DISCOVERING PAINTINGS : Arthur Devis ‘Mr & Mrs Atherton’.

Devis Atherton

Arthur Devis : William & Lucy Atherton : c1744 : Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Amongst the rich collections of our major provincial art galleries quite often one comes across a work which fascinates one by its apparent oddity. Such a work I found, many years ago, at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.. I knew little about Arthur Devis the artist but did have a family connection with the sitters, Mr and Mrs Atherton. So for a number of reasons, not least by the apparently naive if not strange depiction of the figures, it began an interest in the artist and his context.

As the years have gone by and I discovered more about this type of painting in general, as well as Arthur Devis himself, I began to realise that here was not a minor member of the portrait painting fraternity, a poor relation of such well-known portraitists as Reynolds or Gainsborough.  Here was a good representative of an important strand of portraiture which was produced within a particular eighteenth century  social and cultural context.  The artist was producing a product that the patron wanted – and that included how the figures were depicted. This was what was required by any family of the social class of the Atherton’s at the time.  It was required provincial taste catered for by artists whose whole lives were spent in particular provincial centres – in this case Preston. The doll-like figures  are intentional – being what was required by the patron – and some Gainsborough’s of his early Ipswich period are similar.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The painting is a statement of the status of the Atherton family – leading members of the social and cultural society in the ‘Harrogate of Lancashire’, namely ‘Proud’ Preston. Unlike Harrogate it was a thriving port and its wealth largely came from trade and William Atherton  was a successful and wealthy wool-draper.. This painting indicates such wealth and social graces.  Mr & Mrs Atherton were leading figures in Preston Society, being an Alderman and Mayor. Here they are displaying their new house in the town and its modern and fashionable interior – thereby making a clear statement about their importance, influence, and aspirations.

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