Sir William Beechey (Burford 1753 - Hampstead 1839)

Portrait of William Ellis Gosling, 1800

Inscribed on the reverse Master Gosling and numbered 536
oil on canvas
47 x 32 inches (119.3 x 81.3 cm.)


Sold to the El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas
Provenance: Carl Marr (the artist, 1858-1936) and thus by descent to
Joan Marr Pick, who in 1979 donated it to
West Bend Art Museum, West Bend, Wisconsin, deaccessioned in 2000

Exhibitions London, The Royal Academy or Arts, 1800, no. 536

Literature: William Roberts, Sir William Beechey R.A., Duckworth, London, 1907, p. 72

By 1800, the year that Master Gosling was exhibited at the Royal Academy, William Beechey’s place in the highest ranks of society portraitists was assured. Knighted two years before, he had been Portrait Painter to her Majesty Queen Charlotte since 1793 and when the present painting hung on the Academy’s walls it was accompanied by seven others of Beechey’s work including a portrait of King George III and one of the King’s daughter-in-law the Duchess of York. In the following year another eight pictures exhibited included portraits of the Duke of York and another of the King’s sons Prince Augustus as well as Beechey’s famous painting of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

It was a wish fulfilled for the young man who had doodled in the margins of his legal notebooks and run away to London from an apprentice lawyer’s drudgery in Oxfordshire to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. After initial training under Johan Zoffany, Beechey progressed from a Norfolk practice in small-scale figure painting to the acme of society portraiture, painting a royal and aristocratic clientele on the scale of life and maintaining a prolific presence at the annual Royal Academy shows between 1776 - two years after he entered the Royal Academy Schools as a student - and 1839, which was one of the longest exhibiting careers for any painter. He was made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1793 and a full R.A. in 1798, the year that the King knighted him for his vast royal group portrait The King Reviewing the Dragoons, 1798 (Royal Collection). At the date of this painting only his bitter rival John Hoppner (1756 – 1810) could equal him in popularity.

The present portrait epitomises the qualities that ensured his success. The young sitter is framed in an idyllic landscape that despite its tonal allusions to Italy is nonetheless recognisably the English Arcadia. Where comparison is possible it confirms that Beechey was accomplished in capturing a likeness, but this portrait of a young boy playing at being a drummer is imbued with a narrative quality that takes it far beyond a mere record of appearance. Beechey’s paintings of children, far more perhaps than his portraits of adult sitters, blur the line between conventional portraiture and the make-believe, partaking in the moralising world of what were known as fancy pieces, and Beechey’s children play many roles. Some speak directly to an adult audience over the heads of their young sitters. Sir Francis Ford's Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited Royal Academy, 1793 and now in Tate Britain) with its juxtaposition of the plump and rosy Ford children with a beggar boy emaciated to the point of starvation must surely have been an uncomfortable take on a rural reality normally given a more picturesque gloss in painting, as much a slap in the face as a homily on charity to its audience. Even at their most innocent-looking, Beechey’s child sitters are seldom just children.

In this painting young Master Gosling is beating on a drum and playing at being a soldier. The drum is a toy and feathered hats like his are a feature of fashionable children’s dress at this date - Sir Francis Ford’s son wears just such a hat in the Tate portrait. But, despite the benign landscape, the suggestion of a drummer boy looking up and calling behind to the battalions he is leading is so keenly evoked that it seems to leap the bounds of William Gosling’s game. The bareheaded hero whose hat is cast off in the heat of the moment is a cliché of contemporary battle paintings, and this simple effect superimposes in our minds the real world of actual warfare on a young boy’s portrait, so that to look at it is to hear the cannon and the musket-shot.

For us, too few years separate young Master Gosling with his toy drum from the real drummer boys nine or ten years his senior for this portrait not to be a poignant image. But to Beechey and his patrons – congenitally more hard-bitten perhaps – the trials, and the rewards, of adulthood, were not to be shied away from. This may simply have been one of a number of pictorial conceits in which to portray a child, and valued by the artist simply as an opportunity to exercise his skill and to impress a likely patron. Certainly it was a great success. This was the first portrait the Gosling family commissioned from Beechey. According to the painter’s surviving account books in 1817 Mary Gosling the sitter’s mother paid £105 the last half payment for a three-quarter length portrait of ‘Mr W Gosling’, presumably William her husband although it could be a further portrait of the present sitter, and a double portrait of her two daughters Mary and Elizabeth. [1] In 1818 she paid £26 5s the first instalment for a portrait of her son Richard [2] and in 1823 commissioned a portrait of her youngest son Bennett for which she paid the first half of £31 10s. [3]

At the date this portrait was painted, young William Ellis Gosling (1794 – 1834) was the heir of one of London’s banking families. Gosling’s Bank was established on Fleet Street at least as early as 1743 in a building that still bears their name. William Ellis was fourth in line from Sir Francis who first set up business there. William Ellis’s generation was no doubt intended as the penultimate stage in the family’s social elevation, the laundering of their City lucre in a blue-blooded marriage, a preliminary to its apotheosis of ennoblement. His father, William had married Mary daughter and heir of Sir Ellis Cunliffe, but despite Cunliffe’s baronetcy and an ancestor who was a godson of King Charles II, the Cunliffes were only fellow merchant-princes not members of the nobility.

Despite the martial suggestion of this portrait, however, Gosling did not die on one of Britain’s many battlefields. Nor did he live to inherit Gosling’s Bank, as he predeceased his father by only three weeks. He did not marry, but instead enjoyed a comfortable bachelordom as a gentleman of private means, and his wealth freed him to be a connoisseur of contemporary art. Perhaps his greatest achievement was being among the first to employ the young Edwin Landseer. By his death Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, a favourite painter to Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, was acknowledged to be the nineteenth century’s most brilliant painter of animal subjects, a unique genius unequalled ever since in that genre. Gosling chose Landseer for monumental commissions when the painter was only twenty years old which is a tribute to his taste as a patron.

No painting of Gosling himself by Landseer is recorded, but his dog Neptune is the subject of some of Landseer’s most spectacular early works. The breathtaking life size portrait of Gosling’s Newfoundland Neptune (Sotheby’s New York, October 29, 1986, lot 212) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824 no. 370, twenty four years after his master’s portrait had hung on those same walls. He had already included Neptune in Canine Friends – A Newfoundland and an Irish Terrier Beside a Stream, 1822 (Sir Edwin Landseer studio sale, May 8, 1874, lot 318) and he appears in the animal subject picture Two Dogs in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see photograph 25a.), illustrating the poem by Robert Burns of the same name. The collaboration between artist and patron seems an unusually fortuitous one. Gosling enabled the painter to produce attention-grabbing works which secured his reputation at the very start of his career, at the same time recording his affection for a remarkable companion. Certainly Gosling evidently loved his dog – and his dog’s portrait – so much that he employed the painter’s brother Robert Landseer to engrave him in a head and shoulders composition which either reproduces the large 1824 canvas, or perhaps a further as-yet unidentified portrait.






[1] William Roberts, op. cit., p. 244.
[2] Ibid., p. 246.
[3] Ibid., p. 255. The three male Gosling portraits are presently unlocated but the double portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Gosling sitting at a box piano was sold from the Sir Richard Spencer-Smith collection Sotheby’s, London, February 19, 1958, lot 54, bt Leger £280.
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