“WILSON, RICHARD, the great landscape painter, and one of the most illustrious of Montgomeryshire Worthies, was born at Penegoes, August 1st, 1714, and was the third son of the Rev. John Wilson, rector of that parish, by Alice, his wife. His father’s family had been connected with Trefeglwys parish for some generations previously. His mother was a Flintshire lady, of the family of Wynne of Leeswood. They had six sons and a daughter, all of whom died unmarried. The eldest son, John, became Collector of Excise, and was buried at Mold, 28th January, 1785, aged 75. The second was a clergyman who obtained good preferment in Ireland. The third, as already stated, was the painter. The fourth was a tobacconist at Holywell, who afterwards emigrated to Pennsylvania where he died. The youngest, (Peter), when a httle boy four years of age was accidentally killed at Mold whilst playing, and was buried there. The daughter became an attendant on Lady Sandown, a lady of the bed-chamber to Queen Caroline. The Rev. John Wilson, the painter’s father, died August 31st, 1728, at Penegoes, and was buried at Trefeglwys, September the 4th in the same year. His mother was interred at Mold, July 5th, 1765, aged 81 years. Richard received a good classical education and gave very early indication of the natural bias of his mind, for with a burnt stick he covered the walls of his father’s house and the stone fences of the fields with rude figures in outline. His sketches attracted the notice of his relative, Sir George Wynne, who persuaded his father to place him under proper instruction. Accordingly young Wilson proceeded to London with Sir George in 1728 (probably after his father’s death), and was apprenticed to a portrait painter named Wright, whom, however, he soon outstrippted. Dr. Abraham Rees tells us that
“After a lapse of six years he commenced professor under the patronage of Dr. Hayter, bishop of Norwich ; he soon afterwards had the honour to paint the portraits of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, both then under the tuition of the bishop; he continued to practise portrait painting some time in London, but with no great success, and at length went to Italy to cultivate his taste; eyen there he continued to practise it still unacquainted with the genuine bias of his genius, although occasionally exercising his talents and employing his time in studies of landscape. At Venice, Wilson painted the portrait of Mr. Lock of Norbury Park, one of the most creditable of his performances in that branch of his art, and it was there that accident opened his eyes to his own peculiar qualifications, and led him into that path, by pursuing which he obtained a name among the worthiest in art.”
He was at this time about thirty-five years old. The “accident” referred to was the following circumstance. Having waited one morning till he grew weary, for the coming of Zucarelli the artist, he painted to beguile the time, a scene upon which the window of his friend looked with so much grace and effect, that Zucarelli was astonished, and enquired if he had studied landscape. Wilson replied that he had not. “Then I advise you, (said the other) to try, for you are sure of great success.” The counsel of one friend was confirmed by the opinion of another — Vernet a French painter of high reputation. One day while sitting in Wilson’s studio, he was so struck with the peculiar beauty of a newly finished landscape that he desired to become its proprietor, and offered in exchange one of his best pictures. The offer was gratefully accepted and Vernet placed his friend’s picture in his exhibition room, and when his own productions happened to bo praised or purchased by English travellers, the generous Frenchman used to say, “Don’t talk of my landscapesalone, when your own countryman Wilson paints so beautifully.” Thus Wilson was induced to relinquish portrait painting, and devote himself thenceforth to landscape painting. His reputation grew so fast that he soon obtained several pupils, and his works were so highly esteemed, that Meugs out of regard for his genius painted his portrait, for which Wilson in return painted a landscape. After remaining abroad about six years he, in 1755, returned to England, and took up his residence in London. His fame had preceded his arrival, and his elegantly furnished apartments in the Piazza, Covent Garden, were the resort of the leading men of the day. According to Cunningham these were the apartments “wherein Lely, Kneller, and Thornhill had lived and laboured.” Smith (Life of Nollekens, II., p. 215) describes them as the front apartments of what were formerly Robins’s Auction Rooms, but used in 1850 as breakfast rooms by the proprietor of the Tavistock Hotel. He dressed also in a style corresponding with the expensiveness of his furniture — his favourite suit being green, braided with gold lace, in addition to which he wore a portentous wig, with a club tail and a three cocked hat. His tall muscular frame thus embellished gave him a commanding appearance. He several times changed his residence. He lived at one time in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy square; then in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields; in Marylebone; the corner of Foley Place, Great Portland Street; No. 24, Norton Street, Portland Row in 1777-8; in 1779 he lived at No. 85, Great Tichfield street, and the following year “at a mean house” in Tottenham Street, Tottenham Court Road, in which he occupied the first and second floors almost without furniture. This was his last abode in London. To the first Exhibition of 1760, Wilson sent his celebrated picture of “Niobe,” and in 1765 he exhibited with other pictures a ”View of Rome,” which was much admired. At the institution of the Royal Academy, Wilson was chosen one of the founders. During his residence in London, he painted a large number of very fine pictures. Wright, his biographer, furnishes a list of 119, of which nineteen were destroyed in the great fire at Belvoir Castle, October 26th, 1816. He, however, met with but little success in their sale, and many of them were offered to brokers and dealers for as many pounds as they would now bring hundreds. He was doomed, in fact, to encounter the galling indifference of a tasteless public and the wretched intrigues of zealous rivals, and even the great Sir Joshua, himself entertained feelings anything but friendly towards him which he took no trouble to conceal. As has been well observed,
“The name of this extraordinary man is a reproach to the age in which he lived; the most accomplished landscape painter this country ever produced, uniting the composition of Claude with the execution of Poussin; avoiding the minuteness of the one, and rivalling the spirit of the other With powers which ought to have raised him to the highest fame, and recommended him to the most prosperous fortune, Wilson was suffered to live embarrassed, and to die poor. Conscious of his claims, however, he bore the neglect he expeienced with firmness and dignity; and though he had the mortification to see very inferior talents preferred in the estimation of the public, yet he was never seduced to depart from his own style of painting, or to adopt the more fashionable and imposing qualities of art, which his superior judgment taught him to condemn, and which the example of his works ought to have exposed and siippressed.”
Possibly a certain abruptness of manner and want of conciliatoriness may have had something to do with his want of success. Cunningham says of him that he
“loved truth and detested flattery, he would endure a joke but not contradiction. He was deficient in courtesy of speech, in those candied civilities which go for little with men of sense, but which have their effect among the shallow and the vain. His conversation abounded with information and humour, and his manners, which were at first repulsive, gradually smoothed down as he grew animated. Those who enjoyed the pleasure of his friendship agree in pronouncing him a man of strong sense, intelligence, and refinement. * * * As the fortune of Wilson declined, his temper became touched; he grew peevish, and in conversation his language assumed a tone of sharpness and acidity which ill accorded with his warm and benevolent heart” * * * * He was abstemious at his meals, rarely touching wine or ardent spirits; his favourite beverage was a pot of porter and a toast; and he would accept tliem when he refused all other things.”
Many anecdotes are related of the straits to which he was driven by poverty. His fine picture of “Ceyx and Alcyone” was painted it is said for (others say from) a pot of porter and the remains of a Stilton cheese. Poverty caused him on the death of Hayman to solicit the office of librarian of the Royal Academy, that Academy of which he was so bright an ornament. This post, the whole emoluments of which amounted only to about fifty pounds a year, he obtained and retained until his retirement into Wales. Small as the income was it helped to keep him from positive starvation. He seems to have had a clear and confident presentiment that posterity would do him justice, and often told Sir William Beechey, his intimate friend, that he would live to see great prices given for his pictures, when those of Barrett, which were then in high esteem, would not fetch one farthing — a prophecy which has been amply verified. He had long quitted his elegant lodgings, and disposed of his furuiture to the last chair to buy necessary food of which he was often in want. At this time distress often compelled him to sell his drawings at half a crown a piece, and his residence was known only to a few. His last abode in London, as already stated, was in Tottenham Street, where an easel, a brush, a chair, and a table, a hard bed with a few clothes, a scanty meal, and the favourite pot of porter were all that he could call his own — a lasting disgrace to an age which lavished its tens of thousands on mountebanks, dancers, and Italian opera singers. A correspondence between Wilson and a relative, Mrs. Catherine Jones, of Colomendy, Llanverres, near Mold, resulted in an arrangement that the infirm artist should go down to her residence to recruit his health, and he turned his back on London for ever. A few shillings purchased all the implements and relics of his art and property. This was probably in 1781 though the exact time is not recorded by his biographers. Mountain air and the attention of kind friends could do little towards curing the broken heart of Wilson, his strength was gone, yet he crawled about viewing with silent gratification and enjoyment the beauties of his native country. He rapidly sank, his steps became more and more feeble, and his emaciated frame convinced his friends that the end was not far distant. One evening having partaken of a little food, he had with extreme difficilty tottered as far as a wood where at his request a rustic seat had been placed. It was in the month of May, 1782, and he had gone out to observe the beautiful tints of the evening sky, that sky in the delination of which he had never been excelled, when it pleased Providence suddenly to stretch him helpless on the ground, and to withdraw from him the power of contemplation. How long he remained in so pitiable a state cannot be known, but a dog which had followed him returned alone; this caused his friends to be alarmed and to proceed in search of him, when he was found as described. He rallied a little, but in a few days expired in the sixty-ninth year of his age. He was buried in Mold Churchyard at the back of the church, close to the path, where a tomb has been erected over his grave with the following inscription : ” The remains of “Richd. Wilson, Esq., Member of the Royal Academy of Artists, Interr’d May 15th, 1782, Aged 69.”
“O foreu ‘i yrfa eirian, — rho ‘i oleu
Ei athrylith allan,
Darluniai dilynai ‘n lan
I’r linell ar ol anian.
“Yn llaw ei oes bu yn llesol, — dyg iddi
Deg addysg gelfyddol; —
A’i gywir waith geir o’i 61,
A synna ‘r oes bresennol.”"
Taken from: Montgomeryshire Worthies (1894) by Richard Williams