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William Henry West Betty

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- subject matching 'In Character'

William Henry West Betty, by John Opie, 1804 -NPG 1392 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Regency Portraits Catalogue

William Henry West Betty

by John Opie
1804
78 1/8 in. x 58 7/8 in. (1985 mm x 1495 mm)
NPG 1392

This portraitback to top

Opie's portrait and Northcote's (at Stratford-on-Avon) were commissioned by T. L. Parker whose letter to Betty's father, 13 November 1804, is in the Harvard Theatre Collection: 'I heard from Mr Northcote on Monday, and feel myself particularly obliged to you in favouring him with the first sitting. He is most sensible of the favour & hopes to ground his fame on the picture. Mr Opie is equally gratified by the honour you have allowed him on my behalf' (printed in full in Giles Playfair, The Prodigy, 1967, pp 87-8). Betty is shown in the part of Young Norval in John Home's Douglas, first played by Betty at Covent Garden 4 December 1804. Opie's portrait was finished in time for the RA exhibition 1805 though both Parker and Betty's father objected on the grounds that its exhibition would injure the sale of Heath's print. Opie refused to withdraw the picture. The RA Council could not allow its exhibition without Parker's consent. Betty's father threatened to cut it in pieces if it appeared at the RA and to sue Opie for £5000 if it were exhibited elsewhere. Rude letters passed. Townsend, the Bow Street agent, appeared with a warrant. Finally Hoppner acting as intermediary managed to cool tempers off and eventually the picture was hung at the RA - uncomfortably near Northcote's portrait of Betty as 'Hamlet' which had caused another furore by being accepted by Farington six days after the final sending-in date. The whole story is recorded in Farington's Diary 2-18 April 1805.
A slightly different version (204.5 x 129.5cm) with small variations in the background is in the Garrick Club.

Physical descriptionback to top

Whole-length standing as 'Young Norval', in green and black tartan kilt and plaid, breastplate and sandals; golden hair, bright bluish-green eyes, chubby rosy (?rouged) cheeks, serious expression; grey stormy sky and bleak mountain background.

Provenanceback to top

Commissioned by T. L. Parker for 100 guineas and given by him to Betty himself; bequeathed by Betty's son Henry Thomas 1897 to his widow Ann Starkey Betty for her life, then in 1905 to the NPG.

Exhibitionsback to top

This or the Garrick Club version at RA 1805 (6); 'John Opie', Plymouth, 1957 (71); Arts Council, Opie bicentenary exhibition, 1962-3 (72); 'Shakespeare in Pictures' Belfast 1964 (32); 'The Georgian Playhouse', Hayward Gallery, 1975 (124); 'Royal Opera House Retrospective 1732-1982', RA, 1982-3 (141).

Reproductionsback to top

Line by Heath published by W. H. Betty, Heath and Colnaghi 4 June 1807 (coloured impression in NPG). The two years' delay between the RA exhibition and the publication of the engraving is explained by the controversy recorded in detail by Farington.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, 1985, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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