For the cover on my book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century” I chose a print based on a painting by William Matthew Peters. I subsequently acquired an original print of the lady in question, thanks to the generosity of one of the readers of this blog, for which I am extremely grateful.
Peters was quite an interesting character. Some books describe him as “ a portrait and history painter from the Isle of Wight” while others ascribe to him an Irish birth and ancestry. His father appears to have been a garden designer working in Dublin and who had originally done work for Lord Cobham at Stowe. As a youth Peters went twice to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned from the first trip (to Rome) in the early 1760s and then went again to Rome, and Venice, in the early to mid 1770s. He gained the somewhat over-egged title of “the English Titian” – due to a series of portraits of ladies in various stages of undress. He apparently painted them as a tribute to the works of Titian, intending to emulate Titian’s “Venus” by showing modern-day seductresses. However, whereas Titian painted his Venus stretched out full length on her bed, entirely naked, Peters showed only the head, shoulders and breasts. Peters provided his ladies with contemporary night-caps along with familiar names of the period eg Lydia, Belinda, Sylvia (and Lucrece…?).
He may have seen them as tributes to the great Italian Masters, but the public saw them as erotic art which they could buy as pin-ups, and copies appeared in print many times over. Not all the critics were in favour. When Peters exhibited The Woman in Bed at the RA summer exhibition the critic in The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted: “We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room”
Matthew Peters had trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson and when he returned from his second Italian tour Peters had moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by patrons such as Lord Grosvenor, that he began to paint his studies of courtesans. And let’s face it, Lord Grosvenor certainly knew a lot of courtesans… I can just imagine him coming home after a torrid night between the sheets at a local brothel and saying to Peters “Look who I’ve brought for you to paint.”
By the late 1770s Peters, was getting increasingly worried about the damage to his reputation as a serious artist, and so abandoned painting courtesans. This became even more important to him when he decided to become ordained in 1781, Subsequently he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, and was highly embarrassed by his quasi-erotoc offerings. According to the Tate Gallery he expressed “a profound regret that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret.” He went on to become rector of Eaton, Leicestershire, then rector of Wolsthorpe, Leicestershire, in 1788, and became Prebendary of Lincoln in 1795 He was also chaplain to the Prince Regent, so we can safely say that he was not just a man of the canvas but also a man of the cloth….
In 1777 he had been elected a full Member of the Royal Academy. He married Margaret, daughter of the Rev John Knowsley and they had various children including a son, Edmund, who took the surname of Turton in order to receive a benefit under the will of Dr John Edmund. He carried on painting – mostly mawkish pictures of young children ascending to Heaven, but I rather go along with the comment on his works which appeared in the Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913 “Peters’ work as a painter was very unequal; but in his portraits he shows a strength and ease in painting, with good colour, which raises him to a higher level than has hitherto been accorded him. Had he devoted his talents to portraiture instead of wasting them on his historical pictures and his ill-drawn, badly-coloured angels and pious children by which he is best known, he would have been regarded, and taken his place, as one of the best painters of the English school.”
Peters died at Brasted Place, Kent, on 20th March, 1814. I confess that I rather like his seductive nudes with their ‘come hither’ look. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have any of his other paintings hanging on my study wall. My book is intended as a rattling read through the bedroom antics of Georgian Britain, and I am grateful to the Rev. Peters for providing me with a most suitable cover.