Sir Joshua Reynolds

Portrait of the actor and playwright Arthur Murphy

Oil on canvas: 30(h) x 25(w) in /

76.2(h) x 63.5(w) cm

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BC 75



Plympton 1723 – 1792 London


A portrait of Arthur Murphy (1727-1805)


Inscribed on the reverse of the original, unlined canvas: Portrait of Arthur Murphy Esquire / painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds for /Mrs Thrale, after Mrs Piozzi of whom / I purchased it, in 1819 – George Watson Taylor

Canvas: 30 x 25 in / 76.5 x 63.5 cm


Painted 1773-9



Commissioned by Henry Thrale (1728-1781) for his library at Streatham Park, Surrey;

sale on the premises of the contents of Streatham Park, George Squibb, 10th May 1816, lot 59, bought in for £102.18

Sold by Mrs Piozzi (formerly Mrs Thrale) in April 1819 to George Watson Taylor (1771-1841), 1 Harley Street, London and Erlestoke Park, Wiltshire;

his sale, Robins, 25th July 1832, lot 142 (£23.2 to Graves)

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Bt. (1788-1850);

by descent in the Peel family until sold Robinson & Fisher, 11th May 1900, lot 256 (bt. Agnew’s);

sold by Agnew’s on 14th July 1900 to Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919);

his sale 14th December 1917, lot 72 (bt. Arthur Sulley);

sold by Sulley to Mr Ralston-Mitchell;

by descent to a private collection, Yorkshire, England



Joshua Reynolds, MS Pocket Books (Royal Academy of Arts, London): sittings for 8th September, 8th, 11th and 15th November 1773; 8th September 1777; 12th and 18th February 1779

CR Leslie and T Taylor, Life & Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London 1865, vol. II, pp.48, 55

A Graves and WV Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London 1899-1901, vol. II, p.679

JL Clifford, Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs Thrale), 2nd edn, Oxford 1952, p.442, note 1

M Hyde, The Thrales of Streatham Park, Cambridge, MA and London 1977, pp.180, 300

M Hyde, ‘The Library Portraits at Streatham Park’, The New Rambler (Journal of the Johnson Society of London), Serial C, no.XX, 1979, pp.14, 16, 22-24

Agnew’s Picture Stockbook, no.4

PH Highfill et. al., A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel, Carbondale 1984, vol. 10, p.399

The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs Thrale), vol. 5, 1811-1816, Cranbury, NJ and London 1999, pp.477-8, 482, 484, 490-1, 493, 539; vol. 6, 1817-1821, 2002, pp.84, 250-1, 253, 255-7

D Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, text vol. p.347, no.1312; plates vol., p.440, fig. 1098

Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti and London, Tate Britain, Joshua Reynolds: the Creation of Celebrity, 2005, exh. cat. ed. by Martin Postle, p.165

Mark Hallett, Faces in a Library: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Streatham Worthies’ (The Watson Gordon Lecture 2011), Edinburgh 2011, pp.7; 11, fig. 4, illus. in colour; 18; 30, illus. in colour; 32




The Streatham Worthies


This sensitive portrait of the Irish actor, playwright and lawyer Arthur Murphy is one of the twelve ‘Streatham Worthies’ painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds for the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale (1728-1781) to hang in his library at Streatham Park, Surrey. Untraced for nearly a century, it completes the circle of friends (seven portraits in public and four in private collections) who made Streatham Park a focus of wit and learning in the latter half of the eighteenth century.  


The centre of this circle was Dr Samuel Johnson, towering literary figure and compiler of the Dictionary of the English Language, whom Arthur Murphy had known since 1754. In 1765 Murphy introduced Johnson to Thrale and his feisty, intellectual wife Hester (1741-1821). Johnson soon became a frequent visitor to the Thrale household at Deadman’s Place, Southwark, on the site of the brewery, and at their country house, Streatham Park. In 1772 Thrale extended Streatham to provide a large library with accommodation for Johnson above; Johnson gave advice upon the library’s design and contents.


The twelve portraits by Reynolds were arranged above the bookcases: ‘Mr. Thrale resolved to surmount these treasures for the mind (his books) by a similar regale for the eyes, in selecting the persons he most loved to contemplate, from amongst his friends and favourites, to preside over the literature that stood highest in his estimation’[1]. He ‘fixed upon the matchless Sir Joshua Reynolds’[2] for the commission; a natural choice, as Reynolds was a long-standing friend of Johnson and in 1764 had founded the Club at which Burke, Murphy, Garrick, Johnson and several of the Thrale circle met. The idea of surmounting bookcases with portraits of noble minds was inspired by the Upper Reading Room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and by the libraries at Chesterfield House, Woburn and Badminton; Thrale’s innovation was to make them portraits of living friends. Fanny Burney dubbed them the Streatham Worthies after the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, which contained sculpted busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and other famous historical figures.


Between 1772 and 1781 Reynolds executed the twelve portraits and a double portrait of Thrale’s wife and eldest child, the formidable Queeney[3], to hang over the chimneypiece; the group cost Thrale about £500. Apart from Arthur Murphy, and Reynolds’s own Self-portrait, c.1775 (Tate Britain, London)[4], they comprised: Henry Thrale, 1777 (Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard)[5]; Dr Samuel Johnson, c.1772-8 (Tate Britain)[6]; the playwright Oliver Goldsmith, 1772 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)[7]; the actor David Garrick, c.1776 (Houghton Library)[8]; the writer and politician Edmund Burke, 1774 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh)[9]; the musicologist Dr Charles Burney, 1781 (National Portrait Gallery, London)[10]; Queeney Thrale’s Italian tutor Giuseppe Baretti, 1773 (Lady Teresa Agnew, Melbury Park, Dorset)[11]; Lord Sandys, 1773 (Lord Sandys, Ombersley Court, Worcestershire)[12] and William Lyttleton, 1772 (Viscount Cobham, Hagley Hall, Worcestershire)[13] – both Oxford friends of Henry Thrale – and the lawyer Sir Robert Chambers, 1773 (sold Sothebys London, 25th November 2004, lot 48; private collection)[14].



Arthur Murphy


Reynolds sought to bring out the mannerisms and personality of his sitters; taken as a whole, the Streatham Worthies seem to be engaged in a dialogue as lively as they were in life, presided over by the kind, solid and imposing Henry Thrale. Reynolds cups a hand to his ear – a reference both to his deafness and to his role as listener among the Streatham group – while Johnson’s immense bulk and power of intellect are brilliantly evoked. The portrait of Arthur Murphy, painted with a fluent, soft impasto, conveys his intelligence, good nature and urbane elegance. The face is subtly modelled with short strokes of paint, scumbling and glazing to convey Murphy’s fair complexion and humorous grey eyes. His powdered hair is more freely painted, as is the lace at his throat, evoked with a few twists and flicks of the brush to offset the rust-red velvet of his jacket and waistcoat. The canvas has never been relined, so the impasto and the light which plays across skin, hair, velvet and lace have been preserved in excellent condition. Reynolds set Murphy against a plain background, enhancing the vividness of his spotlit figure and its sculptural solidity. All the Streatham Worthies were designed to be seen from comparatively high up and far away. The sympathy and psychological acuteness in his portrait of Murphy reflects Reynolds’s delight in the company of intellectuals and men of letters: his social circle comprised writers and politicians rather than artists.


Arthur Murphy was a very old and valued friend both of Thrale (from his bachelor days) and Johnson. Mrs Thrale tells the amusing story of how Murphy and Johnson met. Murphy was staying in the country with his friend the actor Samuel Foote, but needed to contribute his regular article for the Gray’s Inn Journal and send it up to London. Impatient to rejoin Foote’s guests, and ‘unwilling to pump his own brains..[he]..snatched up a French Journal that he saw lying about, translated a Story which he liked in it & sent it to press’. The story turned out to be a translation of one of Johnson’s Rambler pieces; Murphy rushed round to apologise, and thus ‘commenced an Acquaintance, which has lasted with mutual Esteem I suppose near twenty Years’[15].


The novelist Fanny Burney, taken into the Streatham circle along with her distinguished father Dr Burney, describes Murphy as ‘the most intimate in the house, amongst the Wits, from being the personal favourite of Mr. Thrale’. Murphy, ‘for gaiety of spirits, powers of dramatic effect, stories of strong humour and resistless risability, was nearly unequalled: and they were coupled with politeness of address, gentleness of speech, and well-bred, almost courtly, demeanour’[16]. Hester Thrale, who could be sharp about her husband’s friends, wrote verses in 1781 on the characters shown in Reynolds’s portraits. Murphy she praises for ‘A Mind in which Mirth can with Merit reside, / And Learning turns Frolic with Humour his Guide’[17].


Arthur Murphy was a man of many talents[18]: one of three Irishmen among the Streatham Worthies (the others being Burke and Goldsmith) in a century dazzling with Irish wit and eloquence. Born at Clooniquin, Co. Roscommon and educated in France, Murphy came to London and worked at the banking house of Ironside and Belchier until 1751. From 1752-4 he served on the staff of the Covent-Garden Journal and published the Gray’s Inn Journal. By now some £300 in debt, in 1754 Murphy took to the stage, making his Covent Garden début as Othello. He found time to write theatre criticism, contribute to the Literary Magazine and in 1757 to inaugurate an anonymous political weekly, The Test, which attacked Pitt the Elder and supported the Whig Henry Fox. He was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and called to the Bar in 1762, acting as a lawyer both for Edmund Burke and for Thrale.


Murphy’s first play, the farce The Apprentice, was performed at Drury Lane in 1756. His plays were successful throughout the 1760s and 70s, while his best-known comedy, The Way to Keep Him (1760), was performed into the twentieth century. In 1761 he rented Drury Lane with the comic actor Samuel Foote, one of his closest friends. The love of Murphy’s life was the actress Ann Elliott, for whom he wrote the part of Maria in The Citizen (1761); she left him for the Duke of Cumberland, and Murphy never married.


In 1762 Murphy published the works of Henry Fielding and the first biography of the novelist. In 1792 he produced an Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson and in 1801 a Life of David Garrick, celebrating the two sons of Lichfield whom he had known so well. Murphy was a Commissioner of Bankruptcy 1765-78 and 1796-1805, an ironic post for a man who spent much of his life in debt. He was made a Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in 1802 and granted a royal pension of £200 a year. Despite making considerable sums over the years from his plays and his talents as a lawyer, Murphy was forced to sell his house in Hammersmith Terrace and part of his fine library towards the end of his life. He died in 1805.



The fate of the portrait


Henry Thrale died in April 1781 and never saw the Streatham Worthies hung in his library. His widow leased Streatham Park with its contents to the Prime Minister, Lord Shelburne, and the Worthies looked down on peace negotiations with France at the end of the American War of Independence. In 1784 Hester Thrale scandalised her family and friends by marrying her children’s music teacher, Gabriel Piozzi (1740-1809). This marriage to a Catholic and a man of low birth caused a rupture with Johnson and with all the Streatham Worthies still living. Murphy alone remained faithful.


Mrs Piozzi, once more widowed and financially straightened, sold the contents of Streatham Park in 1816. She instructed her steward: ‘Murphy’s Portrait must not be sold under 100£’ and it was bought in for her for £102.18[19]. Writing to the Rev. Thomas Whalley, she proclaimed ‘I kept dear Murphy for myself – He was the Playfellow of my first Husband, The true and partial Friend of my second’[20]. She refused an offer for the portrait of 150 gns from George Watson Taylor, who had paid £378 for Johnson’s portrait at the sale[21] and £31.10 for Baretti’s[22]. Murphy, she declared in her Commonplace Book, was ‘the only Man among the Wits I fostered – who did not fly from the Colours’[23]. In 1819 the seventy-eight-year-old Mrs Piozzi gave in to Watson Taylor’s pleading and sold Murphy’s portrait and a Cipriani Magdalen to him for £200[24].


George Watson Taylor was one of the most colourful collectors of the early nineteenth century. He inherited a vast Jamaican fortune from his brother-in-law Simon Taylor and bought Erlestoke Park, Wiltshire in 1819, filling it with fine furniture and Old Master paintings. Arthur Murphy’s portrait was intended for the Reynolds Room at Erlestoke. Watson Taylor’s extravagance eventually outran even his deep pockets and the contents of Erlestoke were auctioned over twenty-one days in 1832. Murphy’s portrait was bought by Sir Robert Peel, later Prime Minister, and remained in the Peel family until 1900. It was later owned by the artist and connoisseur Charles Fairfax Murray before being sold in 1917 by the dealer Arthur Sulley to Mr Ralston-Mitchell, in whose family it descended.


Plympton 1723 – 1792 London


Joshua Reynolds was the most influential British painter of the eighteenth century, both in his career as a portraitist and his tireless work to raise the status of artists. Born in Plympton, Devon in 1723, the son of the master of the Grammar School, he was intended by his father as an apothecary but instead apprenticed himself to the London portrait painter Thomas Hudson from 1740-43. In 1749 Reynolds sailed to Italy with his friend Commodore Augustus Keppel. He spent two years in Rome with visits to Naples, Florence and Bologna, studying Renaissance and Mannerist painters and building up a repertoire of motifs, poses and classical learning which he would apply to his portraits back in England.


Reynolds established himself in St Martin’s Lane in 1753 and attracted attention with his portrait of Commodore Keppel, c.1753-4 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), who is shown striding along the seashore in the pose of the Apollo Belvedere. In 1760 he moved to Leicester Fields and showed four portraits at the Society of Artists, the first public exhibition of paintings in England. Reynolds’s versatility as a portraitist ranged from intimate portrayals of intellectuals such as Lawrence Sterne, 1760 (National Portrait Gallery, London), to aristocrats cast as Roman ladies, to witty allegories like Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, 1762 (private collection). His lively group portraits and tender mother and child portraits made him the most prominent and expensive society painter of his age. He also painted ‘fancy pictures’, a small number of religious works and history paintings, beginning with Ugolino (Knole House, Kent) in 1773: the latter genre he considered to be the most prestigious type of painting.


Joshua Reynolds was the leading spirit behind the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 and became its first President. The RA, with its royal patronage, emulated long-established European academies and raised the status of British artists. The following year Reynolds delivered the first of his fifteen Discourses, setting forth his theories on art, and was knighted by George III. He became Principal Painter to the King, who strongly disliked him, in 1784. By 1790 failing eyesight had caused Reynolds to cease painting and he died in London in 1792, leaving a magnificent collection of Old Master paintings and drawings.  


[1] Mme D’Arblay [Fanny Burney], Memoirs of Dr Burney, vol. II, London 1832, p.80.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mrs Henry Thrale and her daughter Hester, 1777-8 (Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada). Mannings op. cit., pp.443-4, no.1750, pl.89, fig.1248.

[4] Ibid., p.50, no.18, fig. 1151.

[5] Ibid., p.443, no.1749, fig. 1234.

[6] Ibid., p.281-2, no.1014, fig. 1070.

[7] Ibid., p.220, no.737, fig. 1005.

[8] Ibid., p.211-12, no.706.

[9] Ibid., p.114, no.285, fig. 1100.

[10] Ibid., p.115-6, no.290, pl.97, fig. 1352.

[11] Ibid., p.72, no.107, pl.72, fig. 1067.

[12] Ibid., p.404, no.1574, fig. 1086.

[13] Ibid., p.315, no.1163, fig. 1053.

[14] Ibid., p.128, no.343, fig. 1077.

[15] Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs Piozzi) 1776-1809, vol. I, 1776-1784, ed. K Balderston, Oxford 1942, p.153, August-September 1777.

[16] Memoirs, op. cit., vol. II, p.174.

[17] Thraliana, vol. I, p.472, 10th January 1781.

[18] Richard B Schwartz, ‘Murphy, Arthur’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004.

[19] The Piozzi Letters, op. cit., vol. 5, p.477, 5th May 1816.

[20] Ibid., p.484, 13th May 1816.

[21] Piozzi Letters, vol.6, p.84.

[22] Piozzi Letters, vol. 5, p.491, note 6.

[23] Quoted in Piozzi Letters, vol. 5, p.493, note 4.

[24] Piozzi Letters, vol. 6, p.251, letter to Sir James Fellowes, 21st March 1819.

BritishSir Joshua Reynolds