This Bath-period portrait of the actor and dramatist, Samuel Foote (1720-1777) ranks amongst a small number of exceptionally fine portraits that Gainsborough painted of his circle of artistic friends. Gainsborough's move to Bath in 1759 and his subsequent success as a painter of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in this fashionable spa resort, left him bemoaning his need to 'pick pockets in the portrait way'. That the present portrait was not a commissioned work is given credence by its reputed gift from the artist to his friend and patron, Walter Wiltshire, the owner of the London to Bath coach, the 'Flying Wagon,' that carried the artist and his works to the capital.
Foote's reputation as a dramatist lies in his satirization of contemporary manners that caricature and ridicule the affectations and pretentions of the aristocracy and the gentry, a point of view that Gainsborough almost certainly shared. Born in Truro in 1720, the son of the one-time Mayor of that city, Samuel and his wife, Eleanor, the young Samuel was educated at Worcester College, Oxford from where he matriculated in July 1737. In 1741 he married Mary Hickes. An incorrugible spend-thrift, Foote's profligacy was evident from an early age and he was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet prison after dissipating his wife's dowry.
However, his aptitude for mimicry or satire took him to the Haymarket in London where his 'impersonations' were poorly received. His plays, including Taste (1752), that were shown at the Haymarket and Drury Lane, libelled the aristocracy and were under constant threat of being banned by the censors. In 1760, at around the time that this portrait was painted, Foote's most successful comedy, Minor, opened at the Haymarket.
In 1766, a prank at a party attended by the Duke of York, in which Foote was accidentally thrown from a horse, resulted in the loss of a leg. As a way of compensation, the Duke of York obtained for him 'a patent to erect a theatre in the city and liberties of Westminster, with the privelege of exhibiting dramatic pieces there from 14 May to 14 Sept. during his natural life'. As a result, Foote purchased his old premises in Haymarket and built a new theatre on the site which opened in May 1767 with his play Prelude. He sold his patent to George Colman in 1777 and died at Dover, on his way to Calais in the same year.
Foote's satire was biting and Reynolds who painted Foote's portrait in 1767, is reported as saying that 'by Foote's buffoonery and broad-faced merriment, private friendship, public decency and everything estimable among men were trod under foot'.