Not on display

Rev. Matthew William Peters 1742–1814
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 642 × 770 mm
frame: 797 × 926 × 83 mm
Purchased 1986


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).

Further reading:

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

Martin Postle
July 2000

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Catalogue entry

T04848 Lydia c.1777

Oil on canvas 642 × 770 (25 1/4 × 30 1/4)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Prov: ...; George D. Widener, New York; ...; given by Hamilton Rice, New York, to Dorothy F. Gibb, Christmas 1952; ...; anon. sale, Christie's 2 April 1971 (10) £550 bt Leger Galleries who sold it to Michael Fitzsimmons, by whom sold Christie's 11 July 1986 (53, repr. in col.) £4000 bt Leggatt for Tate Gallery
Exh: Exhibition of English Paintings 1720–1850, Leger Galleries, May 1973 (4, repr.)
Lit: Lady Victoria Manners, Matthew William Peters, R.A., His Life and Work, 1913, pp.6, 9, 16, 42, 54, 62; William T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700–1799, 1928, I, p.348

T04848 is a version of a picture painted by Peters for Richard Grosvenor, later 1st Earl Grosvenor (1731–1802). A mezzotint by William Dickinson after the Grosvenor painting, entitled ‘Lydia’, was published on 1 December 1776 (230 × 287, 9 1/16 × 11 5/16). The inscription on this print describes it as ‘From an Original Picture in the Collection of the Right Honble Lord Grosvenor’ and includes a quotation from an unidentified work (perhaps one of his plays) by John Dryden (1631–1700): ‘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’.

In 1777 Peters exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy under the title ‘A Woman in Bed’ (270). There are a number of reasons for believing that this was the Grosvenor picture. The woman is very obviously in a bed - and there is no other picture of such a subject by Peters - though there are a number of works by him which depict partially clad women reclining on couches. It is known from the minutes of the meeting of the Council of the Royal Academy of 13 April 1777, held two weeks before the exhibition opened, that the Academicians resolved ‘That the lines from Dryden relating to Mr Peters Picture be not inserted in the Catalogue’ (RA Library, Minutes of the Council of the Royal Academy, 1, 1768–84, p.235): ‘Lydia’ is the only known instance of the artist attaching a quotation from Dryden to one of his works. And a critic in the Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 in reviewing the exhibition comments on the explicit eroticism of ‘A Woman in Bed’ in terms which seem applicable only to Grosvenor's ‘Lydia’ and not to any other known works by Peters:

Mr Peters ... seems to have determined that the exhibition should have something to charm the Bucks as well as the Belles of the age. [It] is a good picture, and makes every gentleman stand for some time - and gaze at it. We cannot, however, help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bed chamber 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.

If ‘Lydia’ and the ‘Woman in Bed’ can be regarded as one and the same picture, as seems likely, then its appearance in the 1777 Academy exhibition was the first and only time Peters showed such overtly titillating subject matter in public. A crayon drawing which he exhibited in 1776 (224), ‘A Lady in an Undress’ (whereabouts unknown), need not have been of the same type, since the eighteenth-century sense of ‘undress’ does not imply nudity. Needless to say, Grosvenor's taste in art was hardly unique and Peters continued to produce similar pictures for other patrons which then, like ‘Lydia’, achieved popularity as prints. The slightly more modest and upright ‘Sylvia’, now in the National Gallery of Ireland, was painted for Lord Melbourne and appeared as a print in 1778. Neither, it should be noted, was Peters alone among his contemporaries in England in painting erotic subjects for the delectation of his patrons. In 1774, for example, Reynolds painted, but did not exhibit, two lewd pictures, ‘Cupid as Link Boy’ and ‘Mercury as Cut Purse’, for the 3rd Duke of Dorset (Nicholas Penny, ed., Reynolds, exh. cat., Royal Academy 1986, pp.264–5, nos.92, 93, repr.).

In ‘Lydia’, Peter's debt is more to the decorative eroticism found in pictures by his older French contemporary J.B. Greuze than to the richly allusive Venuses of Titian. Even so, however much the subject falls within a contemporaneous tradition, its appearance on the Academy walls marks an epoch in the history of public exhibitions in Britain. The issues of female nudity and indecency were not unfamiliar to the Academicians. Only two years before they had played some part in the RA Council voting to remove Nathanial Hone's ‘The Conjuror’ from the exhibition before it opened (Martin Butlin, ‘An Eighteenth-Century Art Scandal: Nathanial Hone's “The Conjuror”’, Connoisseur, vol.174, May 1970, pp.1–9). By contrast, in the case of ‘A Woman in Bed’ the only sign of their possible sensitivity on the same points is to be found in their refusal to print the quotation from Dryden in the catalogue; in fact, the exclusion was most likely made on the grounds that quotations were never included in catalogues. Neither was the picture greeted with any real sense of outrage when it was first seen. The critic in the Morning Chronicle adopted a tone of amusement rather than shock, while a critic in the Morning Post merely mentioned the picture as an example of Peter's ‘singular style of Portrait Painting’ (26 April 1777).

Apart from T04848 there are three other versions of ‘Lydia’. The palette and the handling of the Tate's picture identify it as the work of Peters, but because it varies in a number of details from the mezzotint, it cannot be regarded as the prime version. This was most likely the picture sold out of the Earl's collection firstly at Coxe's saleroom, 2 July 1812, lot 10 as ‘The Girl in Bed. Painted for the late Earl Grosvenor’, ?bt in at £26. 5s.; secondly, from an unidentified collection, but probably Grosvenor's and again at Coxe's saleroom, 2 July 1813, lot 57 as ‘The celebrated Sleeping Girl’, bt in, £52. 10s.; thirdly at Christie's, 2 July 1815, lot 30a, as ‘Girl in Bed painted for the late Earl of Grosvenor’ (this information is in the form of a manuscript addition to the printed copy of the catalogue in Christie's archives); Christie's day books suggest that the owner of the picture by this date was General Thomas Grosvenor, nephew of the 1st Earl. The work was once more bought in, this time at £36. 15s. The last occasion on which the Grosvenor ‘Lydia’ appeared in the saleroom in the nineteenth century was at Foster's, 15 March 1844, lot 44, where it was described as ‘Portrait of a handsome Young Girl in Bed; engraved’. It was bought by ‘White’ (probably the dealer D.T. White) for 17 guineas. (The compiler is grateful to Burton Fredericksen, Director of The Provenance Index, The Getty Art History Information Program, for supplying these details.)

Apart from T04848 the other versions which have survived into the twentieth century, one of which might be the Grosvenor picture, are: (a) oil on canvas 622 × 750 (24 1/2 × 29 1/2), sold by Mrs M.S. Limond, Christie's 28 Feb. 1913 (90) £1450 bt Agnew; acquired by Barnet Lewis of London and Hildenborough, Kent, and sold by him, Christie's 28 Feb. 1930 (148) £1365 bt Lady Granard and still in the collection of the 8th Earl of Granard of Castle Forbes, Co. Longford in 1934 when it was lent to the Exhibition of British Art at the Royal Academy (260 as ‘Lydia’, repr. Commemorative Catalogue, pl.LXXXVI); (b) oil on canvas 610 × 750 (24 × 29 1/2), recorded by Manners in the collection of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne at Bowood in 1913 and lent by Baroness Nairne, sister of the 7th Marquess, to the exhibition The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, RA 1951–2 (5, as ‘A Woman in Bed’, repr. The Illustrated Souvenir, pl.3); (c) oil on canvas 622 × 750 (24 1/2 × 29 1/2), given by Mrs Guy Fairfax Cary in 1962 to the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, USA (acc. no.62.009 as ‘Portrait of Lydia’).

A number of other closely related works were on the art market or exhibited during the early years of this century: (a) oil on panel 254 × 305 (10 × 12), ‘formerly in the collection of the Earl of Lonsdale’, lent by J.P. Heseltine to the Corporation of London Art Gallery, Exhibition of French and English Painters of the Eighteenth Century, 1902 (74, as ‘Lydia’); (b) support unknown, 305 × 330 (12 × 13), lent by E. Layton to an exhibition of Peters's works at the Graves Gallery, London, November 1910 (12, as ‘Lydia’; the dimensions are given by Manners); (c) a freely handled sketch, oil on panel 547 × 391 (21 5/8 × 15 3/8), with Knoedler c.1920 (photograph in Tate file).

Peters, who was born on the Isle of Wight and received his artistic training in Dublin, travelled in Italy before settling in London in 1766 where he worked mainly as a portraitist. Soon after becoming an ARA in 1771 he went back to Italy, staying in Venice during 1773–4 and Rome 1775, and returning home in the early summer of 1776. Richard Grosvenor became the artist's first important patron. According to Peters's close friend the journalist and poet John Taylor, the artist subsequently occupied ‘a house in Millbank which belonged to ... Lord Grosvenor and in which his Lordship permitted him to reside’. Some time during the mid 1780s the artist seems to have fallen out of favour with Grosvenor, though during his association with him ‘it is certain that Peters ... painted some subjects for the noble lord which were far from being of a decorous nature’ (John Taylor, Records of my Life, 1832, pp.149).

Peters's apparent dependence on these sorts of commissions from the rakish Earl in the early stages of his career was a matter for recurring comment by others in later years. After his ordination in 1781 and then, in 1784, his appointment as Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, the Morning Post referred to the ‘errors he might unguardedly have been led into when, as a painter and under the pecuniary dominion of the brush [he had] been too passive to the will of his employers’ (3 May 1786, p.4). As late as 1831, the Library of the Fine Arts noted that Peters's style was ‘no doubt, congenial to the obscene subjects which he painted, to his own shame and the eternal disgrace of his noble patron, to whose corrupt taste he was the base pander’ (vol.1, no.6, July 1831, p.519). According to Taylor (1832, p.150), Peters himself ‘deeply’ lamented ‘that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret’.

It is recorded that Earl Grosvenor kept ‘Lydia’ behind a curtain, though of course Peters's composition incorporated the tromp l'oeil effect of a curtain being parted as a means of heightening its erotic power: no doubt this openess was an inducement to the Earl's executors to part with the picture soon after his death. Described in that sale as ‘The Couchant Venus’, it is worth noting that the lot which immediately preceded it, attributed to Titian, was given the same title. There is no record of Grosvenor ever having owned any genuine work by Titian of the type suggested by this title. However, it may have been one of the many copies after or derivations from Titian's ‘Venus of Urbino’ of 1538, now in the Uffizi, Florence (Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, 1975, III, pp.203–4, no.54, pl.72), which for obvious reasons had always enjoyed a wide circulation. The possession of this could perhaps have prompted Grosvenor to commission ‘Lydia’ as a sort of pendant.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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