Portrait painting was a major industry in England in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, before the advent of photography. Some remarkable practitioners of this art form attained great fame, and sometimes riches and even knighthoods. Among the most notable were those who worked during the long reign of George III, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), George Romney (1734-1802), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). By the time of Queen Victoria, portrait painters were still much in demand, but seem to have become less highly regarded; none have become household names in the same way as those earlier ones.
Frederick Richard Say was a notable society portrait painter in London between about 1830 and 1860, undertaking commissions for portraits from many famous and important figures such as Earl Grey, Sir Robert Peel, the Duke of Wellington and the Royal family. However, after his death he seems to have been largely forgotten. In 1917, when some of his works were sold at the dispersal of Sir Robert Peel's collection, a Times journalist noted that 'his name has passed altogether out of knowledge, but he was evidently a close follower of Lawrence, probably an assistant and pupil'.
Some of the basic facts about the Say's life are clear: his birth, marriage, death, and addresses where he lived at different times. Much of his work as a painter can be identified. But there is a remarkable dearth of information about what kind of person he was, how he spent his time and so on. Hardly any documents written by him seem to have survived; letters written to him are somewhat more numerous but not very revealing, and other documents mentioning either him or his work also seem to be few.
Frederick's parents were William Say, a noted London engraver, and Eleanor Francis, who married on 30 December 1790 at St Marylebone in London. William is the subject of an obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine and an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, from which we learn that he was only five years old when his father (another William), a land steward on estates at Lakenham, near Norwich, died. He was brought up by an aunt and moved to London at the age of about 20. He studied engraving under James Ward and in 1807 was appointed Engraver to his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester. About 1819 he engraved the first mezzotint on steel. William died on 24 August 1834 in Weymouth Street, Portland Place, aged 66.
Frederick (Pl 2) was born on 30 November 1804. He had three elder sisters, all of whom married known figures in the contemporary art world. Mary Anne (born 24 August 1794) married (as his second wife) the architect John Buonarotti Papworth (1775-1847), Leonora (born 4 February 1798) married another architect, William Adams Nicholson (1803-53), and Emma (born 4 May 1800) married George Morant (1770-1846), who ran a flourishing Bond Street business in furniture and picture-framing.
Being brought up in such an environment, Frederick not surprisingly took to art at a quite early age. The first record of his work is an award (a 'Silver Palette') he received in 1817 at the Royal Society of Arts for a drawing (his sister Leonora received a similar award in the same year), and he received 'the Silver Isis Medal' in 1819 at the same society for A figure in chalk' and a silver medal for crayon drawings in 1820. (1) Not long after this, he was producing some quite accomplished engravings, presumably under his father's guidance. It is not recorded where he learned to paint, and there is no documentary evidence to support the suggestion above that he was ever an assistant or pupil of Lawrence. His style has on occasion been compared with that of Lawrence, but any aspiring portrait painter of that period would inevitably have taken inspiration from the work of such a master of the art.