary incessant painting, has been partly at least attributed to overwork.


Opie enjoyed a remarkable reputation in his lifetime, although his own (and his second wife's) high estimation of his achievement has not lasted. He had genuine, if often sarcastic, wit and real talent and produced a handful of striking and original images. He struck a distinctive note among his contemporaries which can still be recognized. Technical shortcomings in drawing and in creating coherent figures, of a kind not unknown among his peers, made him inconsistent as a portraitist, but his fancy pictures and portraits of children can be better than those of almost any British artist of his time. He was not congenial and was liked and disliked in almost equal measure, not always for the right reasons in either case. It was noticeable at the time, for instance, that he was reluctant to stay long with his second wife's relations on visits to Norwich, and it may be that they did not heartily approve of him. A story told of Amelia's cousin Robert Alderson after the funeral on 20 April (a lavish affair at St Paul's Cathedral, where Opie was interred in the same vault as Reynolds) suggests this family mistrust, and also Opie's idiosyncratic character. The undertaker apologized to Alderson for putting the coffin the wrong way round (with Opie's feet towards the west rather than the east). ‘Shall we change it?’ he asked. ‘Oh, Lord, no!’ replied Alderson. ‘Leave him alone! If I meet him in the next world walking about on his head, I shall know him’ (Earland, 234).

Robin Simon   DNB