- Museum number
Portrait of Master Betty as Captain Flash in 'Miss in Her 'Teens'; whole-length in military uniform, cocked hat, turning to left, hands on hips. 1806
Graphite with red chalk and watercolour
- Production date
Height: 364 millimetres
Width: 224 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The following text is from S Lloyd and K Sloan, 'The Intimate Portrait', BM and NGS, 2008, no. 180:
Samuel De Wilde was first apprenticed as a woodcarver, his Dutch father's trade, before he showed a talent for painting and entered the newly formed RA Schools in 1769. He painted small portraits and miniatures, exhibiting banditti and fancy pictures at the RA from 1782; but he is best known for his theatrical portraits, in oil, chalk or, as here, in watercolour, exhibited almost every year at the RA from 1792. The previous year he had begun work for John Bell, the publisher of British Theatre, which reprinted the text of plays with a full-length portrait of a leading actor or actress of the day in character. The publisher advertised that De Wilde was superior to Zoffany, the best known theatre portraitist of the time, and provided him with a studio where De Wilde was prolific in producing paintings of actors and actresses with props and a theatrical backdrop – ninety-three between 1791 and four years later when the publication ceased.
De Wilde's reputation was established and he was able to rent rooms in Covent Garden where actors could come and sit to him. Artist's studios had always been venues for society in the eighteenth century and no doubt his was well visited by theatre lovers as well as performers. He worked more in chalk and watercolour, quicker than oil, and set the figures against plain backgrounds, as here. This enabled large numbers to be created and the prices were not high at just under three guineas each. Given Edridge charged five guineas per head in 1803, it is not surprising that by 1810 de Wilde was in debt. Working in watercolours meant he was not really eligible for recognition by his peers at the Academy. Many of his portraits were engraved as independent prints, as the present one was, which may have diluted demand for the originals. The prints were highly collectible and Charles Mathews (wife of Mrs Mathews) formed a collection that is now the basis of that of the Garrick Club.
'Master Betty', the fourteen year old William Henry West Betty (1791-1874), had gained a reputation in the provinces, causing rumours to precede his appearance on the London stage in 1804. Crowds queued in their thousands to obtain tickets not to judge his performance but merely to see someone so famous. In 1805, De Wilde portrayed him as Orestes from The Distrest Mother, looking younger than his fourteen years, as a child dressed in the armour of a Roman soldier (BM 1882,0513.23). His brief spell of popularity only lasted four years, when his growing arrogance left him complacent in his business and unwilling to apply himself. William Godwin felt his speeches had a 'tea-table familiarity' and Thomas Campbell declared that he was no more than 'a hallucination in the public mind' (cited in Ranger). A host of other miraculously young actors termed the 'baby-bubble' by Anne Mathews (see the drawing of her by De Wilde in the Museum) began to appear and in 1808 Betty left the stage and entered Cambridge. He made a brief come back in 1812 but was described as a 'fat, fair, ranting screaming fellow who might much better represent a Persian eunuch than a Macedonian conqueror'. It was as if his audience resented his having grown up and he quickly retired to the provinces.
Engraved in stipple by Robert Cooper, 1806.
SELECTED LITERATURE: L. Binyon, 'Cat. of British Drawings in the BM', De Wilde, no. 4; P. Noon, 'English Portrait Drawings and Miniatures', Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1979; I. Mayes, 'Portraits by De Wilde', Country Life, XLIV, 15 Nov. 1973, pp. 1530-4; K. Retford, 'Samuel De Wilde', Oxford DNB [article 7579, accessed 26 Nov. 2007]; P. Ranger, 'William Henry West Betty', ibid. [article 2315, accessed 1 Feb. 2008];
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1975 Aug-Oct, Hayward, 'The Georgian Playhouse', no. 197
2008/9 Oct-Jan, Edinburgh, SNPG, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 180
2009 Mar-May, London, BM, Room 90, 'The Intimate Portrait'
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Miss in Her 'Teens
- Acquisition date
- 1837 (before)
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number