Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), portrait painter, was born on 12 Dec 1753 in Burford, Oxfordshire, the first of five children of William Beechey (d. 1789) and Hannah Read. Beechey apparently had a natural aptitude for drawing but his uncle, and guardian after the death of his parents, wished Beechey to become a lawyer. Accounts published during Beechey's life suggest he was articled to solicitors in Stow-on-the-Wold and London. He seemingly met students from the Royal Academy Schools, attracted to their work, and arranged for his release from the solicitor. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1772. Little is known of his studies there. He is known to have painted panel decorations for coaches while living in London. Soon after his entrance to the Academy schools, Beechey apprently married, 'before he had secured any certain provision for him- self.' In more than one biography published during his lifetime there are references to his having been married more than once. The identity of his first wife is unknown. William Roberts wrote in 1907 'Who the first wife was, when they were married, or when she died, are points about which we have found no information'.
Beechey exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1776 and continued exhibiting annually until he moved to Norwich after the 1782 exhibition. His early work consisted of 'small portraits' (as they were described in the academy catalogues), bust-length and full-length, on a scale much smaller than life. Beechey exhibited at the Royal Academy annually from 1785 to 1805 and from 1807 to 1838 (and again, posthumously, in 1839). From his account books for 1789–91 it appears that Beechey had stopped making small portraits by the middle of 1789 and from then on he exhibited only life-size portraits. He also exhibited landscapes and subject pictures regularly at the British Institution from 1806 to 1808, and with some regularity from 1810 to 1831.
In addition to the time he spent in Norwich (1782-1787), Beechey may have lived for several months in Yarmouth. In Norwich city directories he is listed as a medallion and portrait painter and a limner. His work in Norwich continued both in small scale and life-size (from the evidence of works submitted to the Royal Academy). After the Royal Academy exhibition in 1787 Beechey settled at 20 Lower Brook Street, near Grosvenor Square, London, moving to 37 Hill Street, Berkeley Square, before the exhibition in 1789.
On 27 February 1793 the widowed Beechey married at St George's, Hanover Square, Anne Phyllis Jessop [Anne Phyllis Beechey, Lady Beechey (1764-1833)], a miniature painter. She was born on 3 August 1764 at Thorpe near Norwich, where she had a successful career as a miniature painteer. It is likely that she met Beechey during his residence in Norwich from 1782 to 1787. She exhibited five drawings at the Royal Academy in 1787 as Miss A. P. Jessup; she exhibited in 1795 and 1798 as Mrs Beechey, and in 1799, 1804, and 1805 as Lady Beechey. All her exhibits were portraits, including, in 1793, a self-portrait and a portrait of Mrs Wheatley (Clara Maria Pope (1767-1838)). Lady Beechey died in Harley Street on 14 December 1833.
The turning point in Beechey's life and career was his patronage by the royal family from about 1793. Beechey came to royal attention when a portrait of a nobleman who cannot now be identified was rejected by the Royal Academy exhibition hanging committee. The incensed sitter sent the portrait to be inspected by the king, and while the work was not reinstated to the exhibition, the royal family became in consequence attracted to the artist's work and began a generation of patronage. Beechey was appointed portrait painter to the queen in 1793 and in November of that year he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. Beechey was eventually elected Royal Academician in February 1798. Following the completion of the commissioned work 'His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons' Beechey received a knighthood on 9 May 1798. By 1814 Beechey was named portrait painter to the duke and duchess of Gloucester, and during the reign of William IV was described as principal portrait painter to the king.
Beechey died on 28 January 1839.
Biographical information for this description has been taken from John Wilson, 'Beechey, Sir William (1753–1839)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [ http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1949 , accessed 27 Feb 2012]