Seeing your name in the list of vice-presidents of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, I take the liberty of addressing you about a matter relative to that society. In consequence of resolutions which they passed in March, 1774,1 I, in conjunction with nine other artists,2 received a proposal from the society to paint each of us an historical picture for their new room at the Adelphi, which might coincide with the views of their institution; they proposed expending 300l.3 in making an exhibition of our performances, the profits of which we were to receive as a consideration for our labour. The artists met to consider of it, and whether from some jealousies between us of the academy among ourselves, or with the other artists, whom the society thought proper to join with us on this occasion, or from some dislike to the proposal itself, our answer to the society was a refusal. It however appeared to me then, as it does now, that though such an undertaking did not wear a very lucrative appearance, yet that an artist of abilities might derive credit to himself and to his country by the opportunity that such a space would afford him of contrasting with some of those justly admired works, for which travellers visit other countries at this day. I therefore about a month ago proposed to the society to take the whole execution of this painting on myself, provided the choice of subjects was allowed me, and that they would further indemnify me in the necessary expenses of canvass canvas, colours, and models.4 This they have agreed to do, and on the 27th of last month they sent me a copy of their resolutions, by their secretary, Mr.More,5 authorising me to take up the materials on their account, and to go on with the work. I have begun it, and my intention is to carry the painting uninterruptedly round the room (as has been done in the great rooms at the Vatican and Farnese galleries6) by which the expense of frames will be saved to the society. And though I mean to ground the whole work upon one idea, viz. Human Culture,7 I shall yet divide it into different subjects expressive of the different periods of that culture. In one I take the story of Orpheus reclaiming mankind from a savage state, as it is glanced at by Horace.8 This story has been often painted in another way,9 and from attending more to the letter of allegorical and poetical metaphors than to the spirit of them, hitherto I think very ineffectually; as, however it might do in words, a man encircled with beasts, tygers, birds, &c. playing with ten fingers upon an instrument of four or seven strings, is a subject little susceptible of either expression or improvement, and gives us but an imperfect idea of the undertaking of that legislator, poet, and musician. In the second subject I take that point of time at the Olympic games, when the Hellanodics are distributing the rewards to the conquerors in those several contests, 10by which the Grecians were formed to such an admirable pitch of mental and bodily vigour. This picture occupies that whole side of the room behind the president's chair, and is forty-two feet by twelve. The two pictures next,11 which are fifteen feet by twelve, are, one,—the contest and matching the competitors, and the other Prodicus12 reading to that assembly his performance of the choice of Hercules, Aetion the painter,13 and a number of other ingenious men, producing their several performances. I shall have an opportunity of enriching the work with the portraits of many of my contemporaries of worth, which posterity will thank me for. The three other pictures that remain, I shall dedicate to matters of more recent discovery, and more immediately relating to the abilities of our own people.
The reason, sir, for my informing you about these matters is, that however I might be actuated by public spirit and a love of fame, yet I can tell you, and without any great vanity too, that I have more ingenuity than money, and that in consequence of a disappointment I lately met with,14 it will be necessary for me to think also about house-rent and subsistence:15 and as there is no character I should feel more pleasure in being obliged to, than sir George Saville, my request and wish is, that you, sir Sir, would subscribe twenty or ten pounds yourself, and prevail with such of the society as you think proper, to subscribe also, to make in the whole the annual sum of one hundred pounds to be given me monthly or quarterly as the work goes on. I shall by that means be enabled to give myself up entirely to it until it be finished, which with God's blessing will be in about two years.16, and then the sum of 200l.17 which I shall have received, shall be paid back to you, and to those other public-spirited gentlemen who lent it to me. If the exhibition18 produces nothing, or that the society should neglect to make one, you will then lose your money; but a public work will be compleated,19 and I shall be happy; as the opportunity of throwing myself out in such a work will be to me a reward fully sufficient. It is in some measure a necessary comment on a book20 which I wrote two years ago, and which I take the liberty of sending you. I am, sir, with the sincerest respect, your most obedient humble servant,
29, Suffolk-street, Charing
April 19, 1777.