John Opie by Christine Bhatt

Tabley House is a treasure trove of paintings, many of them grand portraits of grand people, portraits which seem to become more natural and « homely » as we come to the modern age. However, two paintings which I loved to study while in the drawing room, conveniently situated in full view, each side of the beautiful fireplace are pictures of children, entitled « The Calling of Samuel » and « Children by the Fireside », painted by John Opie (1761 – 1807). I must confess to knowing nothing of John Opie, who became a successful portrait painter in London, in spite of his humble origins. In the late eighteenth century, artists generally came from artistic families or from educated middle-class ones. In contrast, Opie was born in St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a carpenter. It would appear that he showed precocious talent as a child and became known as the « Cornish Wonder », when brought to London by the poet and art critic Dr. John Wolcot, who launched him on his career. Though not so well known today, he was extremely popular in his day : his paintings were particularly admired for their originality and realism. It is this latter characteristic which attracts me to the two paintings at Tabley. Do look out for these children when you visit Tabley, but if you find yourself in Tate Britain, look out for some more Opie portraits, in particular the beautifully sensitive one of his mother.