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John Opie RA (May 1761 - 1807)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Born in Cornwall, John Opie was a precocious child with a clear talent for drawing and painting. In his early teens, Opie was ‘discovered’ by Dr John Wolcot, an amateur artist and critic, who greatly supported the young Opie and promoted his career.

After some years as an itinerant portrait-painter in Cornwall, Opie moved with Wolcot to London in 1781, where the latter encouraged Opie’s image as a rustic and brilliant artist from the provinces, somewhat uncivilised but curious for London art circles. Opie was inundated with commissions and clients, and even sold two paintings to King George III within a few months of moving to London. Around the same time he was introduced to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was impressed by his paintings and persona.

In December 1782 Opie married Mary Bunn, a union which led to a distancing with Wolcot for financial reasons. In the following years, Opie showed an aptitude for child portraiture, leading to numerous aristocratic commissions, and also developed a unique style of realistic genre painting, for example Thomas Daniell and Captain Morcom, with Polperro Mine, St. Agnes, in the Background (1786; Truro, County Museum and Art Gallery). During this time he also ventured into history painting, exhibiting The Assassination of James I of Scotland (destroyed) as his first large-scale history painting at the Royal Academy in 1786, to great acclaim.

In the same year, Opie travelled through the Low Countries, studying Dutch and Flemish masterpieces. The Rembrandt paintings he encountered left a lasting impression on him and many elements of his mature painting exhibit Rembrandt-esque qualities.

Opie was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1786 and became a full Academician in 1787. His wife Mary left him in 1795 and in 1798 Opie married the writer and activist Amelia Alderson (1769–1853). In their marriage, both partners were able to flourish in their artistic professions, with Opie encouraging Amelia’s work as a novelist and Amelia championing Opie as a painter.

In 1802, the Opies travelled to Paris where they met several notable artists including Benjamin West and Maria Cosway, and Opie where was able to study the huge number of artworks looted by Napoleon from across Europe. The paintings he saw during this trip became an important source for his lectures as Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy (from 1805), which he delivered in 1807. Just a few days after delivering these lectures, Opie fell ill with a fever and died on 9 April 1807.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Opie’s second marriage was to Amelia Alderson (1769–1853), a novelist, poet and activist. They married in 1798 and, with Opie’s encouragement, Amelia gained great literary success. Amelia was also prominent in her opposition to the slave trade, and the Opies were associated with abolition campaigners such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Fry and Thomas Fowell Buxton.

As an activist, most of Amelia’s campaigning took place after her husband’s death in 1807. She was a founder of the Norwich branch of the Anti-Slavery Society in the 1820s and represented Norwich at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Amelia also wrote and published anti-slavery poetry and prose.

Relevant ODNB entries

Simon, Robin. “Opie, John (1761–1807), portrait and history painter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20800

Kelly, Gary. “Opie [née Alderson], Amelia (1769–1853), novelist and poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20799

Profile

Royal Academician

Born: May 1761 in St. Agnes, near Truro, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom

Died: 9 April 1807

Nationality: British

Elected ARA: 6 November 1786

Elected RA: 13 February 1787

Professor of Painting: 1805 - 1807

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by John Opie in the RA Collection

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Works after John Opie in the RA Collection

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Works associated with John Opie in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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