Christian Richter 1678-1732
A young man of many talents, Prior found himself upon his graduation torn in the classical struggle between a life of otium (leisure) and negotium (work). He eventually decided on the former and left in 1690 to be the secretary to the British ambassador to The Hague...
Matthew Prior was not born into a grand family. The son of a London joiner, his father was nevertheless successful enough to be able to afford an education for his son at Westminster School. When there, he was taught by the severe but inspiring Dr Richard Busby, whose vigorous classical education that focussed on prose and verse composition and spontaneous declamations was to provide Prior with skills that would serve him well for the rest of his life. The only child of six to survive adolescence, Prior’s childhood was marked by tragedy. When, aged 11, Prior’s father died, he was forced to abandon his studies at Westminster and work for his uncle’s pub the Rhenish tavern. In his breaks between serving food and pouring ale, Prior would nestle in a corner to read Horace. This soon caught the eye of the aristocrat Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset. Himself a former student of Busby’s, who had consequently been left with an abiding passion for both poetry and the classics, Sackville asked the young boy to translate a Horatian ode of his choosing into English and interpret its meaning. Prior leapt at the opportunity, and his response so impressed the earl that he returned with his friends to show off the boy’s abilities. Taking pity on Prior’s plight, Dorset eventually agreed to fund the remainder of his education at Westminster.
Upon his return to the school, Prior immediately flourished and excelled. He left school the holder of a highly competed-for scholarship to St. John’s, Cambridge, where he rounded off his education. A young man of many talents, Prior found himself upon his graduation torn in the classical struggle between a life of otium (leisure) and negotium (work). He eventually decided on the former and left in 1690 to be the secretary to the British ambassador to The Hague. By this time, he had found his first love in the form of Jane Astley, whom he was forced to leave behind when he voyaged abroad. When drawing up the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Prior met Adrian Drift, who was to serve as his faithful friend and literary amanuensis for the rest of his life. This same year, left Hague to work as the secretary to William Bentinck, first Earl of Portland, and ambassador to Louis XIV. Prior made a highly favourable impression in the court of the Sun King, whom he greatly impressed with his manifold talents.
Finding Paris to be too expensive for the long term, Prior returned to London in 1699. He established himself there as a peripatetic diplomatic agent, using the many connections that he had made in France – not least with Louis himself – to act as a diplomatic agent in negotiations between Britain and France. By 1700, he had become a member of the Kit Cat Club, a telling indication that he had “arrived” in whig society. Here, he socialised with whig luminaries that included the greatest literary figures of the day such as William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Sir John Vanbrugh. Yet, like his friend the satirist Jonathan Swift, Prior harboured Tory sympathies that were exposed in a vote that followed his election to parliament in 1700. He was subsequently expelled from the Kit-Cat Club; but, as a testament to the warmth of his personality, he managed to maintain a close friendship with many of the Club’s members.
The publication of Prior’s Poems for Several Occasions in 1709 marked the arrival of his maturity as a poet. In the years that followed, Prior continued further to assimilate himself into Tory circles, becoming close to cultural figures who were patronised by the prime minister from 1711, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. This proximity facilitated the greatest of Prior’s diplomatic triumphs – his involvement in negotiations for the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and was heralded with great popular acclaim in England.
However, his fortune was to run out with that of the government. Following the death of Queen Anne in 1715, Prior was arrested and confined to his house, a gross miscarriage of justice that was an attempt by the incoming whig and Hanoverian administrations to frame Oxford – by now in the Tower – for treason. Eventually released in 1716, Prior was granted a pardon in 1717. Unable to find gainful employment due to the Whig-Hanoverian ascendancy, Prior was encouraged to bring out a subscription edition of his poetry. Advised by Alexander Pope – whose translation of the Illiad had proved a runaway success – this became one of the great coups of early eighteenth-century publishing, and earned Prior a small fortune. Comprising an expanded version of his Poems on Several Occasions, Prior’s collection illustrated his preference for earlier verse forms at a time when English poetry was beginning to acquire a near fanatical fondness for Popeian heroic couplets. Said to have made Prior as many as 4,000 guineas, it afforded him a comfortable retirement that could be devoted to his favourite pursuits: versifying, collecting, and womanising. He died before his grand visions for a grand country estate to commemorate his success could be realised.
Shown wearing his smoking cap in this miniature by Swedish-born artist Christian Richter, Prior is depicted as though he were at home and in his study. His head assertively turned over his right shoulder to gaze out of the frame, he seems to look to the poetic muse for inspiration with a confidence newly-afforded by the wild success of the subscription edition of his poetry, released the year before.
It marks a collaboration between two of the great artistic figures of the age, both at their peak. Indeed, diarist George Vertue remarked around this time of the impossibility of any newly-arrived emigré miniaturist securing a commission, such was the monopoly that was held by Richter and his peers Bernard Lens and Christian Friedrich Zincke. Having initially trained to be a goldsmith, Richter came to England to practice as a miniaturist following an unsuccessful attempt to find a position at the court of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. A ‘well meaning modest man’ in the words of Vertue, Richter had no difficulty in establishing himself in London thanks both to his wide-ranging talents and also to the assistance of his already-successful compatriots, the portraitists Michael Dahl and Hans Huysing. Tragically, however, at the height of his career, Richter was subjected to the disfiguring ravages of a disease that caused the collapse of his nose and severe facial scarring. Robbed of his livelihood due to his inability to go out into society, Richter made ends meet by making copies of works such as Samuel Cooper’s famed portrait of Oliver Cromwell to satisfy the burgeoning eighteenth-century demand for heads of historical personages. By the 1730s, Richter had turned his hand to enamelling in a hope to capture the market for copies of large-scale oil paintings. According to Vertue, he demonstrated a natural talent for the art form and might well have become one of the greatest enamellists of his age had it not been for his death aged fifty-four in 1732.