This large oil painting shows two fashionably-dressed children in a countryside setting encountering an older boy, who is dressed in ragged clothes and visibly in distress. The well-dressed girl leans forward to pass the boy a coin, while a dog (a well-groomed spaniel presumably belonging to the wealthy children) looks up. Such emotive scenes of rural poverty and philanthropic kindness were a feature of British art in the latter third of the eighteenth century. A succession of paintings on such themes was exhibited at public displays over these years, and numerous prints were issued reproducing these compositions or similar scenes. They were designed to appeal to the current fashion for ‘sentiment’, heightened feelings of sympathy and pity, apparent in poetry, novels and essays as well as the visual arts. However, this painting is unusual in that the children are represented life-size, painted on a large canvas that would normally be reserved for full-length (adult) portraits or history paintings.
The painter, Sir William Beechey, was primarily a portrait artist and was highly successful, working in London from 1787 after a period in Norwich. His work from this later period of his career was almost always on this large scale and is characterised by the fluent application of paint and vivid colours. Although first exhibited by the artist only as ‘Portrait of Children relieving a Beggar Boy’ the identity of the two rich children was noted by the connoisseur Horace Walpole in a handwritten annotation to his copy of the Royal Academy’s catalogue: ‘Sir J Forde’s children’. The sitters are two children of Sir Francis Ford (1758–1801) of Ember Court, Thames Ditton, Surrey and Lears, Barbados, a wealthy plantation owner and politician. Based on the apparent ages of the children they can probably be identified as Francis Ford (1787–1839), later 2nd Baronet, and Mary Ford (died 1872).
Ford was born in Barbados and was of the fourth generation of Fords to be plantation owners in Barbados. Although he was educated and lived in England, he owned extensive property in the West Indies and upheld a strong pro-slavery stance in his activities as a Member of Parliament. The children represented in this picture were direct beneficiaries of the wealth made through slave labour. Ford’s will, of 27 January 1800, promised his wife £700 per year, £5,000 for each child, and ‘All my lands and slaves for my eldest son Francis Ford at 21’ (quoted in ‘Ford of Barbados, with Pedigrees’, Caribbeana, vol.3, 1913–14, p.372). The relevance of these economic links to slavery to this painting are open to interpretation. However, the pro-slavery lobby often claimed that the quality of life that the plantation owners provided for slaves in the West Indies was better than that enjoyed by working people in England. The unusual emphasis given in this picture to the abject poverty and desperation of the beggar boy might, then, be giving visual form to the familiar pro-slavery sentiment concerning poverty.
Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th Century British Art, exhibition catalogue, Djangoly Art Gallery, Nottingham 1998, pp.93–4.
Mirjam Neumeister (ed.), The Changing Face of Childhood: British Children's Portraits and their Influence in Europe, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2007, pp.20–1