I bought this small drawing in a West Country antiques shop. It wasn’t expensive, and was hung in the back room in a dark corner, but it spoke to me the way some things do.
It’s an 18th-century pastel drawing in its original frame showing a young man. The gilt is worn and rubbed, and the frame has split at the top and bottom. One of the reasons I like it is the strong sense of tranquillity it conjures, of an era a million miles away from our own frenetic world.
For some reason the sitter reminds me of the 18th-century poet William Cowper, whose portraits tend to reveal a similarly gentle, contemplative temperament. Cowper lived a reclusive life with his pet hare in rural backwaters in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk. Throughout he was tended and protected by kind, caring women who nursed him through his long bouts of depression. Yet, he still managed to write some of the most placid poems in the English language, never formal in the prevailing 18th-century style, but relaxed and conversational. Cowper was a strong influence on Coleridge, who extended the conversational form and helped usher in the Romantic Movement. For me the drawing could show Cowper in his younger days, before the terrible melancholy engulfed him.
But it isn’t Cowper, so who is it? I don’t know, as it isn’t titled. But I can make a reasonable guess that it shows a friend of the artist. The sitter is a young man, his coat unbuttoned, his shirt ruffling up at the bottom. This was no formal portrait intended to impress.
The drawing is signed. Pencilled in half way up on the right is the name W Wynne Ryland. This meant nothing to me when I bought it. However, when I did a little research I found out that Ryland was one of the two most celebrated engravers of the 18th century. He developed a technique of engraving copper plates for rendering the softest tones of chalk drawings. Ryland owned a print shop in the Strand, and went on to become engraver to King George II. His work is represented in collections all over the country, and many of his most impressive engravings are of paintings by Angelica Kaufmann (see example below). This was exciting enough for an impulse buy, but I was to discover more.
Ryland was, his biographer said, ‘a tender parent, an affectionate husband, a capital artist, a favourite of the King and Queen, beloved, [and] respected.’ But he was also a restless character, ever keen to push the boundaries of his art and abilities. His fortunes wavered throughout his career. Sometimes he was rich and at other times managed to dispose of his money much too quickly. In 1783 he embarked on a singularly rash and dangerous act – he forged bills of exchange drawn on the East India Company. For a while it seemed he had got away with it, but the deception was finally discovered when it was found that the paper he had used was not being manufactured at the time. Ryland fled for his life and went into hiding, with all of London on the hunt for him. He was only discovered when a Dartford bootmaker spotted his name written inside a shoe he had sent for repair. Once again Ryland tried to flee, but was cornered in a house near Stepney. Desperate, he tried to cut his own throat, but was just caught in time. Bleeding profusely, he was carried away and imprisoned.
His trial at the Old Bailey was a cause celebre. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 29 August 1783. He left a widow and six children.
Quite a story to emerge from such a serene drawing! So, could it be a self-portrait? Who can tell? The sitter’s face is unlined, and he looks calmly out at us, unruffled, comfortable in his own skin. It’s frustrating that I will never know.