John Opie was a Cornish historical and portrait painter. He painted many great men and women of his day, including members of the British Royal Family, and others who were most notable in the artistic and literary professions.
Opie’s artistic abilities eventually came to the attention of local physician and satirist, Dr John Wolcot, who visited him at the sawmill where he was working in 1775. Recognising a great talent, Wolcot became Opie’s mentor, buying him out of his apprenticeship and insisting that he come to live at his home in Truro. Wolcot provided invaluable encouragement, advice, tuition and practical help in the advancement of his early career, including obtaining many commissions for work.
In 1781, having gained considerable experience as a portraitist travelling around Cornwall, Opie moved to London with Wolcot. There they lived together, having entered into a formal profit-sharing agreement. Although Opie had received a considerable artistic education from Wolcot, the doctor chose to present him as a self-taught prodigy; a portrait of a boy shown at the Society of Artists the previous year, had been described in the catalogue as “an instance of Genius, not having ever seen a picture.” Wolcot introduced the “Cornish wonder” to leading artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was to compare him to Caravaggio and Velazquez, and to prospective patrons. The business arrangement with Wolcot lasted for a year, after which Opie informed the doctor that he now wished to go it alone, leading to the estrangement of the two former partners.
Wolcot managed to have Opie introduced at the court of King George III. The king purchased one of his pictures and commissioned him to produce a portrait of Mary Delany. He also received commissions to paint the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Lady Salisbury, Lady Charlotte Talbot, Lady Harcourt and other ladies of the court.
Opie’s work, after an initial burst of popularity, rapidly fell out of fashion. In response to this he began to work on improving his technique, while at the same time seeking 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.
Opie died in April 1807, aged 46, at his home in Berners Street, and was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the crypt next to Joshua Reynolds, as he had wished. He had no children.