This provocative painting of a courtesan lying in bed is one of four known versions of a picture made by Matthew Peters for Richard Grosvenor, later 1st Earl Grosvenor (1731-1802). One of these pictures was almost certainly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777 as 'A Woman in Bed', the first and last time Peters exhibited such a frankly sexual subject. Contemporary critics appreciated the work, although they were concerned that it was unsuitable for public display. The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted:
We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room.
By this time the picture was already familiar to the public through a mezzotint engraving made in December 1776, entitled 'Lydia', and inscribed with lines from John Dryden's comic play Amphitryon: 'This is the Mould of which I made the Sex; / I gave them but one Tongue, to say as nay, / And two kind Eyes to grant'.
Matthew Peters trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson (1701-79), before making his first trip to the Continent in 1763. On his return he became a member of the Society of Artists, exhibiting portraits in oil and pastel, and attracting a number of prominent aristocratic patrons, including the Duke of Manchester (1737-88), the Marquess of Granby (1721-70) and Lord Grosvenor. From 1772 to 1776 Peters travelled once more to France and Italy, where he particularly admired the work of Rubens (1577-1640), Correggio (1494, or 1489-1534) and the contemporary French painter, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). On his return, Peters moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by Grosvenor and like-minded patrons, that Peters began to paint a series of quasi-erotic character studies of courtesans, including Lydia. These pictures, quite unusual in eighteenth-century British art, are reminiscent of Greuze's sexually charged portrayals of swooning young women, and underline their essentially cosmopolitan appeal.
By the late 1770s Peters, who was clearly worried about the damage that such works were doing to his reputation as a serious artist, gave up painting courtesan pictures. Indeed, following his ordination in 1781, and his subsequent appointment as Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, he was highly embarrassed by them, expressing a profound regret 'that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret (Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.57).
Tate Gallery. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, Tate Gallery 1996, pp.55-7
Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins. The Fancy Picture in Eighteenth-Century British Art, exhibition catlaogue, Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London 1998, pp.86-7, no.74, pl. 51 (colour)
Martin Myrone, Representing Britain 1500-2000. 100 works from Tate collections, Tate 2000, p.47, reproduced in colour