A while ago I wrote about Banksy’s ‘Rude Lord’, an Eighteenth Century portrait by Thomas Beach that Banksy defaced by overpainting a flip-off middle finger. Banksy bought the original at auction for £2,000 -presumably as an unidentified ‘portrait of a gentleman’ – and resold it with his addition at Sotheby’s October 12th 2007 for £355,000.
Urban Art Association (c) Banksy
Then I noticed this portrait in the NPG, William Mason (1725 – 1797) by William Doughty (1757 – 1781/2).
(c) National Portrait Gallery
Doughty’s portrait is dated 1778, and Beach’s portrait is dated 1776. It seems fairly clear they are the same sitter. Thomas Beach (1738 – 1806) was a Dorset-born pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He had a successful practice in Bath with fashionable visitors taking the waters, and his sitters included the actress Sarah Siddons, who was one of William Mason’s friends. Mason himself, poet, clergyman, garden designer, and biographer of the poet Thomas Gray seems an unlikely candidate for rudeness. But Banksy has been quite perceptive; perhaps he intuited that Mason had an alter ego. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:
Mason did not have a unified identity. The highly respected author of odes, elegies, epitaphs, dramatic poems, and epic blank verse was at the same time the subversive satirist Malcolm MacGreggor. One side of his work is ‘correct’, informed by history, romance, religion, and sentiment; the other is informed by virulent political and personal attacks.
Mason was an enemy of Samuel Johnson, and the Doctor was just one of Malcolm MacGreggor’s victims.
In his more respectable persona Mason was prolific and influential. His epic poems were turned into musical extravaganzas by Thomas Arne, composer of Rule Britannia, and James Boswell took the structure for his Memoir of Dr Johnson from Mason’s Life of Thomas Gray. And when he wasn’t writing he had time to introduce an early form of the piano to England and invent the informal flower garden.
By now he has faded from memory. There are so many forgotten celebrities like him in the DNB. It’s rather wonderful then that he should suddenly hit the limelight again in a way that his friends might – privately – have rather liked.
Mason had a squint in his right eye, giving him a roguish leer somewhat at odds with his cultivated manners and priestly duties… Sarah Siddons recorded that Mason ‘spoke broad Yorkshire, and good-naturedly allowed us to accuse him of affectation in so doing’, adding that ‘he was a great humorist, but with all his oddities, a benevolent man’
(c) OUP Dictionary of National Biography