Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

HENRY WILLIAM BUNBURY
1750-1811

53 'Coffee is quite ready Gentlemen' ? c.1783

Pencil and watercolour on laid paper 22.3 x 30.5 (8 3/4 x 12)
Inscribed in brown ink along the bottom edge 'Coffee is quite ready Gentlemen. | I hope I have not entirely forgot you. HB' and in brown ink on the back 'To Sr W.W.Wynn'

T08115

Henry Bunbury was an amateur caricaturist who achieved wide fame during his lifetime for his witty and observant drawings of modern manners. Many were engraved for sale, and his friend Horace Walpole was just one of many who pasted these entertaining prints into a special album. Walpole so much admired Bunbury that he described him enthusiastically as 'the second Hogarth', and both Thomas Rowlandson (nos.67-9) and James Gillray, far greater draughtsmen and caricaturists than Bunbury, acknowledged his inventiveness by making versions of his designs (Riely 1975, pp.29-44). Bunbury's first humorous sketches date from his schooldays. In making these he was, no doubt unconsciously, drawing on a relatively new tradition, inspired by the Italian art of caricatura (from the Italian word caricare meaning 'loaded') which had been largely popularised in England in the 1750s by another amateur, George, 1st Marquess of Townshend, who satirised many of his contemporaries. These, in their turn, owed much to the Italian portrait caricaturist P.L. Ghezzi (1674-1755). But it was probably during his Grand Tour in 1769-70 that Bunbury realised that when he returned home he could profitably use his skills as a draughtsman and humorist by exploiting the Englishman's enduring love of irony. He would have seen this in Florence when he met the English artist Thomas Patch who specialised in painting caricatures of his fellow Grand Tourists, drew one of Bunbury and painted a group portrait in this style for him (Belsey 1996, no.42, p.87).

As a talented, witty and sociable gentleman (he was the son of a baronet), Bunbury was naturally welcome in the very part of society which provided the most fertile ground for humour - the houses of the rich. However, it is usually impossible to identify the origins of the humorous incidents which he depicts. Often, because he leaves so much unsaid, the pleasure is found in unravelling just what he might mean, though in the case of this drawing it is possible to be precise about some details. The inscription below the drawing rings true as a record of words, coming from the next room, overheard by the artist. The unseen speaker's gently ironic 'quite ready' and his or her (probably the latter because a drink is being served) hope that the 'Gentlemen' have not been 'entirely forgot' say clearly that the coffee is going cold just because the men have, indeed, forgotten that it was announced - probably because they have been too preoccupied elsewhere in the house. Mildly chastened by the servant's announcement they stride purposefully towards the refreshments. There is a private joke in all this and the inscription on the back indicates that it was one shared by the artist and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (?1748-1789).

Bunbury was a regular visitor to the Williams-Wynn estate at Wynnstay in North Wales where during the 1780s he often participated in the family's amateur theatricals (Riely 1983, pp.4,11,12). Almost certainly T08115 is a product of one of these visits. A comparison between the portrait of Wynn in Sir Joshua Reynolds's group portrait Members of the Society of Dilettanti of 1777-9 (Penny 1986, no.109) and the central figure in a striped waistcoat shows that Bunbury has, indeed, portrayed his host. The man standing in profile in the left foreground, apparently supervising a boy poring over a book, looks every bit the tutor. From 1779 to 1783 Williams-Wynn's two boys, Watkin (1772-1840) and Charles (1775-1850), were tutored by the philologist Robert Nares (1753-1829; DNB), and a comparison between Burney's tutor and John Hoppner's portrait of Nares (photo in Witt Library) suggests that he has here shown Nares with one of his charges. The moment relished by Bunbury was Williams-Wynn, the great patrician landowner, at the mercy of a servant.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.142 no.53, reproduced in colour p.143