John Astley, Portrait Painter

(b. about 1730, d. 1787)

Portrait Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was the son of Richard Astley, a physician, and was born at Wem in Shropshire about 1730. He was a pupii for a short time of Hudson, and about 1749 made his way to Rome. Northcote tells the story of how his poverty compelled him to use one of his own canvasses to repair his waistcoat, and that when with a party of artists on a country excursion he removed his coat, his back displayed a foaming waterfall. He was so uneducated that Reynolds, who had been his fellow pupil with Hudson, and was in Rome at that time, said that Astley would rather run three miles to deliver a message by word of mouth than venture to write a note. Obtaining the patronage of Sir Horace Mann, the British Minister in Florence, he was enabled to find employment in painting portraits and making copies of pictures for English travellers. Mann seems to have had a high opinion of Astley's abilities as a painter and had his own portrait painted by him for Horace Walpole; and when the artist returned to England in 1752 Walpole, on Mann's recommendation, gave him his patronage, although he does not appear to have been impressed with his talents.

Astley failed to obtain a footing as a painter in London, and went to Ireland to try his fortune there. Pasquin gives an amusing account of him at this time: "He was as ostentatious as the peacock, and as amorous as the Persian Sophi; he would never stir abroad without his bag and his sword, and when the beauties of Ierne sat to him for their portraits he would affect to neglect the necessary implements of his art and use his naked sword as a mahl-stick." Astley spent three years in Ireland and met with great success, realizing, it is said, £3,000 by his brush. On his way back to London he met a rich widow, whom he married in 1759. This lady was Penelope, daughter of Henry Vernon of Hilton, Staffordshire, and widow of Sir William Dukinfield, Bart., of Dukinfield, County Chester, who had taken the name of Daniel. Astley came into the Dukinfield estates after the death of his wife, and his descendants still enjoy them. He subsequently married Mary Wagstaff, daughter of a surgeon in Manchester.

As a rich man Astley was no longer dependent on his art; idle and dissipated as he had always been, he was now enabled to indulge himself as he wished; and his extravagance and ostentation and his handsome person obtained for him the appellation of "Beau Astley." Edwards, in his "Anecdotes of Painting," says that Astley's "talents as an artist were by no means of an inferior class, as the author can assert from his own knowledge, having seen a half-length portrait of Mr. Payne painted by Astley about the year 1756, to which very few of his contemporary artists could then have produced an equal; but he was not one of those who delighted in his art. Unlike Gainsborough and Sir Joshua, he estimated his profession only by his gains, and having obtained a fortune treated all future study with contemptuous neglect." Astley died on the 14th November, 1787, at Dukinfield, and was buried in the village church there. Although he practised in Ireland for three years with success, there is no record of his works done during that period. A small portrait of him, "Head of Jack Astley," painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was in the collection of Arthur Kay, of Glasgow, and appeared at Christie's on 11th May, 1901, but was not sold. It was again at Christie's, at a sale of pictures belonging to the same owner, on 12th May, 1911.

Among Astley's recorded works are:

Francis Seymour Conway, 1st Earl of Hertford. Painted in 1754. Earl Waldegrave's sale at Christie's, 10th February, 1900.

Rev. Benjamin La Trobe, Moravian minister. Engraved by W. Bromley, 1792.

Galfridus Mann/Sir Horace Mann: Both painted in Florence. Were in the Strawberry Hill collection.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the age of 27. Bust portrait, in chalk, inscribed Rome, May, 1750. [British Museum.]

Sir Robert Walpole/Thomas Walpole: Both lent to the Whitechapel Exhibition in 1900, by H. S. V. Walpole.

Mary Woodyeare, Hon. Mrs. Morgan-Vane. Painted in 1753. [Rev. J. F. W. Woodyeare, 1868.]

Bust Portrait of a Lady. Attributed to Astley. [Brussels Gallery.]

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