(b. 1747, London, d. 1801, London)


English painter. He trained at William Shipley's Academy in London. In 1762, 1763 and 1765 he won prizes for drawing from the Society of Artists, and in 1769 he enrolled in the newly established Royal Academy Schools. He is recorded as having studied under a Mr Wilson in 1762; this may have been the portrait painter Benjamin Wilson or, less likely, the landscape painter Richard Wilson.

Wheatley was abroad in 1763, probably in the Low Countries and France, and in 1766 he made his first trip to Ireland. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Artists in 1770 and became a director in 1774.

He worked as an assistant to the Royal Academician John Hamilton Mortimer in painting the Saloon ceiling at Brocket Hall in 1771-1773, and always acknowledged the profound debt he owed to his distinguished teacher. He exhibited pictures himself at the Society of Artists from 1765-1777. From 1778 onwards he exhibited regularly at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, being made as Associate (ARA) in 1790 and a full member (RA) the following year.

Wheatley seems to have been incompetent with money, and was frequently in debt, despite numerous commissions. He moved from London to Dublin to escape his debtors (and a cuckolded irate husband) from 1779 to 1783, and painted numerous highly accomplished paintings whilst there. His masterpiece of these years is the remarkable The Irish House of Commons, 1780, now in the City Art Gallery, Leeds, which depicts a vast series of faithful portraits of all the Members of Parliament in Dublin.

Wheatley was a versatile painter, executing straightforward portraits, conversation pieces, domestic and sentimental genre paintings and theatrical illustrations. He seems to have taken a particular interest in the depiction of rural life from the 1780's onwards. Wheatley at his best shows a remarkably fluidity and freedom of expression in his oil paintings, though his drawings are much more tightly controlled. Along with George Morland, he is the most accomplished English painter of the Rural Scene of his date; his range, though, is much wider than that of Morland, and some of his conversation pieces, for instance, rank with those of his friend and fellow-academician Johann Zoffany.

About 1793 the artist began to suffer from a debilitating attack of gout, which ultimately rendered him a cripple, virtually unable to hold a paint brush. The last few years of his life saw a distressing descent into poverty, though he was frequently helped by his fellow Royal Academicians. He was ultimately forced into the Debtors' Prison of The King's Bench. By the time of his death at the age of 54, he was an emaciated and wasted figure, incapable of caring for his wife and family of four children.