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John Opie became the art-world sensation of the early 1780s. The reputation of this virtually untrained 'Cornish wonder' was cultivated by the art critic John Wolcot, who took a cut of his earnings.

Opie painted portraits and scenes like this, showing peasants on a heroic scale. His bold and robust style was thought to express the honesty and simplicity of his rural background. One critic even wrote that 'Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man'. In an increasingly pretentious art world, his painting seemed an invigorating breath of fresh air.

September 2004