Today John Dyer is little known, but in the 18th and 19th centuries he was feted as a pioneer of Romanticism. William Wordsworth himself penned a sonnet to the ‘Bard of the Fleece’ – a reference to Dyer’s four-book genre poem The Fleece that championed the noble pastime of tending sheep in the British landscape.
Poet, painter, parson
Much of what is known of Dyer’s life comes from the book Poet, Painter and Parson, the life of John Dyer written by Ralph M Williams and published in 1956. Born and raised in Carmarthenshire (the family home was Aberglasney in Llangathen), he was educated at Westminster, apprenticed to the London portrait painter Jonathan Richardson and from 1724-26 continued his studies in Italy.
Dyer’s talents as a painter can be judged from a group of nine works that passed by direct descent to an owner in the East Riding. They were among 14 lots relating to Dyer that were offered by Hawleys in Beverley on August 7.
Most of these were competently rendered family portraits; the best a pair of half-lengths of Robert Dyer, the elder brother of the artist, and his wife Dorothy. A label to the reverse identifies the sitter as Robert Dyer of Kidwelly, Barrister of Law 1720. Both pictures had (like the others in the collection) some condition issues but took £5600.
Later works, painted when Dyer was a deacon in Leicestershire, included portraits of two of his children by his second wife Sarah Ensor Hawkins (said to be a descendant of Shakespeare). An oil of four-year-old Catherine Dyer, daughter of the artist, 1749, made a modest £260 while a pastel portrait of Sarah Dyer with her pet dog painted c.1752-53 took £700.
A decent copy of Correggio’s Madonna and Child brought £800 while an Italianate landscape in the manner of Claude made £900. Both illustrated in Poet, Painter and Parson, they were probably painted c.1725 while Dyer was a Grand Tourist.
The most expensive work on offer was a portrait of Dyer himself painted by an unknown hand – probably in Rome. Shown in the role of the poet and painter, this relined canvas was guided at £800-1200 but took £6000, selling to the National Library of Wales.
Auctioneer Caroline Hawley told ATG the collection attracted several institutional bidders plus dealers, private collectors and “people who just wanted to hang a good 18th century portrait on the wall”.
Also offered was a collection of books including first editions of some of Dyer’s published works such as The Fleece (1757), Ruins of Rome (1740) and the posthumous 1761 volume Poems by John Dyer (estimate £800-1200) plus a family paper archive from the early 1700s to the mid 1800s (estimate £100-200).
These took £3600 and £2400 respectively; the archive bought by the National Library of Wales.