As the son of the celebrated 18th century portraitist and painter of conversation pieces, Arthur Devis, it seemed an artistic career was obvious. His father’s influence could be seen in his work from the outset, especially in the attention to detail of drapery and costume. But Devis’ ability to capture fluid and relaxed poses, even in animals – a product of the training he enjoyed at the Royal Academy in the 1770s under the gaze of Reynolds – was in marked contrast to his father, and it is this that establishes him as one of the most talented British artists of the early nineteenth century. Exhibiting various drawings at the Free Society between 1775 and 1780 and at the Royal Academy in 1781, he was thus appointed draughtsman in a voyage to the East Indies in 1782 but the vessel was wrecked on the Pelew Islands. After much drama, including receiving two arrow wounds from warring natives, he proceeded to Canton and then Bengal where he finally settled. In India he hoped, like Zoffany, that his talent would make his fortune.
At first, successful commissions such as Warren Hastings appeared to herald his future prosperity. But Devis’ career is a stark example of how talent alone is not enough to guarantee success. Although he had the undoubted skill to compete with contemporaries such as Thomas Hickey in India (and even Lawrence after his return to London in 1795) Devis’ complete inability to manage his financial affairs rendered him unable to receive enough commissions. He was, simply, hopeless with money, and was declared bankrupt in 1800. Fortunately a private benefactor stepped forward and saved the family from destituation though financial difficulties dogged Devis to the very end, despite finally gaining some Royal patronage.
The present portrait is a good example of his work after returning to England and dates to around 1803 a period when he undertook a number of portraits of his family.