‘I am now painting a half length of D.r Wilson & his adopted Daughter Miss Macauley, this is for reputation only, but you must not say so. The Dr is a very popular Man & is fighting in my Cause stoutly.’
Joseph Wright to Richard Wright, Bath, April 15th 1776.
Painted, as Joseph Wright of Derby wrote to his brother, ‘for reputation’, this three-quarter length portrait was the most important commission he undertook whilst living in Bath. Painted for the distinguished clergyman Dr Thomas Wilson, it depicts Wilson and his adopted daughter, Catherine Sophia, the daughter of the radical republican historian Catherine Macaulay. The widowed Macaulay, a celebrated historian and polemicist, was in the midst of writing her unprecedented eight volume History of England; whilst she is not included in the portrait, both sitters are shown pointing at a volume of the History of England. As such, this portrait stands as a monument to one of the most progressive female historians of the eighteenth century and her unconventional relationship with Wilson. The painting is also a tour de force of Wright’s mature work as a portraitist.
By 1776 Joseph Wright of Derby had achieved considerable success with his great candlelight paintings; he was recently returned from a period of study in Italy and had established himself in Bath, hopeful of forging a successful portrait practice. Thomas Gainsborough was demonstrating that the resort town of Bath continued to be a potentially fruitful place to operate as a portraitist. Despite arriving in November 1775, Wright had managed to attract few patrons, he was therefore excited by the commission he received from Thomas Wilson in April 1776. Writing to his brother, Richard that: ‘I am now painting a half length of Dr Wilson & his adopted Daughter Miss Macauley, this is for reputation only, but you must not say so. The D.r is a very popular Man & is fighting in my Cause stoutly.’ Thomas Wilson was the rector of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London. He was the son of the celebrated Bishop of Sodor and Man and was a considerable cultural figure and patron of the arts. The year Wright painted this portrait, Benjamin West had completed his large altarpiece of Devout Men taking the Body of St. Stephen (collections Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) commissioned by Wilson for the altar of St Stephen Walbrook. The large painting was shown at the Royal Academy in April where both the painting and Wilson received considerable praise.
Wilson was also rector of St Margaret’s Westminster but following the death of his wife in 1772, despite his ecclesiastic duties, he spent much of his time in Bath. Wilson owned 14 Alfred Street, next to the new upper Assembly Rooms, and here the widowed historian, Catherine Macaulay and her daughter came to live with him. The first volume of Macaulay’s History had been published in 1763, with subsequent volumes following in 1765, 1767, 1768, 1771, 1781 and 1783. Macaulay’s writing was initially celebrated as a timely answer to David Hume’s Tory interpretation of history. As the History proceeded, however, it became increasingly clear that Macaulay was a real radical. It was when she reached her fourth volume in 1768, that dealt with the trial and execution of Charles I, that her extreme views were revealed. It was in this volume that she talked for the first time of 'the rise of the republicans' who 'looked forward to the reformation of the principles, as well as the executive, of the government.' The Commonwealth she saw as 'the brightest age that ever adorned the page of history.’ It was in her sympathies for the Commonwealth, Macaulay expressed her support with the American colonists. In her History and her other writings she was a passionate advocate of liberty and democracy, believing that ‘it is only the democratical system, rightly balanced, which can secure the virtue, liberty, and happiness of society.’ Macaulay was celebrated by other radical writers and was a close friend of John Wilkes and his daughter Polly as well as the republican Thomas Hollis, who left his library to Harvard. Wilson was also described as being ‘zealous for liberty’, he too was a friend of John Wilkes, who he made a churchwarden of St Margaret’s Westminster and it was probably through Wilkes that Wilson first met Macaulay.
The widowed Macaulay and her daughter, Catherine Sophia, are recorded living with Wilson in Bath in the autumn of 1776. In April 1775 the childless Wilson had adopted the eleven-year-old Catherine Sophia making her his heir, at the same time he assigned the lease of his house in Bath to Catherine Macaulay and promised her an annuity for life. Their house became the centre of intellectual life in the spa town, Thomas Wilson wrote: ‘Our little Tusculum… which is honoured with all the visits of all the Literary persons who frequent this place.’
The double portrait of Wilson and Catherine Sophia was the most ambitious Wright had made since his return from the Continent. Conceived as a depiction of old age instructing youth, the portrait shows Wilson pointing at an open page from Catherine Macaulay’s History, Catherine Sophia points to another passage on the same page and looks intently up at Wilson. The gestures of the sitters’ hands imply to the viewer, that they are having a conversation about Macaulay’s text; as such it is a remarkable depiction of female education in the eighteenth century.
Wright seems to have drawn upon the rich tradition of portraits of statesmen and their secretaries, most notably Sebastiano del Piombo’s portrait of Ferry Corondelet and his secretaries which Wright would have known as a print from the Recueil Crozat. It was a portrait format adopted by Wright’s contemporaries, such as Joshua Reynolds, who used it as the basis for his portrait of Lord Rockingham and Edmund Burke begun in 1766. The essential dynamic is one of contrast. Wright places the youthful Catherine Sophia, dressed colourfully in a pink silk dress, wrapped in a blue shawl, fringed with silver, her hair adorned with pink feathers and a rope of pearls, in contrast to the elderly monochromatic Wilson, who is in black, with white clerical bands, wearing a large white powdered wig, enlivened only by the dramatic red of his doctoral gown. Wright’s portrait is a technical tour de force. Throughout the composition he revels in texture: from the black velvet of Wilson’s gown to the highly reflective surfaces of both the polished table and the studs on Wilson’s chair. Painted in a confident, fluid manner, this was Wright’s first major essay in portraiture made following his time studying in Italy.
Wright’s painting was made at a very specific moment in Wilson’s relationship with, and promotion of, Macaulay. The painting fits into a sequence of images designed to celebrate the historian. In 1775 Wilson was probably responsible for commissioning another portrait of Macaulay from a Bath based painter, Robert Edge Pine, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Pine’s portrait, which exists in two versions, shows Macaulay in a severely classicising mode; dressed in antique costume, she leans on five volumes of her History and holds in her left hand a letter inscribed: ‘Revd. Dr: Thos Wilson/ Citizen of London/ and/ Rector of Wallbrook.’ Pine’s portrait served as a model for the sculptor John Francis Moore who was commissioned by Wilson to produce a life-size statue of Macaulay which was placed in a niche within the sanctuary of St Stephen Walbrook. Erected without ‘License or Faculty’ by an absentee rector, celebrating a radical female author who was not even a parishioner it was, unsurprisingly, rapidly removed. Wilson also contrived an elaborate celebration for Macaulay’s birthday in 1777. A ‘numerous and brilliant company’ assembled, Macaulay was seated in an elevated position (Philip Thicknesse claims she was enthroned), she was regaled with six specially-composed poems read by six gentlemen selected from the company. She was then presented by Wilson with a large gold medal which had originally been given by Queen Anne to one of the ambassadors at the Peace of Utrecht. The entertainment proceeded with wine and a lavish spread of ices, cakes and exotic fruits, lasting until two in the morning. Whilst the birthday celebrations were satirised in the press they go, as Susan Sloman has suggested, a long way to explain the celebrity of Macaulay and Wilson in Bath at the moment Wright of Derby was producing his portrait.
Wright’s statement to his brother that this portrait was painted ‘for reputation’ has led to the interpretation that it was not a commission, but painted for Wright’s exhibition room in Bath. Given the highly personal nature of the portrait, it seems more likely that Wilson retained the picture. It did not have the effect Wright had hoped for, his practice in Bath never took off and he returned to Derby in 1777. Wilson’s over the top veneration of Macaulay prompted the publication of a series of caricatures by Matthias and Mary Darly mocking both of them. Wilkes reported to his daughter: ‘Darley has just published a new caricatura of her and the Doctor, which she owns has vexed her to the heart. It is worth your buying.’ Shortly after Wright’s painting was completed Catherine Macaulay married for a second time, a young Scotsman, William Graham, who was mate to a ship’s surgeon. Wilson was dismayed. Macaulay refused to return the deeds to Wilson’s house or renounce her annuity and Wilson eventually resorted to blackmail to win them back. Wilson complained that ‘the NewsPapers have been very free with my character.’ Wilson tried to improve his reputation by engaging a young scholar to edit and publish the devotional writings of his father, Bishop Thomas Wilson. Published in 1782, the volume contained Wilson’s engraved portrait which was derived from Wright’s painting, excising the figure of Sophia Catherine Macaulay. The production of the intermediary drawing for the engraver was one of the very first commissions entrusted to the young Thomas Lawrence on his arrival in Bath.
- See Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, New Haven and London, 2002.
- Elizabeth E. Barker, ‘Documents Relating to Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ (1734-97)’, The Walpole Society, vol.71, 2009, pp.90-91.
- See Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, cat. no.388, pp.380-381. The altarpiece is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Catherine Macaulay, History of England, London, 1768, vol.4, p.160.
- Catherine Macaulay, History of England, London, 1771, vol.5, p.382.
- Catherine Macaulay, Loose Remarks on Certain Positions to be found in Mr Hobbes’s Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society, with a short sketch of a Democratical Form of Government in a letter to Signor Paoli, London, 1767, p.29.
- Ed. C.L.S. Linnell, The Diaries of Thomas Wilson, D.D. 1731-37 and 1750, son of Bishop Wilson of Sodor and Man, London, 1964, p.18.
- A series of some thirty letters from Catherine Sophia Macaulay to her mother detailing her education survive in the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01795.
- John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, London, 2004, pp.322-325.
- Bath Chronicle, 10 April, 1777. Quoted in Susan Sloman, Pickpocketing the Rich: Portrait Painting in Bath 1720-1800, Exh. Cat., Bath (Holburne Museum of Art), 2002, p.21.
- Susan Sloman, Pickpocketing the Rich: Portrait Painting in Bath 1720-1800, Exh. Cat., Bath (Holburne Museum of Art), 2002, pp.20-21.
- John Wilkes, Letters from the Year 1774 tot the Year 1796 of John Wilkes Esq. addressed to his Daughter, London 1804, letter XLI, April 28 1778, vol.II, p.93.
- Ed. C.L.S. Linnell, The Diaries of Thomas Wilson, D.D. 1731-37 and 1750, son of Bishop Wilson of Sodor and Man, London, 1964, p.19.