Sir William Beechey was one of the leading lights of 18th-century British portraiture. A student of Johan Zoffany, Beechey entered the London Royal Academy in 1772, where he exhibited his colorful, lively portraits, throughout his highly successful career. A favorite of the fashionable elite, Beechey was named portrait painter to Queen Charlotte in 1793. His work for the royal family in the following years culminated in the great group portrait King George III Reviewing the Dragoons (London, Royal Collection), for which he was awarded knighthood. Because Beechey's meticulous account books survive, many of his paintings can be traced to their original commission. The present work is no exception, first appearing in Beechey's records from 1789 as 'Sir H. Dashwood (paid half)£52 s. 10 d. 0'. Later, an entry under 'Pictures Painted and Moneys Received' from 14 August 1818 reveals that the remainder of the painting's price had finally been paid: 'Of Sir Henry Dashwood (as last half), for his family, painted twenty-five years ago 42 s. 0 d. 0' (W. Roberts, loc. cit.).
Sir Henry Watkin Dashwood, 3rd Bt., inherited the baronetcy on 10 November 1779. A Member of Parliament, he represented Wigtown Burghs from 1775-1780 and was elected to represent the pocket borough of Woodstock from 1784-1820. Presumably he commissioned this spirited portrait of his children playing with their St. Bernard around 1789, when his first payment to Beechey is recorded. At far left, his son Charles sits astride the large dog, hands thrown up in delight. Charles' curly-haired sister Anna (later Lady Ely) stands behind him and gently supports him, a faint smile spreading across her lips. On the ground, embracing the scruffy pet, is George, later 4th Bt., and standing at right, playfully teasing the creature, is the eldest brother Henry, who died in 1803.
Sir Henry Watkin's father, Sir James Dashwood (1715-1779), was an Eton and Abingdon-educated gentleman who embarked on his Grand Tour in 1732. By the time he returned in 1736 he had inherited his title, and in 1738 he married the heiress Elizabeth Spencer. After becoming a Member of Parliament in 1740, Sir James prepared to build a home suitable for his family, whose social status in Oxfordshire was second only to that of the Duke of Marlborough at nearby Blenheim. The development of Kirtlington Park, as his estate became known, was the focus of Sir James' energy until its completion in 1748. The plans for the Palladian structure were created by James Gibbs (1641-1754) in 1741 and further developed by William Smith of Warwick (1705-1747), while the interiors were devised by the inspired London architect John Sanderson (active 1740-1774). The verdant park was designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-1783), the famed landscape architect often referred to as 'England's greatest gardener'. A portrait of Sir James Dashwood from 1737, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fig. 1), shows the baronet before a rosy sunset over rolling hills. In the background is Kirtlington Park which, though not completed until more than a decade after the portrait was painted, must have been added at the sitter's request as a reminder of his crowning achievement.
After its completion, the present portrait was mounted in the elegant dining room at Kirtlington Park, which was, until dismantled in 1931, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful Rococo rooms in England. Now installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the wall panels from the room exhibit the large-scale stuccowork that had become popular in England in the 1720s with the arrival of skilled stuccadores from northern Italy. The exuberant plasterwork in the Kirtlington Park dining room, however, was the first independent commission of a young local artist from Oxford, Thomas Roberts (1711-1771). Roberts showcased his skill in the Italian Baroque and early French Rococo motifs that adorn the room, which include trophies of fruit and flowers as well as masks, eagles, shells, and scrolls and an allegorical scene of the Four Seasons on the ceiling. The present work occupied a place of honor in the room, as visible in an 1876 watercolor by Sir James' thrice great-granddaughter, Susan Alice Dashwood (fig. 2). The original 18th-century hoop-backed mahogany dining chairs and marble-topped side table with Homeric heads are also visible, as is the colorful Turkish carpet on the floor, which lends further elegance to the sumptuous and sophisticated décor.
A photograph taken of the Kirtlington Park dining room in 1909 (fig. 3) shows the present portrait in the same position. That year, the estate was sold by Sir George John Egerton Dashwood, 6th Bt., to the Earl of Leven and Melville. The group portrait of the Dashwood Children, however, was not included in the sale: it remained in the family for almost forty more years, a testament to its personal importance to the Dashwoods, who kept it in the heart of their home for over a century and a half.
(fig. 1) Sir James Dashwood, Enoch Seeman, Victor Wilbour Memorial Fund, 1956 (56.190). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 2) Susan Alice Dashwood, Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire: View of the Dining Room, 1876, Gift of James Parker?, 1993 (1993.28). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 3) A photograph of the dining-room in situ in 1909, Oxfordshire County Council.