Lectures are held at the Methodist Church in Kingsbridge and on Zoom at 2:30pm normally on the last Wednesday of each month. They last for 1 - 1½ hours including a question and answer session at the end.
John Opie "The Cornish Wonder"
Viv Hendra      Wed 28th September 2011
  The new KEDFAS lecture season got off to a cracking start with an amusing and informative talk by Viv Hendra on the 18th century painter John Opie, known as the Cornish Wonder.
KEDFAS members know a thing or two about painters but nobody in the audience had heard of John Opie, despite his portrait of Cookworthy being familiar to many. How did this son of a Cornish carpenter become Professor of Paintings at the Royal Academy and end up being buried in St Paul’s Cathedral? Much of the credit seems to belong to Reverend John Walcot of Dodbrook, Kingsbridge! He was a man of many talents, also known under the pen-name of Peter Pinder, writer of very rude poetry about the rich and powerful.
Walcot initially trained as a doctor and practised in Fowey, which he hated, then went to Jamaica where he was part of Governor Trelawney’s social circle. He quickly realised that life as a parson offered better prospects so, despite having no religious beliefs to speak of, became ordained in London. His habit of falling out with people led to a return to Cornwall where he spotted the young John Opie’s sketches and thought him a genius
John accompanied his father into prosperous Truro merchants’ houses as his apprentice and was captivated by the paintings, using every opportunity to teach himself drawing. He began to paint local villagers and when Walcot saw the pictures he decided to buy him out of his carpenter’s apprenticeship and become his manager. He prepared him for London society, where his portraits were admired by Reynolds and he became a successful artist. His painting of George III’s great friend, Mrs Delaney, was bought by the king and hung in his bedroom. It is still in the Royal Collection. Many of his portraits were made into prints, adding to his wealth and spreading his reputation afar. He was sometimes accused of painting his favourite subject, himself, rather too often but the portraits were effective sales aids when prospective clients visited his studio. They could compare the likeness and decide whether or not to commission his services.
Opie married Mary Bunn, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, who immediately sent Walcot packing from the household. He continued to write rude poems about George III and was eventually paid a pension to stop! But that’s another story. The marriage proved difficult, mainly due to Opie working in a large studio on Hampstead Heath and rarely being at home. Mary left him for a Captain of Militia and Opie launched a divorce action through Parliament as was necessary at that time.
Opie’s portraits generally show unenhanced faces against a sombre background and these realistic depictions, in a pre-photographic age, provided the bulk of his commissions. Fashion then began to move towards ‘pretty’ pictures and his contemporaries Gainsborough and Reynolds were masters of this genre as well as being better artists. A member of the Royal Academy and Professor of Paintings, he gave many lectures and in May 1798 married Amelia Alderson of Norwich, a novelist better known subsequently as Amelia Opie.
Opie was due to be knighted but fell ill and died quite quickly, aged only 46, in 1807. His reputation suffered after death with his paintings no longer valued and many left to deteriorate badly. However, his legacy of work is still to be found around the world and a good number remain in the West Country. They are becoming fashionable again and sell for very respectable sums at auction. Check out the attic!