Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788)
Artist and scientist

Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788)Next time you visit Temple Newsam House, take a look at the picture which hangs above the grand oak staircase – a charming painting of the five young daughters of the 9th Viscount Irwin in the 1770s, playing some light-hearted game, maybe hide and seek, out in the country. Its informality contrasts with the stiff family portraits that usually clutter the walls of stately homes. The artist was Benjamin Wilson, a Leeds man who made his name in London, as admired in his day as his contemporaries William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, with a respected position at the court of George III. He was an experimental scientist too, a fellow of the Royal Society, in correspondence with learned men across Europe. Yet today he is virtually unknown.

Benjamin Wilson was born in Leeds in 1721, the fourteenth and youngest child of a wealthy cloth merchant from a large, influential Leeds family. He was born at Mill Hill, where the Wilson family occupied the Manor House (where the Scarbrough Hotel is now, opposite the railway station). This grand house had walls and ceilings decorated with paintings by the distinguished French artist Jacques Parmentier, which people flocked to admire and which inspired Benjamin as a child. He loved to copy them and found he could sell his copies to his schoolfriends ‘for pence and halfpence’ – an enterprising boy! But his education was cut short when his father lost all his money. He was taken on by the French artist Longueville who was working at Gisburn, but after a year decided to seek his fortune in London.

From his own account, he walked most of the way, arrived penniless, and had to depend on a relative’s handout of 2 guineas (with a new suit of clothes) while he looked for work. The money lasted him a year – he was notoriously penny-pinching! – until he got a post as clerk to a society of lawyers, in the heart of the City. He scrimped and saved, and in his early twenties found a better position which left him time and money to take up painting again. He worked and socialised with the leading artists of the time, and made all the right social connections, important for winning commissions. Portraiture was particularly lucrative: this was how the great and the good made sure they were remembered by future generations.

He began to win important commissions. After a year working in Ireland, he returned to London in 1750 setting up in an elegant house in Great Queen Street, Holborn. His sitters included many eminent men and women, from the aristocracy, politics, and the arts. As his reputation grew, it’s said that he was earning £1500 a year and could afford to turn down the offer of a partnership with Hogarth. Many of his portraits of celebrities like the actor David Garrick were reproduced to meet popular demand – just as now people were greedy for pictures of their heroes. He even dabbled with satirical cartoons, with some success.

But there was another completely different side to his life. From an early age, he had read widely and become fascinated by the new science of electricity. He conducted experiments, built his own apparatus, and corresponded with some of the leading men working in the field. In 1746 when he was only 25 he published the first of a long series of research papers on electricity which led to his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1751 and later to the Society’s gold medal. He was particularly interested in the design of lightning conductors, which brought him into a long public dispute with Benjamin Franklin. His work, which he continued throughout his life, was widely respected, and he was honoured by membership of four European academies.

About 1771, when he was 50, Wilson married Jane Hetherington, well-born and beautiful but with no dowry. She suited him well – he claimed ‘he saved more money from the time he first knew her than ever before’! They had seven children, one of them the distinguished general Sir Robert Wilson.

Benjamin acquired a royal patron in the Duke of York, George III’s younger brother, who helped him to an important official post, and he won the King’s support both as a painter and as an experimental scientist. He was welcomed at Windsor and at court – he had made it to the top. In later life he lost money in speculation, complained of poverty, but died in comfortable enough circumstances, leaving his children a full account of his life. His reputation has faded, but many of his paintings and prints remain in national collections, a reminder of this Leeds painter cum scientist for whom the streets of London were indeed paved with gold.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2016