Faces follow-up 1: Master Beckford

Following up on my “Faces” posting earlier today (on the Rose Gangloff Curates Portraiture exhibition at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center), while I pursue three queries on paintings in the show: a progress report on the painting

Benjamin West, “Pinkie” (Master Beckford), c. 1797-99

A photo of the painting, courtesy of the Cantor staff:


I was especially taken by the painting because of its formal composition (the lines of organization established by the boy’s gaze, the alignment of his body, and the placement of the two dogs), the voluptuousness of the fabrics in contrast to the rough background, and the apparent allusion to Thomas Lawrence’s 1794 portrait of Sarah Barrett Moulton, known familiarly as “Pinkie” and now invariably paired with Thomas Gainsborough’s 1779 portrait The Blue Boy (but maybe its customary name just alludes to the pink color of the boy’s clothes).

The puzzle is the historical background of the painting. William T. Beckford was one of West’s main patrons (King George III was the other major one), and he was a fabulous eccentric on several fronts, one being that he was a nut about family. He commissioned several portraits of his ancestors from West, but I’ve found no mention of this one, which might be an imagined portrait of Beckford himself as a boy. (Beckford had two daughters but no sons, so the obvious interpretation is out of the question.)

So: down the West / Beckford / Gainsborough rabbit-hole, which will take us to Swarthmore College, the Huntington Library in San Marino CA, architectural follies, same-sex sexual shenanigans in the late 18th century (anticipating Oscar Wilde and Bosie by a hundred years), early Gothic novels and the fashion for the picturesque and grotesque (anticipating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a hundred years, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by only a bit), modern gay porn magazines, and more.

First, notes on the portrait. The boy is dressed in pink (hence the painting’s nickname), which was at the time a masculine color, and his costume is refined and and elegant — in contrast to the background, which is a wild, untamed scene. But the folds of his costume fall negligently, the boy’s legs are folded at ease, and the dogs add to the sense of domestic informality.

The boy’s gaze is forward and direct, into the viewer’s eyes, but his body and legs are at an angle, and the dog on the left makes a strong diagonal cutting across the line of the boy’s gaze but reinforcing the angle of his body, lending a severe formality to the composition that is softened by the angles of the boy’s legs, and, especially, by the other little dog nestled in his master’s lap (making a little domestic cross-diagonal).

Altogether, a complex and pleasing composition, similar in some ways to Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, but more formal:


From Wikipedia:

The Blue Boy (1779) is a full-length portrait in oil by Thomas Gainsborough, now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Perhaps Gainsborough’s most famous work, it is thought to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttall (1752–1805), the son of a wealthy hardware merchant, although this has never been proven. It is a historical costume study as well as a portrait: the youth in his 17th-century apparel is regarded as Gainsborough’s homage to Anthony van Dyck, and in particular is very close to Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles II as a boy.

West’s #1 shares the nickname “Pinkie” with Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Sarah Barrett Moulton:


From Wikipedia:

Pinkie is the traditional title for a portrait made in 1794 by Thomas Lawrence in the permanent collection of the Huntington Library at San Marino, California where it hangs opposite The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough. The title now given it by the museum is Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie. These two works are the centerpieces of the institute’s art collection, which specialises in 18th-century English portraiture. The painting is an elegant depiction of Sarah Barrett Moulton, who was about eleven years old when painted. Her direct gaze and the loose, energetic brushwork give the portrait a lively immediacy.

Now, on West, from Wikipedia:

Benjamin West (October 10, 1738 – March 11, 1820) was an Anglo-American history painter around and after the time of the American War of Independence and the Seven Years’ War. He was the second president of the Royal Academy in London, serving from 1792 to 1805 and 1806 to 1820. … He said that “Art is the representation of human beauty, ideally perfect in design, graceful and noble in attitude.

… West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in a house that is now in the borough of Swarthmore on the campus of Swarthmore College, as the tenth child of an innkeeper and his wife. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern, still standing in that town.

West trained as a painter in Pennsylvania, then went on a long “grand tour” of Italy, and:

… In August 1763, West arrived in England, on what he initially intended as a visit on his way back to America. In fact, he never returned to America.

At this point, West connected with William Thomas Beckford. The beginning of the account in “Benjamin West and William Beckford: Some Projects for Fonthill” by Martha Hamilton-Phillips, Metropolitan Museum Journal (Vol. 15 (1980), pp. 157-174):

When William Beckford became the patron of Benjamin West, he was hiring a national institution. Probably the most influential artist of the English and American schools in the last decade of the eighteenth century, West was Historical Painter to George III and second president of the Royal Academy. He was the leading teacher in London and master of that city’s largest studio, in addition to which he negotiated commercial transactions of commodities as diverse as old master pictures and American real estate. Although Beckford may have sought West as his pensioner in the 1790s because of the artist’s popularity at court,’he had a sincere and progressive concern for the patronage of modern English artists; West for his part valued Beckford’s support second only to the friendship of the king. The bulk of Beckford’s commissions from West were undertaken between 1797 and 1799, the most affluent period in the multidimensional career of a man known as “England’s wealthiest son,” and a gifted author, famous bibliophile, art collector, connoisseur, builder, and genealogist.

The Wikipedia account of Beckford, which leaves all the potential sensationalism in:


Beckford as depicted by another portraitist of the time, Geeorge Romney (1781)


And by still another, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844) was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest commoner in England. His parents were William Beckford and Maria Hamilton, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820.

He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek, the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower (“Beckford’s Tower”), Bath, and especially for his art collection. [Gothic fiction, focusing on the picturesque, the grotesque, and the terrifying. begins roughly with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto – Beckford and Walpole seem to have detested each other, by the way – and embraced, early in the 19th century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, then the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and in the the late Victorian era, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.]

… On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy’s uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers. Courtenay was just ten years old on first meeting Beckford, who was eight years older. [The story is roughly parallel to the story of Oscar Wilde and his younger lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and Bosie’s father the Marquess of Queensberry.]

For many years Beckford was believed to have conducted a simultaneous affair with his cousin Peter’s wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755–1791). Beckford was discovered (according to a house guest at the time) to be “whipping Courtenay in some posture or another” after finding a letter penned by Courtenay to another lover. Although Beckford was never punished for child molestation, fornication, or attempted buggery, he subsequently chose self-exile to the continent in the company of his long-suffering wife (who died in childbirth aged 24).

… Beckford’s fame, however, rests as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In undertaking his buildings he managed to dissipate his fortune, which was estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income of £100,000 a year. The loss of his Jamaican sugar plantation to James Beckford Wildman was particularly costly. Only £80,000 of his capital remained at his death.

A less sensational account from Martha Hamilton-Phillips’s Metropolitan Museum piece:

Young William Beckford was born at Fonthill in Wiltshire in 1759, the only legitimate son among many natural children fathered by the alderman [as the elder William Beckham, sometime Lord Mayor of London, was known]. His childhood was spent in the seclusion of Splendens, the palatial mansion at Fonthill his father had had built between 1756 and 1765. His private education included music lessons from Mozart, literary admonitions from his god-father Lord Chatham, and visits to his cousin Sir William Hamilton, the famous diplomat and antiquarian collector in Naples. As a youth of intense intellectual precocity and imaginative sensibilities, William produced his literary masterpiece Vathek, an Arabian romance, in 1781-82, just after he had come of age. Although he was a member of the Church of England, Church and to the mystical saints whose splendid celebrations he attended during his travels through Portugal, Spain, and Italy in 1782-83. Shortly after his marriage in 1783 to Lady Margaret Gordon, daughter of the fourth earl of Aboyne, the hitherto brilliant course of Beckford’s life abruptly changed: in 1784, charges of pederasty were brought against him in connection with his young friend William (“Kitty”) Courtenay, whom he had frequently visited at Powderham Castle. Beckford’s social status and moral respectability were permanently ruined, although the accusations were never proved. He became a recluse and nonconformist obsessed with restoring himself in society… Not inclined to pursue his father’s parliamentary offices, he focused his ambitions upon the building of Fonthill Abbey, designed by James Wyatt in a magnificent neo-Gothic style, with an enormous but ill-fated 276-foot tower and extravagantly landscaped grounds.

… In 1974, Aubrey Menen published Fonthill: A Comedy, a satirical [and wryly funny] portrait of Beckford.

Even without the pederastic hijinks, Beckford was an extraordinary, excessive character.

But back to #1. There are a large number of Beckfords to choose from as the model for this historical portrait: William Thomas Beckford himself, his father William Beckford, his grand-father Peter Beckford, and more on side branches of the family tree. The Cantor’s staff tells me that their files suggest the paintng depicts either William T. Beckford himself or Beckford’s father as a young boy, and was likely part of a larger series of commissioned family portraits. And that’s all we know.

In any case, #1 leads us to #2 (by subject) and #3 (by color). But West’s Master Beckford is still a boy, while Gainsborough’s Blue Boy is a confident young man (with a plumed hat). (There’s also the difference between West’s more formal style and Gainsborough’s (and Lawrence’s) freer, more romantic style.)

Not long after this artistic activity, the English word blue picked up a new use. From OED3 (March 2013), for the adj. blue 10. colloq.:

a. Coarse, obscene; (esp. of a joke, story, film, etc.) having sexual content, pornographic. Cf. blue movie [first cite 1818]
b. Of language: characterized by obscenities; coarse or offensive. Cf earlier blue streak [first cite 1832]

(I have no good source on the mechanisms of this semantic development. But it then puts the color blue into competition with red as the color of sex. The associations of red with fire and thus with heat — high temperature, spiciness, enthusiasm, lustfulness — makes red a natural symbol of sexual desire and sexual activity, but I don’t at the moment see the route for blue.)

This development adds a possible sexual tinge to Blue Boy.

Then, in a separate development, in the U.S. in the 20th century, it seems primarily through clothing marketers, pastel pink came to be associated with girl babies, pastel blue with boys, and then pink came to be seen generally as a feminine color and blue as masculine, which meant that pink things for men came to connote effeminacy (and therefore homosexuality — as a result, some men are still wary about dressing in anything pink) and blue things assertive masculinity — which in combination with blue connoting sex makes blue available as a color for gay macho.

Put that together with Gainsborough’s Blue Boy as a well-known figure of confident young manhood, and I suppose it was inevitable that in an age of increasing sexual freedom, there would appear a magazine for gay men called Blue Boy (or Blueboy). And so it happened. From Wikipedia:

Blueboy, originally written Blue Boy, was a gay pornographic magazine with pictures of men in various states of undress[, published] from 1974 to 2007.

It was published by Donald N. Embinder, a former advertising representative for After Dark, an arts magazine with a substantial gay readership..

… The magazine shares its name with a famous portrait by 18th-century master Thomas Gainsborough, and its inaugural cover was a parody of that painting.

Blueboy began as a glossy gay male magazine that covered the Washington D.C. area, and by volume 2 in 1975 had moved to Miami, Florida. In Miami a more of a glossy soft-core gay magazine developed that targeted the national scene. The magazine quickly became hugely successful, going from 26,000 subscriptions in 1975 to 160,000 subscriptions in 1976. In 1983 Don moved to California and restarted Blueboy there.

Originally Blueboy featured more “softcore” images (e.g., male models were usually shown without erections), fiction, news features, essays and social commentary, and articles on music and entertainment. The publication was largely regarded in the 1980s and in the early 1990s as a gay version of Playboy or Penthouse. Typical articles concerned social climbing, the latest fashions, picking up strangers, television and film reviews, and the secrets of love. It also touched on more pressing issues such as politics and gay rights. For example in the 1970s and 1980s the magazine did stories on Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Ed Koch, AIDS and The Reagan Administration.

Beginning in the 1990s, however, with competition from such gay and political publications as Out, MetroSource and Genre, the magazine focused much more on hardcore gay images, and jettisoned most of its non-porn content.

Two issues, from early in its history and from late:



From Master Beckford to Most Hung Studs Ever…

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