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  • Portrait of a Marriage: John and Amelia Opie and the Sister Arts
  • Shelley King (bio)

Recent studies of the later eighteenth century, such as Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite’s Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770–1840 (2002) and Christopher Rovee’s Imagining the Gallery: The Social Body of British Romanticism (2006), have emphasized the importance of social interconnections in the period, replacing the long dominant myth of the Romantic artist as solitary genius with a more complex narrative of public and private affiliations. In revising the myth of isolated creativity, such studies locate our understanding of artistic production—both literary and graphic—within the debate concerning public and private spheres of interest that has emerged in criticism concerning the long Eighteenth Century and Romantic periods over the past two decades.1 In this essay I want to explore the complexities of the private, domestic sphere of John and Amelia Opie and its implications for their artistic participation in the literary public sphere. Their companionate marriage offers perspectives on current inquiries into the function of both domestic space and the artist’s studio, the place of sociability in the production of women’s literary work, and the intersections of gender and class in the artistic world of 1790s London.

An Unlikely Pairing

The 1790s conjunction of radical thought and desire is epitomized most [End Page 27] famously by William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft: intellectually inspired by each other’s Jacobin philosophies and sexually attracted, they ultimately disciplined their lives to the expectations of the social world by marrying when Wollstonecraft fell pregnant. Yet just when their relationship was being pilloried in the public response to Godwin’s frank memoir of his wife following her death, two other persons of notable talent associated with the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle were joined in matrimony at Marylebone Church in London: John Opie, a painter dubbed “the Cornish Wonder,” married Amelia Alderson, the daughter of a physician of the radical city of Norwich who had just begun to make a name for herself as the author of several popular songs and as a coquette who had reputedly been courted by both Godwin and Holcroft earlier in the decade.2 Each would derive reciprocal professional benefits from the union: Amelia Alderson’s desire for literary fame flourished under a masculine encouragement that supported her desire to participate in the public sphere of authorship; John Opie enjoyed the support of a wife whose refined social skills and literary talent helped to polish and construct the lasting artistic reputation he sought.

The son of a Cornish carpenter, John Opie had been “discovered” in 1775, at about age 14, by Dr. John Wolcot, a Truro physician who longed for the life of artistic society in London.3 Impressed by Opie’s raw talent, he believed he had found his ticket to the metropolis. For the next six years he educated the boy, providing him with access to literature and art and materials for painting, while he himself cultivated his own talent as a satirist under the pseudonym “Peter Pindar.” In 1781 he set his plan in motion. He had primed the city for their arrival the previous year by sending ahead one of Opie’s paintings for the Society of Artists exhibition with a tantalizing (if manifestly untrue) catalogue description: “Master Oppy, Penryn, A Boy’s Head, an Instance of Genius, not having seen a picture.” Together they set up shop in Orange Court, with a series of Opie’s character studies on display, and began seeking commissions for portraits.4 Wolcot served as a kind of agent, promoting Opie as “the Cornish Wonder,” a half-civilized, untutored artistic genius. The older man fostered Opie’s unkempt appearance and rustic diction; as acid-tongued fellow Cornishman Richard Polwhele recorded, “we were much entertained by that unlicked cub of a carpenter, Opie, who was now almost ludicrously exhibited by his keeper, Wolcot–a wild animal of St Agnes, caught among the tin-works.”5 Still, the ploy worked in a fashionable London eager for novelty. In the spring of 1782, less than a year after his arrival in London, Opie showed five canvasses at the Royal...


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pp. 27-62
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