The Gullett Family, John Opie (1761-1807)
Oil on canvas, English School, circa 1786. This family portrait by the Cornish artist John Opie, shows Christopher Gullet, Clerk of the Peace for Devon, with his wife Anne and youngest child Georgina. John Opie was born in Harmony Cottage, Trevellas, between St Agnes and Perranporth in Cornwall. He was the youngest of the five children of Edward Opie, a master carpenter, and his wife Mary (nee Tonkin). He showed a precocious talent for drawing and mathematics, and by the age of twelve he had mastered the teachings of Greek mathematician Euclid and opened an evening school for poor children where he taught reading, writing and arithmetic. His father, however, did not encourage his abilities, and apprenticed him to his own trade of carpentry. Opie's artistic abilities eventually came to the attention of local physician and satirist, Dr John Wolcot (who used the pen name Peter Pindar), who visited him at the sawmill where he was working in 1775. Recognising a great talent, Wolcot became Opie's mentor, buying him out of his apprenticeship and insisting that he come to live at his home in Truro. Wolcot provided invaluable encouragement, advice, tuition and practical help in the advancement of his early career, including obtaining many commissions for work. In 1781, having gained considerable experience as a portraitist travelling around Cornwall, Opie moved to London with Wolcot. There they lived together, having entered into a formal profit-sharing agreement. Although Opie had received a considerable artistic education from Wolcot, the doctor chose to present him as a self-taught prodigy; a portrait of a boy shown at the Society of Artists the previous year, had been described in the catalogue as "an instance of Genius, not having ever seen a picture." Wolcot introduced the "Cornish wonder" to leading artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was to compare him to Caravaggio and Velazquez.