John Opie (1761 – 1807)

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A Beggar Boy

John Opie was a Cornish historical and portrait painter, who was born in St. Agnes near Truro in Cornwall. His interest in drawing developed early, but he was also academically inclined. By the age of twelve, he had mastered Euclid and opened an evening school for arithmetic and writing. Before long, he became known locally for his portraits, and in 1780, he started for London, under the patronage of Dr Wolcot (Peter Pindar). Opie was introduced as “The Cornish Wonder”, a self-taught genius. He caused a sensation, where the carriages of the wealthy blocked the street in which the painter resided, and for a time, his portraits were very sought-after, but this level of popularity did not last long.

He then began to work on improving his technique, meriting the praise of his rival James Northcote–“Other artists paint to live; Opie lives to paint.” At the same time, he sought to supplement his early education by the study of Latin, French, and English literature, and to polish his provincial manners by mixing in cultivated and learned circles. In 1786, he exhibited his first important historical subject, the Assassination of James I, and in the following year, the Murder of Rizzio, a work whose merit was recognized by his immediate election as associate of the Royal Academy, of which he became a full member in 1788. He was employed on five subjects for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, and until his death, his practice alternated between portraiture and historical work.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Opie’s work is generally regarded as verging on crude but original and individualistic. He is also known as a writer on art by his Life of Reynolds in Wolcot’s edition of Pilkington, his Letter on the Cultivation of the Fine Arts in England, in which he advocated the formation of a national gallery, and his Lectures as professor of painting to the Royal Academy, which were published in 1809, with a memoir of the artist by Amelia Opie, his widow.

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