Dr Richard Price was one of the most important figures in the philosophical, moralist and free-thinking world, as well as in financial and insurance fields in the eighteenth century. A native of Llangeinor, Glamorganshire, he was the son of a non-conformist minister. His father was a staunch Calvinist, and it is possibly due to his upbringing that Price was drawn towards the more liberal writers on religion and philosophy, such as Bishop Joseph Butler, whose 'Analogy' appears on a table in the portrait.
He came to London in 1741 and went to a dissenting college. On leaving he became chaplain to a Mr Streatfield of Stoke Newington, where he also took on the responsibilities for the parish of Newington Green. In 1757 he published his best known work, Reviews of the Principal Questions in Morals, which rapidly established his reputation. Other treatises and writings on morals and religion followed, but it was his work on the population of London, the National Debt, and the financial and insurance questions of the time, which brought him to the attention of a wider audience. He was a consultant to the Equitable Life Assurance Society on actuarial matters between 1768 and 1785.
In this portrait, the sitter is holding a letter inscribed 'Philadelphia/1784/Benjamin Franklin'. Throughout his life he took a keen interest in America, supporting the American cause in the War of Independence, and corresponding with his great friend Benjamin Franklin on a range of financial as well as insurance matters. His pamphlet, published in 1776, Observations on Civil Liberty and the Justice and Policy of the War with America brought him instant fame. He was held in such high regard by his American friends, that several honorary degrees were awarded to him: an LL.D. from Yale and Washington in 1781, a Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston the following year, and membership of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia in 1785. He was even invited to become an American citizen and take charge of America's finances - both of which he declined.
Price was reluctant to have his portrait painted, but he was finally persuaded in 1788 to sit to the American painter Benjamin West, who was President of the Royal Academy. In his shorthand journal (loc. cit.) he describes how this came about:
'It was my resolution to descend to the grave without consenting to sit for any picture of me. I have resisted several solicitations, but the last winter Mr Tre(...)e overpowered me by his importunity and I consented to sit to Mr H(...)t for a miniature picture. Having happened to mention this to another friend (Mr W[...]n), he consequently observed that it was a pity that as my resolution was now broken I should not consent to have a picture of me taken in the best manner and therefore begged I would gratify him by sitting to one of the first painters. Being under great obligations to him, I did not know how to refuse and I have since sat to Mr W(...)st....I have felt at the time of sitting so embarrassed and distressed that I must have been an insufferable subject. I am, however, now it is over, reconciled to it and inclined to feel the vanity that I suppose is usual on such occasions....'
In 1757, the same year he published his first famous pamphlet, Price married Sarah Blundell, but she died in 1786, and his last years were increasingly lonely. At the time this portrait was painted, his health had severely declined. He died on 19 April 1791, the funeral taking place at Bunhill Fields with his great friend Dr Joseph Priestly giving the sermon.