A couple of oil paintings by John Collet went under the hammer recently. Both pictures formerly belonged to the printseller Carington Bowles (1724-1793) and his partner Samuel Carver (1756-1841) and were part of a considerable collection of Collet’s paintings that the pair amassed between 1777 and 1780. Make no mistake, this was an exercise in commerce rather then connoisseurship, with Bowles & Carver purchasing the pictures so that they could establish a monopoly over engraved images of them at the expense of their rivals. The investment seems to have paid off, with both mezzotints enjoying extraordinarily long print-runs that probably lasted until the firm went out of business in the 1830s. 
The first of the two pictures in the lot was Tight lacing, or, Fashion before ease, a satire on the price of vanity and the follies of fashion. The title comes from the mezzotint engraving which was first published by Bowles & Carver in 1777 and proclaims itself to be taken “from the original picture by John Collet, in the possession of the Proprietors.” The plate may have remained in near-continuous use for some considerable time thereafter, with the publication date eventually being removed to disguise its age. Tight Lacing… was still listed in Bowles’s catalogue in 1786 and Yale University has a copy published in paper with an 1812 watermark. Copies of the image were used a decorative transfer for creamware pottery manufactured in the North of England and the Midlands.  It also spawned several contemporary and near-contemporary imitators, including most notably James Gillray’s Fashion Before Ease (1793).  The canvas measures 34.9 x 26.4cm; 13¾ x 10½ and is signed in the lower left corner.
The second painting is The Triple Plea, an old satirical image with a longstanding connection to the Bowles family. The original version was an engraving published in 1725 by John Bowles (c.1701 – 1779). Its enduring popularity was such that Bowles was still listing it in his catalogues in 1753 and licensed it to Josiah Wedgewood for use on decorative pottery in 1763.  John’s son Carington Bowles evidently felt that The Triple Plea was due a revamp after fifty-five years and commissioned Collet to paint a new version that he published in mezzotint on 15th May 1780.
A clergyman, a doctor and a lawyer are shown debating the question of whose profession is superior. The pictures on the wall behind them – of three harpies tearing a man to pieces and a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” – leave the viewer in little doubt as to the answer. The text next to the title reads: “Behold these three by fate designed / To poison, plunder & delude mankind.” It is an exert from a longer poem that appeared on the earlier printed versions of The Triple Plea and it would be used again on the the 1780 mezzotint edition. The canvas measures exactly the same as its partner but lacks a signature. As with Tight Lacing… this image appears to have enjoyed a long commercial life and was still being used to decorate transferware pottery in the early 1800s. 
The pair achieved a hammer price of £3,000 in August 2021 and will have cost the buyer around £4,500 once fees and VAT are taken into account. That’s not to be sniffed at but it may be slightly disappointing news for the seller, who presumably paid £4,812 for the paintings when they were sold at Bonhams in October 2019 and subsequently had them framed and restored to a high standard. It’s a shame for the seller but such is the nature of any commercial market. I hope their new owner enjoys them all the more for having secured something of a bargain.
For a previous post on Collet’s artwork, including a brief biography of the man himself, click HERE.
- Alexander, David. “Prints after John Collet: Their Publishing History and a Chronological Checklist.” Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 26 no. 1, 2002, p. 136-146.
- Drakard, David. Printed English Pottery. History and Humour in the reign of George III 1760 – 1820, (London, 1992), p. 108. For the Yale version see: https://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/292098
- Gillray’s caricature is in some respects closer to a crudely rendered version of Tight Lacing that was published by William Humphrey on 5th March 1777. This print could be the original version of the design, as Bowles & Carvers mezzotint is thought to have been published after June 1777 (See Yale University catalogue https://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/292098). The Triple Plea was also based on a satirical image that dated back to the 1720s and Bowles & Carver may have similarly asked Collet to produce a more upmarket version of Humphrey’s caricature.
- Bowles, John. A Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Copy-Books… (London, 1753), p. 28. The catalogue states that the print was engraved by George Bickham. It’s not clear whether this was the elder or the younger Bickham, both of whom were working as engravers at this time. Nor is clear whether this was the original 1725 plate or a later reworking of the same satire. The 1725 edition of The Triple Plea was signed “G W H W H N M sculpsit” which may have been used by one of the Bickham’s as a pseudonym.
- Drakard. Ibid.