Sir William Beechey is best known as a portraitist who enjoyed the patronage of royalty. Working during a zenith in British portraiture, whilst perhaps not being an innovator of his craft, Beechey’s consistent and inoffensive style proved very popular.
Beechey’s professional life began not with painting, but with a position training to be a lawyer. Beechey’s uncle, who had taken charge of his upbringing, wanted to ensure for his nephew a respectable, stable career. Beechey, however, found himself lured into the hallowed halls of the Royal Academy by the painters with whom he socialised. Hanging up his wig and his gown, Beechey began to study and exhibit in the heart of the British art world, practising the most revered and exalted subject: portraiture.
Portraiture had long been praised as the highest form of art an artist could produce. Vital, too, was it to those who could afford to have their portrait painted. Portraits were a form of power, to display one’s wealth and prestige. A growing middle class, made rich out of developments in industry and trade, also offered a growing market for portraiture. It was a booming trade, and artists were high in demand.
Beechey could have chosen no better place to have practised this art than the Royal Academy. In this hub of artistic enterprise, he would learn from the example of the great artists before him. He was supposedly taught by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), a great portrait painter who long served the royal family. The works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), too, were imitated by Beechey as he honed his skill. These two greats of portraiture adopted the fashionable neoclassical style, in which figures were idealized, all blemishes smoothed away and not a hair out of place. Such an image of impenetrable civility appealed to those who wanted a portrait to demonstrate their power.
After completing his studies, Beechey worked for a time in Norfolk. This is most likely owing to his having found a good basis of work there, receiving commissions from surrounding wealthy families. He continued, however, to submit works for exhibition at the Royal Academy, and very slowly he was building a reputation for himself. A cunning publicity stunt by a dealer who purchased a work of Beechey’s rejected from the Royal Academy brought attention. The death of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and the retirement of Reynolds left an opening in the art world. Connections made between patrons were beginning to draw in more money and more praise. Beechey was on the rise.
He reached the apex of his career when he came to the attention of the royal family. An upset sitter, whose likeness Beechey had painted, showed his portrait to King George III when the Royal Academy, once again, rejected it. Both the king and his wife, Queen Charlotte, found Beechey’s style incredibly appealing. He was appointed portrait painter to Queen Charlotte, a promotion which rewarded Beechey with membership to the Royal Academy. They could not reject him any longer.
What appealed so much about Beechey’s style was its straightforwardness. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), who added dashes of drama and flashes of bold colour, Beechey’s attitude to art was subtler, more conservative. The refined, elegant style of neoclassicism was evoked through his use of darker backgrounds to highlight his sitters captured in calm colours. Even the rich fabrics of royalty are not gaudy, instead there is a grounded feel to his depictions which brings a humanity which, in turn, highlights the refined countenance of his sitters. Indeed, his critics often noted that this resulted in Beechey’s works having ‘more nature.’ His lack of ‘eccentricities’ allowed an authenticity grounded in gravitas that, therefore, made that gravitas appear natural.
Combined with this are elegant poses in which bodies are comparable to marble statues, those zeniths of the ancient world. ‘He never distorts his figures for the sake of extravagant attitude,’ critics remarked. Beechey’s selective taste of careful composition made his works ‘harmonious and agreeable.’ Beechey could work to make the royal family appear both the apex of civilization whilst not tinging his works with any ostentatious design choices.
The patronage of the royal family brought Beechey much favour, but also much scathing critique. His painting peers were jealous, especially when Beechey was knighted for his work ‘George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops’ in 1798. He was the first painter since the infamous Sir Joshua Reynolds to be bestowed with the honour. His peers, therefore, delighted in any sign that he had fallen from royal favour. Indeed, throughout his tenure under King George III, Beechey often fell foul of the king’s deteriorating mental condition. At other times, however, the king was singing his praises. He even considered making a gallery room solely to house Beechey’s works.
His work under King George III is often considered his best. As Beechey’s career continued, many were of the opinion that his works began to possess a static quality, one hardly different from the other. Nonetheless, Beechey continued to hold a fond position within the hearts of the royal family, becoming portrait painter to King William IV. Not only with the royal family, but with his peers, too, did Beechey cultivate a good reputation as an amiable man. Although, as sobriety became more founded in the 19th century, this was often seen as an uncouth frankness. Nonetheless, he played a crucial role in the promulgation of the portrait business and worked to encourage the next generation of painters. The young John Constable (1776-1837) was apparently mentored by Beechey.
To a great extent, Beechey has been lost beneath the boastful, booming careers of his more experimental peers. Since his death, his works have often been misattributed to other artists who possess more fame. Indeed, his posthumous reputation has fallen on some very hard times. His most famous work of King George III, for which he was knighted, was destroyed in the fire which broke out in Windsor Castle in 1992. Its great size and majesty which had pleased the king so much made it impossible to remove from the castle before it became devoured by the flames. It seems doubly important, therefore, that the history of Beechey’s life should not befall a similar fate.
Born in Burford, Oxfordshire.
Began studying at the Royal Academy.
Began exhibiting at the Royal Academy.
Moved to Norfolk.
Moved to London.
Married Anne Phyllis Jessop. Appointed portrait painter to Queen Charlotte. Elected an associate of the Royal Academy.
Knighted by King George III. Elected a member of the Royal Academy.
Appointed portrait painter to Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester.
Appointed principal portrait painter to King William IV.
Died in Hampstead, London, Britain.