I spotted this oil painting by John Collet in the catalogue of a London saleroom recently and wanted to find out a bit more about the man who created it. I must admit that although I was dimly aware of Collet through his association with Carington Bowles, I knew very little about his work and nothing about the man himself. In turns out that this was quite an oversight on my part, as Collet was arguably one of the most popular satirical artists operating in London between 1765 and 1780 and deserves much greater recognition for his contribution to the genre. Engravings and mezzotints after his paintings dominated the windows of London’s high-end printshops during the 1770s, including those of the aforementioned Bowles and his rivals such as John Smith and Robert Sayer. Collet’s prints dealt almost exclusively in social satire and were often preoccupied with the reversal and overlapping of cultural stereotypes. In Miss Wicket
and Miss Trigger… (1778) for example, he subverts the masculine genre of the sporting portrait by replacing the traditional male sitters with two young women who are said to be experts with the cricket bat and hunting rifle. What follows is a short biography of Collet which is largely derived from the work of Patricia Crown, David Alexander and the Dictionary of National Biography, although I have managed to make a few additions to Collet’s story of my own.
John Collet was born in the London parish of St Martin’s in the Fields on 22nd February 1726 . The Dictionary of National Biography describes his father Henry as a “gentleman holding a public office” and it’s possible that he was the same Henry Collet that was responsible for managing financial transactions between the Bank of England and the Treasury during the 1730s . In addition to this lucrative sinecure, the family had acquired substantial real estate holdings across London from which they derived a handsome annual income . Their wealth was sufficient enough to ensure that young John would never have to work for a living and could be raised as a gentleman of leisure, with an education which was heavily concerned with the appreciation of art, literature and music, as well as the display of social grace and deportment.
Collet evidently demonstrated some aptitude as an artist from an early age, as he was enrolled in the St Martin’s Lane Academy (a forerunner to the Royal Academy) and later studied under the landscape painter George Lambert (1700 – 1765) . Under Lambert’s influence, Collet started out as landscape artist and submitted three of his paintings to an exhibition of the Free Society of Artists in 1761. He exhibited with the same society again in 1762, although this time included a mixture of landscapes, portraits and a genre painting entitled A Gipsy telling some Country Girls their Fortune . This seems to have signalled a shift away from landscape towards humorous and moralising genre scenes that were heavily influenced by the works of William Hogarth (1697 – 1764). In May 1765, the print and picture dealer Thomas Bradford acquired a set of four paintings by Collet entitled Modern Love; a Hogarthian-style progress telling the story of a young couple’s transition from the armorial bliss of courtship to the more mundane realities of married life. Bradford launched a subscription for engraved copies of the paintings which evidently proved popular enough to generate further demand for published editions of Collet’s work .
Collet appears to have maintained a fairly exclusive arrangement with his publishers and as such the catalogue of engravings after his paintings can be divided into three distinct groupings:
1. 1765 – 1768. Line engravings by John Goldar pulished by Thomas Bradford.
2. 1768 – 1776. Line engravings produced by John Goldar, James Caldwell, Robert Laurie and others, published by Robert Sayer from 1768 to 1773 and Sayer & Bennett from 1774 to 1776.
3. 1777 – 1780. Mezzotints published by Carington Bowles. The Bowles family would continue to reissue Collet’s work until well into the nineteenth-century and eventually appear to have erased the publication line from the plates, presumably to avoid drawing attention to the age of the design.
The engravings published between 1765 and 1775 are heavily influenced by Hogarth and demonstrate an abiding preoccupation with the themes of romance, social satire and the comedy of contrast. The oil painting above is a good example of the latter and may have originally been paired with a companion piece depicting an Englishman in France. Engravings after both pictures were published by Robert Sayer in 1770 under the tiles The Frenchman in London and the Englishman in Paris. The former depicts a dandified French fop who accidentally runs into an argumentative butcher in the streets of London. The lean, overdressed, Frenchman recoils in horror as the Englishman rolls up his sleeves and prepares to give him a good pasting. Two working class women, who are not present in the original oil painting, sneer and tug derisively at the long braided ponytail hanging from the back of the Frenchman’s wig. A dog also takes advantage of the confusion to leap up and grab a falling chop from the butcher’s discarded delivery tray. The companion plate shows an Englishman grimacing as his wig is blasted with copious amounts of powder by a mincing French valet. The images play on well-worn themes of English masculinity versus French effeminacy that were common in both political and social satires of the 1760s and 1770s.
Gender and the blurring of traditional stereotypes becomes and increasingly prominent theme in Collet’s satires from 1775 onwards. This was part of a wider trend in British satirical art of the late at that time, prompted by claims that the growing feminisation of society was to blame for Britain’s apparent inability to defeat the rebellious American colonists. Numerous prints depicting women in masculine dress and engaged in typically male pursuits flooded the windows of London’s printshops. While John Collet was not the only artist working in this field, he was probably the most prolific and produced paintings (later copied in print) of women engaged in field sports, cricket, skittles and rowing amongst other things. An Actress at her Toilet, or Miss Brazen just Breecht, published by Carington Bowles in 1779, is typical of a print of this kind. It shows a young woman pulling on a pair of breeches and striking a confidently masculine pose as she admires herself in the mirror. On the table next to her rests a breastplate and a sword, which a playbill on the floor nearby suggests will be worn by her in the part of Captain Macheath from the Beggars Opera. The implication seems to be that Britain’s women had begun to cut a more convincing martial figure than that of her discredited menfolk.
We know little of Collet’s personal life beyond a few snippets of surviving information from sources published after his death. A brief note published in the Repository of Arts Magazine in 1812 states that
He was a man of genius, generosity and benevolence. He possessed an estate that made him independent of the world; and his tenants, knowing his disposition, often kept from paying much of their rents .
Patricia Crown concludes that Collet’s wealth and social standing bred a sense of confident affability in him that was largely absent from the moralising humour of the self-made Hogarth .
John Collet died at his home on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 6th August 1780 and was buried in the local churchyard five days later . He is not known to have married but the considerable sum he left in his will to “my dear friend Sarah Augol, spinster” for the maintenance of herself and the education of her son Matthew, suggests the existence of a longstanding mistress and illegitimate offspring . His prints would remain in circulation for years after his death and would be copied, either in whole or in part, by some of the most prominent artist of the so-called ‘golden age’ of British caricature, including James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and William Heath.
1. Collet was baptised at St Martin’s in the Fields two days later. The record of his baptism gives his father’s name as Henry Collet.
2. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 4, 1921, p. 790. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 8, 1738, p. 491, contains a brief obituary for Henry Collet and states that he was worth £20,000 at the time of his death. It is not clear whether this Henry Collet was the artist’s father. Crown, p.124 states that Collet inherited two London properties after his father’s death in 1771.
3. Patricia Crown, ‘Sporting with Clothes: John Collet’s Prints in the 1770s’, Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 26 No. 1 (2002), p. 126.
4. Dictionary of National Biography. p. 790
5. The painting was later purchased by the publisher John Smith of Cheapside who issued an engraved copy by James Caldwell in November 1770 under the title The Gipsies, see BM 4597.
6. David Alexander, ‘Prints after John Collet: Their Publishing History and a Chronological Checklist’, Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 26 No. 1 (2002), p. 136.
7. The Repository of Arts (8), London, 1812, p. 131.
8. Crown, p. 123.
9. Dictionary of National Biography. p. 791. Collet kept houses in Covent Garden, Holborn and Chelsea. The house in Covent Garden is where he is thought to have spent the majority of his time and kept his studio. The property at Chelsea was located just around the corner from the much smaller house where James Gillray lived with his parents.