Robert Dighton, born in London around 1752, was part of a whole tribe of Dighton’s who featured as artists, engravers and art sellers in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. He was the son of John Dighton, printseller, and went on to spawn Robert (military portraits), Dennis (general military pictures) and Richard, who succeeded to his father’s business drawing portraits and selling them from his studio.
Robert Dighton senior flourished at a time when “drolls” were in fashion – gentle caricatures of mannerisms, fashion etc (as distinct from the more overtly critical and sometimes savage lampoons of say Gillray, or Cruickshank).
An example is his almost affectionate drawing called “Derby & Joan or the platonic lovers, a farce'” (showing the famous actress Elizabeth Farren, later to become Countess of Derby, and Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby). The relationship between the recently widowed Earl and the famous beauty had fascinated society. This is Dighton’s take, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, published in November 1795:
And here is Gillray’s picture from 1796 of the same couple, looking at paintings at a forthcoming auction at Christies:
Back to Dighton and his drolls, “A Fashionable Lady in Dress and Undress”
As an illustration of his skill as an artist and engraver here are a couple of mezzotints courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library and which came out as part of a whole series of ‘calendar girls’, one per month, in 1784/5. They were sold by Carington Bowles, a popular print publisher of the day.
First, “March or Mars”
Second, “October or Octobre”
I find the fashion detail – fabrics, styles and so on, fascinating. Carington Bowles especially sold maps, and Dighton enjoyed doing comic maps to amuse the public under the heading of “Geography Bewitched”. Here, copyright of the British Museum, are Scotland:
The National Portrait Gallery gives us this 1801 print by Dighton from a book entitled ‘Descriptions of battles by sea & land, in two volumes, from the Kings Library’s at Greenwich & Chelsea’
Droll indeed, but by now the fifty year old Dighton was up to no good. He had opened a shop selling prints and artworks in Charing Cross. In 1806 it was discovered that he was in the habit of visiting the British Museum, chatting up one of the printroom curators by the name of the Reverend William Beloe, and doing free portraits for him and his family. While the good reverend’s back was turned he would then lift the odd Rembrandt print from the Museum collection and then calmly walk out with the stolen print hidden in his own portfolio of sketches. Simples! He would then flog them in his shop. When caught he confessed all, and was fortunate to avoid prosecution by agreeing to hand back the unsold items which he had lifted, and to help track down some of the ones he had already sold. The hapless curator was not so lucky and was sacked on the spot.
Dighton was forced to spent a few years lying low in Oxford and Bath, his reputaion in tatters, before returning to London in 1810 to re-open his shop which he ran jointly with his sons. He died in 1814.
To end with, his evocative “Windy Day” showing the outside of (his?) printshop
and my favourite of his calendar girls, August, doing a spot of fishing: