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JOHN OPPY (on OPIE)
Was born in the parish of St. Agnes, about seven miles from the town of Truro in Cornwall, in 1761. His father and grandfather were carpenters; his mother was descended from the ancient family of Tonkin, in the same district, but whose chief claim to distinction arises from a county history, which one of her relatives wrote, and which remains unfinished, as well as unpublished, in the hands of Lord De Dunstanville. Of his mother's claim to high provincial descent he was either ignorant or disdainful; for his widow—a name of some note iri literature—confesses that she was made acquainted with it for the first time by a brief sketch of his character, published after his death by Mr. Prince Hoare.
He appears to have been regarded among his rustic companions as a kind of parochial wonder from his early years. At the age of twelve he had mastered Euclid, and was considered so skilful in arithmetic and penmanship, that he commenced an evening school for the instruction of the peasants of the parish of St. Agnes. His father—a blunt mechanic—seems to have misunderstood all these indications of mental superiority, and wished him to leave the pen for the plane and the saw; and it would appear that his paternal desires were for some time obeyed, for John accompanied, at least, his father to his work: but this was when he was very young, and it seems probable that he disliked the business, since his father had to chastise him for making ludicrous drawings with red chalk on the deals which were planed up foi use.
His love of art came upon him early. When he was ten years old he saw Mark Oates—an elder companion, and now a Captain of Marines—draw a butterfly; he looked anxiously on, and exclaimed, "I think I can draw J butterfly as well as Mark Oates :" he took a pencil, tried, succeeded, and ran breathless home to tell his mother what he had done. Soon afterward he saw a picture of a farmyard in a house in Truro where his father was at work; he looked and looked—went away—returned again and looked—and seemed unwilling to be out of sight of this prodigy. For this forwardness his father— whose hand seems to have been ever ready in that way—gave him a sharp chastisement; but the lady of the house interposed, and indulged the boy with another look. On returning home he procured cloth and colours, and made a tolerable copy of the painting from memory alone. He likewise attempted original delineation from life; and, by degrees, hung the humble dwelling round with likenesses of his relatives and companions, much to the pleasure of his uncle, a man with sense and knowledge above his condition, but greatly to the vexation of his father, who could not comprehend the merit of such an idle trade.
Of the early days of
as Wolcot describes him, we have various and con flirting accounts. The Professor of Ancient History in the Royal Academy says that he followed his studies in art with much ardour, and that his sketches attracted the notice of Wolcot (Peter Pindar), then residing as a physician in Truro, whose knowledge in painting and sound judgment were of great advantage to the young scholar. A rougher man tells a ruder story. "Dr. Wolcot," says Smith, " compassionately took him as a lad to clean
knives, feed the dog, &c, purposely to screen htm from the beating his father would now and then give him for chalking the sawpit all over. Oppy—for so we must for the present call him—always staid a long time when he went to the slaughter-house for paunches for the dog: at last the Doctor was so wonderfully pleased by John's bringing him home an astonishing likeness of his friend the carcass butcher, that he condescended to sit to him, and the
story as this was related by Wolcot himself, in his half-grave and half-humorous way, at the period when the subject of this memoir was high in fame; but as his purpose was to rebuke the pride of the successful artist, his account must be received with some caution. It is certain, however, that our painter lived while a boy as a menial in the satirist's family, and gained his good-will by his talents.
How long he remained with Wolcot has not been mentioned. When yet very young, we find him commenced portrait painter by profession, and wandering from town to town in quest of employment. "One of these expeditions," says Prince Hoare, "was to Padstow, whither he set forward, dressed as usual in a boy's plain short jacket, and carrying with him all proper apparatus for portraitpainting. Here, among others, he painted the whole household of the ancient and respectable family of Prideaux, even to the dogs and cats of the family. He remained so long absent from home, that some uneasiness began to arise on his account, but it was dissipated by his returning dressed in a handsome coat, with very long skirts, laced ruffles, and silk stockings. On seeing his mother he ran to her, and taking out of his pocket twenty guineas which he had earned by his pencil, he desired her to keep them: adding, that in future he should maintain himself."
For his mother he alwavs entertained the deepesl
the great city under the protection of Wolcot. It is said, that the poet and the painter held a consultation upon the rustic sound of Oppy, and both uniting in opinion that it was vulgar and unmusical, changed it to Opie—a name owned by an old Cornish family. The alteration was immaterial, for they are both evidently the same name: but under all the external advantages which Opie could claim over Oppy, he was presented to Sir Joshua Reynolds. He had not as yet determined on having himseif announced, in. the blazonry of prose and verse, as the " Wonderful Cornishman," on whom nature had spontaneously,
President received him courteously, gave him some advice, and desired to see him again. He evidently did not consider this new marvel at all marvellous.
To rise by silent and slow degrees to fame suited ill with the rustic impatience of Opie, and worse with the vanity of Wolcot, who desired to amaze the town by proclaiming a prodigy. Peter Pindar was right for once. Nothing is more capricious than public taste: its huge appetite for wonders requires daily food; and it swallows all with, the ravenous avidity with which the giant gulped the wine of Ulysses, and cried, with his half-breathless voice, "More!—Give me more !—This is divine!" Even if the candidate for its fickle approbation wants original genius to carry him triumphantly onwards, he may, nevertheless, have address enough to secure a fortune before his deficiency is discovered—or the huzza rises on the appearance of another new wonder. All this was present to the mind of the sagacious satirist: he took his measures accordingly, and the wealthy and titled hordes, who professed taste and virtu, and were absolute in art and literature, came swarming out to behold "the Cornish Wonder"—for as such the patron announced the painter. Of the success of this manoeuvre Northcote gives
without study, dropped down