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Richard Morton Paye:
an Unfortunate Genius

In the earliest days of the Royal Academy in London, during the reign of King George III, the name of Richard Morton Paye was a familiar and important one. Paye first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773, aged 23, when he had six works accepted for the summer exhibition. Over the next thirty years he exhibited there on sixty-six occasions, with many of his paintings being hung ‘on the line’ (at eye level), the most prestigious position reserved for the year’s most estimable works. His paintings also adorned the walls of the Society of Artists and the British Institution, as well as the other leading exhibition venues of the period.

“Though placed by the side of those of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, John Hoppner and others of name and note, his performances attracted the notice and approbation of the best judges of the Fine Arts.”

Library of the Fine Arts, 1832

So how can it be that in the 21st century the name Richard Morton Paye is not as well-known as those of his contemporaries Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds? More to the point – why was he all but forgotten even before his death in 1821? Modern wisdom likes to reassure us (and especially aspirational children) that talent will triumph over all and that “if you want it enough you can achieve anything” but that unfortunately is not true. Richard Morton Paye could not have possessed more desire and dedication and had talent to spare. What he lacked was luck.

“An unfortunate genius.”

Dictionary of Painters & Engravers, 1849

‘Children Playing in the Snow in front of St. George’s Church, Hanover Square’ by Richard Morton Paye

Throughout his career Paye’s favourite subject was the people of London and especially its children. Unlike his contemporaries he didn’t just paint the sons and daughters of the wealthy but also the ordinary children that played and lived on the streets of the capital. In subject, style, and quality his paintings of city life recall the secular work of Murillo (with the action transferred from Seville to London) and the brilliantly satirical genre pictures of William Hogarth a century earlier.

His was clearly a major talent that could not be ignored and by the 1780s Paye’s reputation had attracted a string of important patrons including Joseph Neeld MP (1789–1856), Edward, 1st Baron Thurlow (1731-1806), and both the Archdeacon and the Lord Mayor of London. Sadly, however, Paye’s dedication to his work would prove more of a hindrance than a help to his chances of financial security and lasting success.

Richard Morton Paye – Self Portrait

Paye was a perfectionist and the enormous time and effort he spent on his paintings lead the most ardent of his patrons, the famous satirist and critic, John Wolcot (1738-1809) to predict that he would “paint himself into a gaol”. Sure enough, although demand for his work was growing, Paye’s perfectionism meant that he spent much longer on the detail and finish of his paintings than his rivals and consequently supply could not keep up with demand. But his lack of business acumen wasn’t the only reason his name would fall into relative obscurity. He was also said to be a shy and solitary character and his lack of “networking skills” (in other words, the ability to suffer fools and smile) meant he wasn’t always willing or able to sufficiently ingratiate himself with his patrons. It was the breakdown of his relationship with the aforementioned John Wolcot that would first point Paye on the road to penury.

‘Portrait of a Sulky Boy’ by Richard Morton Paye

Although an enthusiastic satirist of others Wolcot clearly did not take kindly to being teased himself. When Paye exhibited his painting ‘Portrait of a Sulky Boy’ at the Royal Academy in 1785 Wolcot suspected the model was (scandalously) his illegitimate son. His irritation was compounded when Paye published a comic image of ‘the Great Critic’ himself depicted as a grumpy bear standing in front of an easel. They say that biters strongly object to being bitten and sure enough Walcot quickly withdrew his patronage. The irascible Walcot had previously fallen out with his former favourite John Opie, but unlike Opie the solitary and introverted Paye felt the loss of his financial support acutely.

The termination of this one relationship alone wouldn’t mean the end of the world but Paye’s disappointments didn’t end there. On several occasions during his own lifetime a number of Paye’s paintings (which he often left unsigned) would be wrongly attributed as the work of other artists. Paintings by Richard Morton Paye were variously credited to, and sold as being by, Diego Velázquez, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner and Joseph Wright of Derby. Unsurprisingly, Paye felt he never received the proper credit from the dignitaries, dealers, and critics of the day. If ever an artist needed an agent, it was Richard Morton Paye.

A further and more devastating setback was, tragically, still to come. In 1807 he contracted what was probably a streptococcal infection which in turn led to rheumatic fever and then a stroke that caused Paye to lose the use of his right arm. Painting was not only Richard Morton Paye’s life but also his only means of financial support and so – being the dedicated and determined individual he so obviously was – he set about relearning how to paint from scratch, albeit with his left hand only. Remarkably, he was successful enough in doing so to continue to have paintings accepted at the major London exhibitions, but this latest slice of ill fortune would eventually prove one setback too many.

“An elusive artist of distinguished quality.”

Ellis Waterhouse, ‘The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters’

His fall from favour with the Georgian art establishment and deteriorating health saw Richard Morton Paye descend into near poverty, and he was forced to apply for financial assistance from the Artists’ Benevolent Fund, yet according to his obituary his passion and talent remained undimmed and “the love of Art sustained him through all; “Neither privations nor disappointment could check the ardour of his enthusiasm, nor could sickness in its most appalling shape quench the powers of genius.”

Paye exhibited his final picture at the British Institution in 1815. Entitled ‘The Gout; or a Lecture on Patience’ it was hung with the following notice: ‘Painted with the left hand, after losing the use of the right by a paralytic fit.’ Richard Morton Paye died in 1820 “if not in absolute want, yet most certainly in entire neglect” and was buried at the church of St. James, Clerkenwell.

“In his easel pictures Paye’s style was careful without being elaborate, and his chiaroscuro was at all times considered of the highest quality: in effect, as well as in character of execution, there was something of the Flemish, but nature in all was the criterion of his excellence.”

‘Richard Morton Paye, a Memoir’, 1832

We now have for sale Richard Morton Paye’s masterpiece ‘St. James’ Day’ painted at the height of his powers in 1788 and exhibited in that same year at the Royal Academy. This can be viewed now via the Gallery page. 

‘St. James’ Day’ by Richard Morton Paye

Depicting a large group of Londoners at an oyster stand around midnight in the West End, this large and wonderful painting both lampoons and celebrates the capitol’s rich and poor, its young and old, its celebrated and disreputable.  Among them, the art collector Sir John Julius Angerstein, then the most important figure in the British art world, having his wig pulled off and humiliated by a local ruffian. Angerstein was clearly not one of Paye’s patrons or favourite people.

To the right side of the picture, Paye takes out further revenge on one of his other bugbears as a vicious dog is seen stealing a chicken. Written on its collar is the word “critick”. To his great credit Paye was also willing to turn this satirical focus onto himself. Ridiculing his own vanity and precarious finances, Paye paints himself into the scene prophetically gazing out at the viewer – distracted by public attention – whilst being fleeced of all his money by a pickpocket.

Thanks to a painstaking process of conservation by Simon Gillespie Studio in London, Richard Morton Paye’s ‘St. James’ Day’ has now been returned to its former glory, and its important place in the history of the early English School recognised once more. I would like to believe that the artist’s reputation as one of the most gifted and influential painters of Georgian Britain can be similarly restored.

by Gavin Claxton

© Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2023

Images courtesy of Bonhams and Upton House NT 446692