Chapter 16. The family use art, which is opposed with, still greater.
My wife and daughters happening to return a visit to neighbour Flamborough’s, found that family had lately got their pictures drawn by a limner, who travelled the country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head. As this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us, and notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too. Having, therefore, engaged the limner, for what could I do? our next deliberation was to shew the superiority of our taste in the attitudes. As for our neighbour’s family, there were seven of them, and they were drawn with seven oranges, a thing quite out of taste, no variety in life, no composition in the world. We desired to have something in a brighter style, and, after many debates, at length came to an unanimous resolution of being drawn together, in one large historical family piece. This would be cheaper, since one frame would serve for all, and it would be infinitely more genteel; for all families of any taste were now drawn in the same manner. As we did not immediately recollect an historical subject to hit us, we were contented each with being drawn as independent historical figures. My wife desired to be represented as Venus, and the painter was desired not to be too frugal of his diamonds in her stomacher and hair. Her two little ones were to be as Cupids by her side, while I, in my gown and band, was to present her with my books on the Whistonian controversy. Olivia would be drawn as an Amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers, drest in a green joseph, richly laced with gold, and a whip in her hand. Sophia was to be a shepherdess, with as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing; and Moses was to be drest out with an hat and white feather. Our taste so much pleased the ‘Squire, that he insisted on being put in as one of the family in the character of Alexander the great, at Olivia’s feet. This was considered by us all as an indication of his desire to be introduced into the family, nor could we refuse his request. The painter was therefore set to work, and as he wrought with assiduity and expedition, in less than four days the whole was compleated. The piece was large, and it must be owned he did not spare his colours; for which my wife gave him great encomiums. We were all perfectly satisfied with his performance; but an unfortunate circumstance had not occurred till the picture was finished, which now struck us with dismay. It was so very large that we had no place in the house to fix it. How we all came to disregard so material a point is inconceivable; but certain it is, we had been all greatly remiss. The picture, therefore, instead of gratifying our vanity, as we hoped, leaned, in a most mortifying manner, against the kitchen wall, where the canvas was stretched and painted, much too large to be got through any of the doors, and the jest of all our neighbours. One compared it to Robinson Crusoe’s long-boat, too large to be removed; another thought it more resembled a reel in a bottle; some wondered how it could be got out, but still more were amazed how it ever got in.
But though it excited the ridicule of some, it effectually raised more malicious suggestions in many. The ‘Squire’s portrait being found united with ours, was an honour too great to escape envy. Scandalous whispers began to circulate at our expence, and our tranquility was continually disturbed by persons who came as friends to tell us what was said of us by enemies. These reports we always resented with becoming spirit; but scandal ever improves by opposition.
Oliver Goldsmith, 1730 – 1774. The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766. The novel was written in 1761 and 1762, and published in 1766. Chapter 16. The family use art, which is opposed with, still greater
Image: Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827. The Family Picture, 1817. The Vicar of Wakefield, A Tale by Doctor Goldsmith. Illustrated with twenty four designs by Thomas Rowlandson. Published by R. Ackermann, London, 1817
The Vicar of Wakefield is a tale of the fortunes of the family of a Yorkshire vicar that provides an unparalleled description of an itinerant painter plying the artist’s trade in the English provinces. Dr. Primrose and his family commission a group portrait and the excitement and discussion of the costume and composition is enjoyed by the whole village. The arrangement of the painting indicates extensive knowledge of classical figures and art historical characters, as well as the fun of dressing and posing in an appropriate attitude. The travelling limner who ‘took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head’ is not considered important enough to be named.