John Astley (24 June 1724 – 14 November 1787) was an English portrait painter and amateur architect, known for his "patronage among a vast circle of fashion" as well as a fortune acquired through marriage.
Born in Wem, Shropshire, England, John Astley was a son of an apothecary, Richard Astley (1671–1754), and his wife, Margaret (1685–1735). Among his siblings was a brother Richard, also a physician, whose estate he inherited.
Due to his good looks, he was known as Beau Astley. Some period sources also call him Jack Astley. A biographer of Sir Joshua Reynolds described Astley as "a gasconading spendthrift and a beau of the flashiest order."
Several jaundiced contemporary accounts of Astley's character exist, notably a lengthy observation by John Williams, (aka Anthony Pasquin), who wrote: "He thought that every advantage in civil society was compounded in women and wine: and, acting up to this principal of bliss, he gave his body to Euphrosyne, and his intellects to madness. He was as ostentatious as the peacock and as amorous as the Persian Sophihe. He would never stir abroad without his bag and his sword; and, when the beauties of Ierne sat to him for their portraits, he would affect to neglect the necessary implements of his art, and use his naked sword as a moll-stick. He had a haram and a bath at the top of his house, replete with every enticement and blandishment to awaken desire; and thus lived, jocund and thoughtless, until his nerves were unstrung by age; when his spirits decayed with his animal powers, and he sighed and drooped into eternity!"
Career as painter
In London, in the 1740s, Astley studied with Joshua Reynolds under the artist Thomas Hudson. He later went to study in Rome and Florence in 1747 (one of his teachers was Pompeo Batoni), before establishing his career during several years in Dublin, Ireland, and afterwards settling in England.
Of his work, the Biographical Dictionary of 1789 said, "The best pictures he ever painted were copies of the Bentivolios, and Titian's Venus ...". Horace Walpole claimed Astley's prominence was based "on the peculiarity of his good fortune, rather than by his exertions as an artist ..." and added that "he estimated his profession only by his gains, and having obtained a fortune, treated all future study with contemptuous neglect". Among Astley's own students was the engraver and historical painter John Keyse Sherwin, while Cheshire portraitist Charles Hoyland, who reportedly studied in Rome with Astley, imitated his style.
The painter "had much talent, particularly in portraits", wrote Samuel Redgrave in his 1878 dictionary of English artists. "His color was agreeable, the composition original, drawing fair, but the finish slight, and character and expression weak.
To Sir Horace Mann, 1st Baronet, an Astley admirer and subject, Horace Walpole wrote of a visit to one of Astley's exhibitions in 1752, declaring, "I confess myself a little prejudiced, for he has drawn the whole Pigwigginhood: but he has got too much into the style of the four thousand English painters about town, and is so intolerable as to work for money, not for fame: in short, he is not such a Rubens, as in your head".
Among John Astley's sitters were:
- the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds
- architect Benjamin Latrobe
- Lady Dukinfield Daniel, who became the artist's second wife
- Sir Horace Mann (the 1751 pastel portrait was owned by Horace Walpole)
- Marcus Beresford, 1st Earl of Tyrone, his wife, and daughter, in a group portrait
- Peter John Fremeaux
- Sir Capel Molyneux and his children, in a group portrait (1758, now in the collection of the Ulster Museum in Belfast)
- Rev. Thomas Alleyne of All Saints Church, Loughborough
- Mary Woodyeare, third wife of Hon. Morgan Vane and a daughter-in-law of 2nd Baron Barnard
- Mary Weston (portrait attributed to Astley)
- Colonel Thomas Pepper (now in the collection of the Trinity Art Research Center, Crookshank-Glin Collection)
Astley also painted a portrait of William Shakespeare, which, as reported in the December 1787 issue of the European Magazine, the artist Gilbert Stuart called "far preferable to the famous head in the collection of the Duke of Chandos".
Some sources state that Astley gave up painting after his 1759 second marriage, to the wealthy widow, but a contemporary account indicates that he continued to work after that union: "Beau Astley has contributed half-a-dozen phizes [faces], which, he tells me, he painted for fun; the better luck, so much for being a squire". Another source states that Astley, although now rich, continued to accept commissions and charged a steep "20 guineas, the usual price".
Career as amateur architect
According to a British weekly, Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum, Astley was also well known for his alterations to several residences, among them, Schomberg House, built for the third Duke of Schomberg and which Astley owned and used as his London residence.
"In the structure and decoration of small buildings, rich as the time is in architecture, Astley's architecture was pre-eminent: [Schomberg House in] Pall Mall is one instance; Lady Archer's saloon and conservatory [on The Terrace] at Barnes is another; Duckinfield [Lodge] is yet finer than either. The saloon, the loggio [sic] in front, the chamber on each side, and the great octagon, all are as exquisite as original, from their first idea to their last". Of Dukinfield Lodge, which Astley completed in 1775 (demolished 1948), one element was especially admired: "The most interesting room is octagon in form; it is decorated by stained glass, and here was a portion of the valuable collection of pictures acquired by the two Astleys, father and son [Frank Dukinfield Astley]". A 1795 description of Dukinfield Lodge describes it as containing "a fine octagon room with painted windows. Most of the others are small, but elegant, and are decorated with pictures chiefly by the hand of Mr Astley, who had been a painter by profession. The whole building was never finished".
- By his first wife, "an Irish lady ... who died giving birth," he had a daughter, Sophia (1749–1831). She became mistress of George Hyde Clarke, a prominent landowner in Cheshire and Jamaica, and bore him two sons. One of these sons, therefore John's grandson, is an ancestor of British Olympic competitor Lord Coe. In 1792 she married a Frenchman, Louis Foncier, and had further issue.
- Penelope Dukinfield Daniel (1722–1762), widow of Sir William Dukinfield Daniel, 3rd baronet, and a daughter of Henry Vernon. Shortly after the death of her husband, she met Astley at an assembly in Knutsford and was so struck by his appearance that she "contrived the next day to sit for her portrait and the week later, she gave him the original". They married on 7 December 1759, in Rosthern, Cheshire, England, soon after their meeting, and she died in 1762. By this marriage Astley had a stepdaughter, Henrietta (died 1771), and upon the death of his wife he became the owner of the Dukinfield and Daniel estates, including Gorse Hall. The death of his stepdaughter, who had been judged insane, brought him even more money, leading one critic to write, "He owed his fortune to his form; his follies to his fortune!"
- Mary Wagstaffe (1760/1 – 18 February 1832), "a celebrated young beauty" and a daughter of William Wagstaffe, a wealthy surgeon of Manchester. They married in 1777 and had five children: Harriet (1779–1858), Maria (born 1780), Cordelia Emma (born 1783), John William (1785–1823), and Francis Dukinfield Astley (1781–1825), poet and High Sheriff of Cheshire. One of three sisters known as "the Manchester Beauties", Mary Astley married, on 28 January 1793, at Dukinfield Lodge, as her second husband, lawyer William Robert Hay (1761–1839), and had further issue. He later became Vicar of Rochdale and Prebendary of York, and was a son of Lord Edward Hay, governor of Barbados and ambassador to Lisbon; a nephew of Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York; and a grandson of the 8th Earl of Kinnoull.
Astley donated land and money for causes to improve the town of Dukinfield. He contributed land for the library and to Astley Grammar school as well as helping with restoring churches.
John Astley died on 14 November 1787 aged 63, at Dukinfield Lodge, and is interred at the Old Chapel in Dukinfield.
Works by Astley can be found at:
- Trinity College Dublin, Crookshank-Glin collection
- National Portrait Gallery (London)
- Yale Library, Lewis Walpole Library (British Art Collection)
- Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Mary Webster, "John Astley: Artist and Beau," Connoisseur 172 (December 1969), p. 256
- Henry Charles William Angelo, Reminiscences: With Memories His Late Father and Friends (Coburn 1828), page 224
- His christening date, 1 April 1724, given in England Births and Christenings, 1538–1975, accessed on familysearch.org on 1 April 2011
- Mother's name and christening date, 1 April 1724, given in England Births and Christenings, 1538–1975, accessed on familysearch.org on 1 April 2011
- Father's profession cited in Samuel Redgrave's A Dictionary of Artists of the English School (G. Bell, 1878), page 14
- Edward Edwards and Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painters Who Have Resided or Been Born in England (Leigh and Sotheby, 1808), page 126
- John Doran, Mann and Manners at the Court of Florence, 1740–1786 (R. Bentley, 1876), page 351
- <A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. (H. Graves and Co., Limited, 1899), page 36
- Anthony Pasquin (pseudonym of John Williams), Memoirs of the Royal Academicians and an Authentic History of the Artists of Ireland (London, 1796)
- Years cited in The Cheshire Sheaf, Volume 1 (Chester Courant Office, 1880), page 73
- Irish Portraits, 1660—1860 (Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1969), pages 46 and 47
- William Betham, The Baronetage of England (Burrell and Bransby, 1802), page 379
- Edward Edwards and Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painters Who Have Resided or Been Born in England (Leigh and Sotheby, 1808), page 124 and page 126
- Samuel Redgrave, A Dictionary of Artists of the English School (G. Bell, 1878), page 393
- The Admission Register of the Manchester School, Volume 69 (Chetham Society, 1866), page 9
- Correspondence of the Hon. Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, Volume II (Richard Bentley, 1840), page 452
- Reynolds's portrait, a sketch, is cited in The Illustrated London News, Volume 190, Issue 1 (The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., 1937), page 456
- "Benjamin and Christian Ignatius La Trobe in the Moravian Church". Retrieved 16 May 2017.
- Mann portrait cited in The Connoisseur, Volumes 124-125 (Hearst Corp., 1949), page 134
- Tyrone portrait cited in Clerics and Connoisseurs (English Heritage, 2001), pages 50, 83, and 84
- Molyneux portrait cited in The Age of Hogarth (Tate Gallery with the assistance of the J. Paul Getty Trust, 1988), page 170
- Lot 69: John Astley 1724-1787
- Notes and Queries (Oxford University Press, 1857), page 62
- Ephraim Hardcastle (pseudonym for William Henry Pyne, 1769–1843), Wine & Walnuts, Volume II (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1823), page 52
- Joseph Faringdon, The Faringdon Diary (Hutchinson & Co., 1923), page 211
- Somerset House Gazette, and Literary Museum, No. XXXIV, 29 May 1824 (W. Wetton, 1824), pages 122–123
- A celebrated beauty of the 18th century, Lady Archer (née West) was said to have "lived to a good old age—proof that cosmetics are not so fatal as has been supposed. ... She resembled a fine old wainscoted painting with the face and features shining through a thick incrustation of copal varnish". As for her residence overlooking Corney Beach in Barnes, known as St. Anne's House, "the apartments [were] most tastefully decorated in the Chinese style" and Astley's greenhouse there was called "a fine conservatory opening into the principal apartment, with grapes, slow peaches, &c, at the end a magnificent sopha [sic], with a superb curtain, all displayed with a peculiar grace, and much to the greatest advantage". Descriptions cited in Spirit of the English Magazines, Volume 11 (Munroe and Francis, 1822), page 124
- Edwin Butterworth, An Historical Account of the Towns of Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, and Dukinfield (Phillips, 1842), pages 161–165
- "Ladykiller" cited in William B. Boulton, Thomas Gainsborough: His Life, Work, Friends, and Sitters (Kessinger, 2006), page 194
- Poets, Poems, and Rhymes of East Cheshire (J. Higham, 1908), page 41
- Wife's nationality and death cited in Constance Astley's Trip to New Zealand, 1897–1898 by Constance Astley and Jill De Fresnes (Victoria University Press, 1997), page 6
- Thomas Middleton, Poets, Poems, and Rhymes of East Cheshire; being a history of the poetry and song lore, and a book of biographies of the poets and song writers of the eastern portion of the County Palatine of Chester (J. Higham, 1908), page 41
- A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. (H. Graves and Co., Limited, 1899), page 36
- William Betham, The Baronetage of England (Burrell and Bransby, 1802), page 378
- Date of marriage cited in England, Cheshire Bishop's Transcripts, 1598–1900, accessed on familysearch.org on 1 April 2011
- William Betham, The Baronetage of England (Burrell and Bransby, 1802), page 379
- "Celebrated young beauty" quoted in Constance Astley's Trip to New Zealand, 1897–1898 (Victoria University Press, 1997), page 7
- Alexander Gordon, Historical Account of Dukinfield Chapel and Its School (Cartrwright & Rattray, 1896), page 72
- Samuel Bagshaw, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Shropshire (G. Ridge, 1850), page 316
- Children cited in The Baronetage of England by William Betham (Burrell and Bransby, 1802), page 379
- Daughters and son cited in Edward Edwards and Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painters Who Have Resided or Been Born in England (Leigh and Sotheby, 1808), page 125
- Debrett's Peerage of England, Scotland, and Ireland (John Debrett, 1840), page 425
- Thomas Middleton, Poets, Poems, and Rhymes of East Cheshire; being a history of the poetry and song lore, and a book of biographies of the poets and song writers of the eastern portion of the County Palatine of Chester (J. Higham, 1908), page 32
- Mary Wagstaffe's sister Elizabeth was the wife of William Hay's eldest brother, Edward, and, later, wife of General Alexander Kyd. Her other sister, Hannah, married Lt. General Charles Morgan of the Indian Army. By her second marriage, Mary had three children, Elizabeth Hay (born 27 March 1798), Mary Anne Hay, and Rev. Edward Hay (born 16 April 1800, died 30 July 1860). Source: Debrett's Peerage of England, Scotland, and Ireland (John Debrett, 1840), page 425
- Crookshank-Glin collection
- Works by John Astley (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- Lewis Walpole Library