[1] Henry Tresham RA, Death of Virginia, oil on canvas, 1797.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[2] Henry Trehsam RA, 'Music' Receiving Inspiration, Attended and Crowned by the 'Loves' , watercolour & pencil on paper.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[3] Francesco Bartolozzi RA after Henry Tresham RA, George III honoured as Patron of the Arts, stipple engraving, 1793.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[4] James Heath ARA, after Henry Tresham RA, Weeping, line engraving, 1802.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Artist of the Month - April 2009


Henry Tresham RA (ca. 1750 - 1814)

This painting [1] illustrates a dramatic story set in Ancient Rome and typifies the emotive style of history painting adopted by Henry Tresham. The dying woman in the centre of the composition is Virginia, daughter of the centurion Lucius Virginius. Surrounded by mourners, she has just been stabbed by her father in a desperate bid to prevent her abduction by the powerful councillor Appius Claudius Crassus. The latter was one of a group of ten men, known as 'Decemvirs', who held power in Rome around 450 BC. This shocking event was said to have exposed their corruption and brought about their downfall.

Tresham's interest in Roman themes is unsurprising as he lived in the city for thirteen years. Born in Ireland, he first studied at the Dublin Society's drawing school where he claimed to have been praised for 'drawing heads' but criticised for 'not having practised the mechanical part of painting'. Determined to become a history painter rather than a portraitist, Tresham travelled to Italy in 1775. While living in Rome he painted large historical canvases and some topographical scenes, and also became a successful art dealer. Although none of the works that he produced in Rome survive, Tresham's classical interests are evident in his later paintings and also in more frivolous designs like the watercolour [2] which depicts a personification of 'Music' and his representation of King George III being honoured as a patron of the arts [3].

In 1789 Tresham moved to London where he exhibited paintings from classical and British history at the Royal Academy. He was elected an associate of the RA in 1791 and an Academician in 1799. The Death of Virginia is the 'Diploma work' he was required to present to the institution at this time. However, some contemporaries described the artist as a troublesome character. Benjamin West PRA, for instance, complained to the Academicians that Tresham had used 'intemperate language' towards him. Nevertheless, he was appointed Professor of Painting at the Academy in 1807, though he had to resign after only two years due to illness.

Tresham also found time to publish five volumes of poetry and, after moving to England, he often worked as an illustrator. In the 1790s he produced a set of paintings to be engraved for David Hume's History of England, and was commissioned by John Boydell for subjects for his Shakespeare Gallery. The engraving below, Weeping [4], was an illustration for The Works of Abraham Cowley published in 1802.