Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


SIR WILLIAM BEECHEY (Burford 1753 – Hampstead 1839)

Portrait of a Young Midshipman

oil on canvas

30 x 25 inches (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)


P. & D. Colnaghi and Obach, 1912 from whom acquired by

Scott & Fowles Co., New York, 1912 from whom sold to

Frank Bulkeley Smith (1864-1918), Worcester, Massachusetts, 1912

Estate of Frank Bulkeley Smith sale, The American Art Association, Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, April 22-23, 1920, lot 97, illustrated, where bought by

William Randolph Hearst, San Simeon, California

His sale, The William Randolph Hearst Collection, Part IV, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, January 5, 1939, lot 19, illustrated, where bought by

F. Guest and thus by descent in the family to

Guest Collection, South Carolina, 2010



Worcester Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, October 12, 1912 – June 5, 1913, (lent by Frank Bulkeley Smith)


It is said that early in his career Beechey sought the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds over a difficulty he’d encountered in painting a young officer’s portrait. He had lavished a good deal of glazing and detail on the sitter’s sword but he realized that this might focus the viewer’s eye on the lower left corner away from the sitter’s face. “Sir Joshua took the palette from his friend, and introduced some untoned or unbroken colour in the right corner of the portrait, the lightness or prominence of which immediately drew the eye away from the sword hilt.” [1] This comes to mind when considering our portrait painted a decade later, since the gild detail of the midshipman’s sword and uniform are balanced by a single yellow-ochre stroke in the mid-right background, ensuring that amid the brilliance of his uniform and the smoke of battle our attention remains fixed on the sitter’s face. 

Beechey’s technique by this date was faultless, and his work of the mid 1790s shows how well he held his own against the encroachment of John Hoppner and his younger rival Thomas Lawrence. At times he works almost like a pastellist, but the bold vermilion underpainting, and flesh pigments that he tones through glazing, sing through and the result is an expressive breathing likeness. Our portrait can be dated to circa 1796 the period when hard work began at last to pay off and Beechey joined the first rank of Society portraitists, and it is unquestionably one of his finest works, filled with the realism and dignity that his patrons admired.

The sitter is identifiable by the white tabs on his uniform as a young midshipman. The uniform pattern dates to between 1795 and 1812, but the officer’s hairstyle, and the powder that has dusted the collar of his coat, place him not later than the late 90s. [2] Dr. Andrew Cormack of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, notes that the sitter’s hat appears to be of an older pattern, and this seems to bracket him comfortably in the mid decade. The sword that he is carrying appears to be a naval version of the 1796 pattern sword issued to the army. This weapon looked very splendid in portraits and on parade, but neither soldiers nor sailors were very impressed by it – one officer said “it was good neither for cut nor thrust and was a perfect encumbrance” [3] – and in combat naval officers often preferred to carry the standard issue heavy naval cutlass.

All naval officers first served as midshipmen, some beginning as young as twelve, though fifteen was the average age a “young gentleman” first came aboard, very close to the age of our sitter. It was an intensive and dangerous education. An officer would have to learn all elements of sailing and fighting on one of His Majesty’s ships, from navigation and gunnery to setting the rigging. On a man-o-war any member of the crew might in a moment have to take over a shipmate’s tasks, and the competence expected of what would, ashore, have been mere schoolboys was awesome. In action midshipmen would fight alongside and command men decades their senior, and be expected to earn their respect. This rigorous apprenticeship led after five years to a grueling examination for Lieutenant, which only the competent passed.

We do not know the identity or the fate of our sitter, but the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France shortly before his portrait was painted would have focused the minds of his viewers powerfully on the role of the Royal Navy. It is unwise to transfer modern sentiments to earlier times, and quite how the brave and practical people of late-Georgian England felt about our sitter and his fellow midshipmen who would be risking their lives when their coevals were still at school is uncertain. A good naval career was an enviable and lucrative prospect, and there was intense competition for a midshipman’s berth on a good captain’s ship, but there was certainly fierce pride in the Navy, the country’s bulwark against invasion and her only link with the far-flung outposts of her trading empire. It is impossible not to imbue our portrait with a very modern sense of bravery and perhaps this is not too far from how its original viewers would have felt as well.

Certainly for a landsman the Navy had great appeal for Beechey. A cursory glance at his sitters and exhibited portraits shows a preponderance of Captains and Admirals, some of whom like the great John Jervis, First Earl of Saint Vincent were personal friends. Beechey himself may have felt some kinship with the adventure of such a life. He placed two of his sons as midshipmen, the explorer Captain Frederick William Beechey (1796 – 1856) at the age of ten and Admiral Richard Brydges Beechey (1808 – 1895) at the age of fourteen and named two further sons, William Nelson Beechey (1801) and St. Vincent Beechey (1806 – 1899) after naval heroes. The painter’s eldest son Henry William Beechey (1788/9 – 1862) combined portrait painting with African exploration, and a further son George Duncan Beechey (1797 – 1852) pursued his career as a portrait painter as far as India.

Beechey himself had made his great journey early in life, and where others might run away to sea, he ran away to paint. His parents had placed him, at a midshipman’s age, with his uncle in Burford, Oxfordshire, in order to study law and qualify as a solicitor. According to family tradition, Beechey was so reluctant to get to grips with the law, and unwilling to do anything with his ledgers except draw caricatures in the margins that his uncle locked him in an attic of their house. One day his uncle went up to find him gone, and “on looking out of the window the uncle saw the boy flying across the fields. He set off after him and on seeing he was pursued the boy swam across the river, escaped and begged his way to London” [4] where he became apprenticed to a coach painter. Whether this was indeed how Beechey came to London - or whether he arrived there as an articled clerk - by 1772 he had met students at the Royal Academy and determined to quit the law and enroll in the Academy Schools.

Beechey’s career, first as a painter of coach panels and then as a portraitist in Norwich, seemed unremarkable until in 1787 he turned this disappointment to his advantage with an ingenious stroke of publicity. He had tried to show fifteen small portraits hung in two frames at the Academy Exhibition. Rules demanded that all paintings be framed individually and his paintings were duly rejected. The artist-dealer Benjamin Vandergucht encouraged him to exhibit them at his gallery, where as “banned” pieces they attracted huge press attention. Beechey’s name was made. Thomas Gainsborough died the following year, and Sir Joshua Reynolds soon retired from painting. An opportunity had appeared in the art market and Beechey’s career took off.

Paul Sandby his friend and fellow painter introduced him to the Earl of Carnavon who commissioned portraits of nine members of the Herbert family. By 1790 six of his exhibits at the Academy were portraits of peers, and aristocrats begin to figure heavily in his patronage alongside the soldiers, sailors and artists who had been the staple of his practice. 1793 was a great year for Beechey. Having been widowed previously he married the accomplished miniature painter Anne Phyllis Jessop (1764 – 1833) and then in a great boost to his career one of Beechey’s noble clients, whose portrait had been rejected by the Academy, took his painting to Windsor for Royal inspection. George III approved of Beechey’s style and appointed him Portrait Painter to the Queen. The Academy elected him an Associate in the same year. The King’s partiality for Beechey’s painting was fixed. Two years later he damned that year’s exhibition – “the worst that had been made since the foundation of the Royal Academy”, [5] and singled out only Beechey and John Hoppner for praise. In 1796 Joseph Farington records the belief that “a Mandate will come from the King requiring the Academy to make Beechy an Academician” and again in the following year that Beechey “was not elected an Academician because he is the best painter.” [6] In 1798 the King knighted him for his work on a single painting, the vast King George III Reviewing 3rd Prince of Wales Dragoon Guards and 10th Prince of Wales Light Dragoons (formerly Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, destroyed by fire 1992) and that year he was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy. From then until his death in 1839 his sitter list is a roll call of the greatest names in national life, including Lord Nelson in 1801 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), the Duke of Wellington circa 1814 (Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York), numerous admirals and generals as well of course as King George III, Queen Charlotte (Royal Collection) and most of the Royal Family. Numerous anecdotes survive testifying to Beechey’s character. He was clearly an engaging and likeable man, and the only criticism of that appears in contemporary accounts and relates to habits that, unremarkable previously, had become old-fashioned in an age of refinement. Lord Lyttelton famously told the diarist and engraver Joseph Farington that he was reluctant to invite Beechey because he swore. Calling on John Constable one day Beechey asked “Why damn it Constable, what a damned fine picture you are making; but you look damned ill, and have got a damned bad cold.” [7]

King George III had long been a supporter of Beechey. The painter’s plain-speaking manner appealed to him, and in many ways their characters were complimentary. Beechey would often stay with the King when he was engaged on Royal commissions, though unlike the King he was not an early riser. According to an early source the King would come into Beechey’s bedroom while the painter was still asleep. On one occasion he was woken up with: “What, still in bed Beechey? Lazy fellow, get up and come out.” Another time the King took exception to some autumnal trees that Beechey was painting in the background of a portrait: “Hullo Beechey, red trees, red trees. No such thing as red trees, don’t believe it,” so the next morning Sir William got up early and cut a bough with very red leaves and hung it on his easel before His Majesty came in; when he did come in he stared at it, and then said “Humph, painted by God, eh? Bad courtier Beechey, take it out.” [8] But Beechey’s own eccentricities excused what seemed to contemporaries to be an unforgiveable familiarity, and the Royal Family delighted in repeating stories of his behavior, and one of the King’s daughters leaves an account of Beechey dancing about the room when he felt he had hit a likeness just right. [9]

Beechey’s career spanned half a century, and he remains among the most prolific exhibitors at the Academy. One need only consider how he began showing in 1776 alongside Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and closed in 1839 with his portraits hanging alongside work by William Etty and Daniel Maclise, and in an understated way his career and his acquaintances reflected a slowly evolving world. – in 1785 he was at a house party of aeronauts and balloon-makers at the Earl of Orford’s house at Houghton. [10] His sitters, however, represent the constant points in that changing world, and from King George III and King William IV and their families, and great men such as the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson to young officers like our sitter, he was at his best in showing capable and unpretentious sitters to their best advantage. He was aware, however, that a more vigorous age had passed, and regretted after one Royal Academy dinner late in his career that it “was confoundedly slow to what was the wont in his younger days, when the company did not separate until a duke and a painter were both put under the table from the effects of the bottle.” [11]

Beechey is sometimes considered less accomplished than his rivals John Hoppner or Sir Thomas Lawrence because his style is plainer – “fit only for merchants and sea captains” in the words of John Opie [12] – but his sober vision touched a chord. As the Monthly Mirror writes at the probable date of our portrait: “Beechey … never distorts his figures for the sake of extravagant attitude – he is less fantastic in his design and less exuberant in manner, in short he has more nature…” [13] In many ways Opie’s is a true judgment on Beechey’s art, and the reason for his appeal to his patrons. Merchants and sea captains were the backbone of Georgian England, practical, commonsensical and –whether they would admit it or not – courageous. Beechey’s clients were not won over by the more operatic treatment of Sir Thomas Lawrence, or the romance of John Hoppner, but wanted to be portrayed as they saw themselves, capable people getting on with things. Patrons and painter understood each other, and Beechey painted them in portraits of lasting beauty and understated technical brilliance that remain one of the truest windows onto the world of late Georgian England.

We would like to thank Dr. Andrew Cormack of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon and Dr. Anne Miller of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich for their assistance in the writing of this entry.




[1] William Roberts, Sir William Beechey R.A., Duckworth, London, 1907, reprinted General Books, 2010, p. 12.

[2] We are grateful to Dr. Anne Miller, Curator at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, for her observations in dating the sitter’s uniform.

[3] Richard Holmes, Redcoat The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, Harper Perennial, 2001, p. 207.

[4] William Roberts, op. cit., p, 6.

[5] James Greig, ed., Joseph Farington’s Diary, London, 1923, volume I, chapter XXIV, p. 83 ( January 1st 1795).

[6] Joseph Farington, volume II, p. 552 and volume III, p. 884 quoted John Wilson “Sir William Beechey” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2010.

[7] Samuel Redgrave, Century of Painters, volume I, 1866, p. 341, quoted Roberts, p.10.

[8] Ibid., p. 32.

[9] John Wilson, op. cit.

[10] Samuel Redgrave, op. cit., p. 13.

[11] Ibid., p. 10.

[12] Joseph Farington, op. cit., chapter XXV, p. 85, January 6, 1795.

[13] Monthly Mirror, May, 1796, quoted in John Wilson, op cit.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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