Benjamin Wilson, Portrait Painter

(b. 1721, d. 1788)

Portrait Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born in Leeds in 1721. On his father, a cloth merchant, falling into straitened circumstances, he set out for London while still a youth, and there earned his living for some years as a clerk. His circumstances improving he was enabled to commence his artistic studies, and, receiving some help from Hudson, he gradually made himself known and obtained the friendship of Hogarth and other painters of the day. It is asserted that Zoffany also counted for something in his development; but the truth is probably the converse of this as Zoffany was many years his junior. Besides painting he applied himself to science, particularly to the study of electricity and chemistry. In April, 1746, he paid a short visit to Ireland in connection with his scientific studies, and there formed the acquaintance of Dr. Bryan Robinson, professor of physics in Trinity College, who collaborated with him in his scientific investigations. After a stay of three weeks he returned to London, narrowly escaping shipwreck on the journey. In the spring of 1748 he re-visited Dublin and remained there until the spring of 1750. During his stay he resided in Abbey Street, and he spent his time in painting, in scientific experiments and in writing his treatise on electricity. He painted portraits of his friend Dr. Robinson, of Archbishop Price, of Maria Gunning and others. He also engraved portraits of Maria Gunning and Dr. Robinson. On his return to London he established himself in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and obtained good practice as a portrait painter, many of the principal personages of the day sitting to him.

As a painter Wilson was esteemed while alive, but was afterwards practically forgotten until the fine picture, now in the National Gallery of Ireland, turned up at Christie's a few years ago. This work shows an assured and dexterous execution, and nothing can be more agreeable in conception and distinguished in effect. It is probable that many works assigned to Zoffany are in reality the work of Wilson.

In 1764 he succeeded Hogarth as sergeant-painter, and in 1773 was appointed painter to the Board of Ordnance. He continued his scientific studies, was elected F.R.S., and for his "curious experiments in electricity" was awarded the Royal Society's gold medal in 1760. Besides painting, Wilson etched with some success; a caricature relating to the American Stamp Act, sold at sixpence, brought him in three hundred pounds. Two etchings in imitation of Rembrandt deceived Hudson who posed as a connoisseur of Rembrandt's work and purchased them as choice and rare examples of the master. One of Wilson's best etchings is the large folio plate of "Sir Watkins W. Wynne." Wilson died in his house in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, on the 6th June, 1788. His portrait, by himself, is in possession of Earl Spencer. A fine picture by him, "Portrait Group of Mr. and Mrs. Richardson," probably his masterpiece, is in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Amongst portraits done by Wilson in Ireland are the following:

Bryan Robinson, M.D. [Provost's House, Trinity College.] Etched by the artist and published by him in Dublin in 1750.

Arthur Price, Archbp. of Cashel. [Trinity College, Dublin.] Painted in 1749.

Alicia, daughter of Chief Justice Marlay and wife of Richard Levinge of Calverstown, Co. Kildare. Painted in 1750. [C. H. Blake, Bridge House, Tuam.]

Thomas Marlay, Lt.-Colonel 5th Regt. Painted in July, 1746. [C. H. Blake, Bridge House, Tuam.]

Maria Gunning. "Faulkner's Journal," January, 1750, announced that "Mr. Wilson has now in hand a print of Miss Gunning, being after the manner of Metzotinto, which will be published in a short time." In May the paper announced that the print was "now completed by Mr. Wilson, and may be had at his lodgings in Abbey Street." Wilson subsequently re-worked the plate with the etching needle, and re-issued it with the inscription, Benjamin Wilson pinxit et Aq. forti excudit 1750. The plate when worn was again re-touched, more etching being added. There are thus three known states of this very scarce print: I. Mezzotint; before any inscription. [National Gallery of Ireland.] II. The plate elaborately re-touched with etched lines, and inscription added. [British Museum, Cheylesmore Collection.] III. Plate rather worn; more etched lines on hair, left-hand fingers, etc. [W. G. Strickland.]

Maria Gunning. A small etching, 4 ¼ by 3 3/8 inches; three-quarter length, standing and holding a coronet, inscribed Painted and Etched by B. Wilson 1751. "Faulkner's Journal," 22nd February, 1752, advertises this print as just imported from London: "A small print of the celebrated Miss Gunning painted and etched by Mr. Wilson in the style and manner of Rembrandt." An example is in the British Museum.

Jonathan Swift. Etching, prefixed to Lord Orrery's "Remarks on Swift," 8vo, published in 1751 by George Faulkner in Dublin, inscribed B. Wilson fecit, 1751. The publication was announced in "Faulkner's Journal," 26th November, 1751. The portrait, a head in profile, was engraved from the chalk drawing by Rupert Barber (q.v.), then in possession of Dr. Mead, and now in that of Mr. T. P. Le Fanu, of Abington, Bray.

Besides that of Maria Gunning another mezzotint by Wilson is known, a portrait of "Lady Harriet Grosvenor" after F. Cotes, published in 1770. Wilson engraved three portraits of himself: 1, a mezzotint; 2, an etching, 4to, done in 1749; 3, an etching, 8vo, prefixed to his "Treatise on Electricity." George Faulkner, the printer, had a portrait of "Lord Chesterfield" which was painted in England and presented to him by Lord Chesterfield. Faulkner announced in his "Journal," 30th April, 1774, that this picture was being engraved. Another portrait of "Lord Chesterfield," signed and dated 1752, was in the Earl of Cork's collection sold at Christie's on 25th November, 1905.

Chaloner Smith catalogues seventeen mezzotints by various engravers done after pictures by B. Wilson.

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