T02207 THE BENNETT FAMILY exh. 1803
Oil on canvas, 119 × 143 (303.5 × 364.5)
Presented by the Rev Gerald C. Streatfeild 1977
Prov: Painted for the sitter, James Bennett of Cadbury; by descent to his great grand-daughter Eleanor Senior, who in 1942 gave it to her cousin Mary Verena Streatfeild (likewise a great grand-daughter of the sitter); her son the Rev. Gerald C. Streatfeild.
Exh: RA 1803 (547).
Lit: The Farington Diary, ed. James Greig, 1923, II, p.218, and typescript of the unabridged Farington Diary, Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, p.2548.
The sitters are James Bennett (1745–1815) of Fenchurch Street, London, and Cadbury, Somerset, and his wife Mary Clutterbuck (1762–1853), whom he married in Truro in 1789. The girl with the tambourine is their eldest daughter Mary (1790–1867) who later married the Rev. Thomas Whalley Wickham, rector of Horsington, Somerset; beside her, holding a triangle, is her sister Eliza (born 1791), who married Major James Clarke of Ansford, Somerset; the boy in black is the eldest son James (1793–1872) and the boy in red is his brother Henry (1795–1874) both of whom founded large families of their own. The girl sitting on the carpet is Juliana Sarah (1794–1873) who was to marry Charles Harvey Moody, MP for West Somerset, and the child asleep on her lap is Frances Ann (1798–1846) who became the wife of the Rev Richard Hill of Winchester.
There was also a family connection between the Bennetts and the artist, as Mrs Bennett's sister Juliana Clutterbuck married James Woodforde MD (1771–1837) of Ansford, the doctor brother of the painter.
The Bennetts were an old Somersetshire family, and appear to have been at the height of their prosperity at the time of the Napoleonic wars, so that it would have been quite natural for them to order such a large family portrait from the local RA who was also patronised by the Hoares of Stourhead. However, possibly on the strength of the family connection, the artist's fee was hardly princely, for Farington records in his Diary on 29 March 1804 that ‘Woodforde told me that He had only £200 for the large family picture of 8 whole lengths which he exhibited last year - but Sir Richard Hoare advised him to paint it as practice’ - that is, for about half the sum that a painter not of the first rank could expect for such a work.
Woodforde had been elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1800 and was not to gain full membership until 1807. In the meantime he tried hard to impress with the ‘correctness’ of his history painting and of his handling of all the accepted motifs favoured in grand portraiture throughout the late eighteenth century and still fashionable in the early nineteenth. Hence the standard cross-legged pose of Mr Bennett, leaning on what looks like a knowledgeable adaptation of the Borghese vase, and the neo-classical ‘Bacchante’ motif of the girl with the tambourine. The ambience of a carpeted terrace and curtain-draped column merging imperceptibly and not at all naturally into the landscape beyond had been a staple of grand portraiture since Van Dyck, while the pose of Mrs Bennett at her harp, first adopted by Reynolds in 1775 for his portrait of Mrs Sheridan as St. Cecilia, was all the rage in the early years of the century. So much so, that the astute and more original-minded Lawrence had even written to a sitter in c. 1802 begging her not to insist on being portrayed with a harp: “The Harp - tis so commonplace. There's an inundation of them in the Exhibition all strumming St. Cecilias disgracing themselves and the painters and all for the love of Mr Erard” (Martin Butlin, “Lawrence's Portrait of Mrs Francis Robertson” in Burlington Magazine, XCIX, January 1957, p.27).
It is interesting to note in this context that John Singleton Copley, whose style and approach to portraiture Woodforde seems to have tried to emulate and even rival, exhibited the following year his portrait of Mrs Richard Crowninshield Derby as St. Cecilia (RA 1804 (184) in an almost identical pose to Mrs Bennett. It is not likely that Copley would have wanted to copy the work of the much younger ARA, and in any case we know that he was far advanced with his portrait by July 1803 (M.B. Amory, The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley R.A., 1882, p.246). He was, however, criticised for employing the overblown device of placing two putti listening to the harpist in a cloud above, a group that seems to find a deliberately contrasted parallel in the two children on the ground at Mrs Bennett's feet, as if Woodforde had been anxious to demonstrate to the critics the soundness of his own taste in such matters. It is known that Woodforde was well-informed about what was going on in Copley's studio, partly through a model they shared, and it is hard to avoid the thought that the ambitious ‘Bennett Family’ had been conceived as a rival to Copley's even more complex ‘Knatchbull Family’ on which he was working at the same time and which was coming in for adverse criticism even before being shown to the public. Both paintings were hung at the RA in 1803, but the ‘Knatchbull Family’ sparked off a row between Copley and the Academy which led to its withdrawal. Copley's progress on the painting had been discussed by artists throughout the previous year, in particular by the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, whose advice Copley seems to have frequently sought. ‘He [West] recommended him to introduce the large Mass of red in the Center which gave vigor and effect to the whole’ wrote Farington of the Copley picture on 22 February 1804, and the bright red suit of Henry Bennett in the middle of this picture does suggest that Woodforde knew of this advice and was careful to apply it.
Woodforde has divided the painting rather unsubtly into two halves: the men on the left, with the boys playing marbles by their father, and the women on the right, with the girls attending to their mother's music - all except the youngest, who has fallen asleep over it. These details of cosy domesticity are, in their charming way, somewhat at odds with the grand conception of the painting and herald the approach of nineteenth-century sentiment, making this painting an interesting example of the change in outlook as reflected in the work of a painter who tried to please both worlds.
As the fortunes of the Bennett family declined in the nineteenth century, the size of the canvas appears to have become an embarrassment, and on several occasions the top and right hand margins of the picture have been folded progressively further back over the stretcher. At one time most of the sky and all of Mrs Bennett were eliminated in this way, reducing the visible surface to a near-square 8'4" by 8'3". The canvas and paint surface have, however, survived this treatment with surprisingly little damage, and it never appears to have suffered the fate more usual in such circumstances (as in the case of Copley's ‘Knatchbull Family’) of being cut down, or into more manageable sections.
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979