Robert Dighton (1751-1814) The portrait artist, Robert Dighton, made a distinctive contribution to the art of the caricature, and founded a dynasty of caricaturists, who worked late into the nineteenth century. An actor and singer, as well as artist, he is credited with creating the genre of coloured prints of actors in their favourite roles. Robert Dighton was born the son of John Dighton, a ‘paper-hanging maker’, of 65 Fetter Lane, London, and was baptised on 5 December 1751. Nothing is known about his childhood or early education, and he is first recorded as an artist in 1769, when he exhibited miniature chalk portraits at the Free Society of Artists; he continued to show there until 1773.
On 22 September 1771, Dighton married Letitia Clark of Duke Street, St James’s, at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. They would have two children, Letitia Sarah (born 1775) and Robert (born 1777). Entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, Dighton began to exhibit at the Royal Academy three years later (and would do so intermittently until 1799).
He and Letitia seem to have lived first at 266 High Holborn, which may have been the home of his parents while the Fetter Lane address became the premises of the business. In 1774, they lodged with, or above, Richard Glanville, a jeweller, opposite St Clement Dane’s, on the Strand. By 1777, they had returned to 266 High Holborn, though Letitia died in the following year. Their son, Robert, also died young.
Setting up as a drawing master and miniature portrait painter, Dighton produced drawings of actors in character for John Bell’s edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1775-76, and then other publications. He is credited with creating the genre of coloured prints of actors in their favourite roles, and this certainly became a speciality.
Not only was Dighton part of a theatrical circle, but also an actor and singer and, for over two decades, he worked as both artist and performer. From the mid 1770s to the mid 1780s, he appeared in a number of comic operas at the Haymarket, and especially those composed by Charles Dibdin. He also collaborated on a puppet version of Dibdin and Bickerstaff’s The Padlock, which was performed in 1776, at the Patagonian Theatre, at Exeter Change, on the Strand.
Following the death of the artist, John Collet, in 1780, Dighton began to supply caricatures to Carington Bowles, the printseller based at St Paul’s Churchyard, and these continued to appear, as mezzotints, until the early 1790s.
On 2 October 1788, Dighton placed an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser, which stated that ‘as son of the late Mr John Dighton, of Fetter-lane, paper-hanging-manufacturer … he intends carrying on the business himself’.
Living at Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, from 1785, Dighton began to sing at Vauxhall Gardens and appear at Sadler’s Wells from about that time. By late in the decade, he had begun a relationship with the soprano, Catherine Caroline Bertles (active 1787-1796). Together they would have at least one daughter, Delia (born 1793) and two sons, Denis Dighton (1791-1827) and Richard Dighton (1796-1880), both of whom became artists. However, another, older artist son, Robert Dighton (1786-1865), may also have been conceived with Catherine.
By 1791, Dighton was appearing with Catherine on the stage of Sadler’s Wells as ‘Mr and Mrs Dighton’, in such ‘spectacles’ as Ceyx and Alcyone, while, in 1792, he sang his famous role of Dennis O’Neal, in Tippoo Saib, at the same theatre. He would perform there until the late 1790s, and may also have contributed to designs for productions.
The manager of a famous travelling theatre, John Richardson, said of Dighton, that:
it would be totally impossible … to pass over a theatrical gent of the name of Dighton, once the ‘great card’ at Sadlers Wells; indeed it might be said he was the principal prop of that place of amusement. Dighton and Sadler’s Wells were almost synonymous; so great a feature was he at one period of his career. He was distinguished for his performance of Irish characters and comic songs … He was a great favourite with the public, and deservedly so (quoted in Pierce Egan, The Pilgrims on the Thames: In Search of the National, London: W Strange, 1838, pages 110-111)
In 1793, Dighton brought out his first Collection of Portraits of Public Characters. They proved so successful that he focussed increasingly on caricature and, in the following year, moved to 12 Charing Cross to open his own shop. (After the turn of the century, he moved to 6 Charing Cross, and he retained a shop there until at least 1810.) In 1795, the publication by Bowles & Carver of A Book of Heads by Robert Dighton increased his popularity. Nevertheless, he was working in a very competitive field, and needed to advertise, stating in the Morning Chronicle in 1798 that he ‘continues to take correct elegant likenesses in miniature for half a guinea’ and ‘the whole length figure … for two guineas, frame included’. His need to secure his income may also have led him to steal, and then fraudulently copy, prints from the British Museum from 1798. The crime was discovered, and the damage limited, in 1806.
Until 1806, Dighton was based in London, though made working visits to Brighton in the years 1801-4. However, while he moved to 21 New Bond Street in 1806, he soon left for the provinces, and worked as a caricaturist in Oxford (1807-8), Bath (1809) and Cambridge (1809-10).
By December 1809, Dighton had returned to London and settled at 4 Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. Publishing his last prints in 1812, he seems to have relinquished his business interests to Catherine in that year. At the same time, he tried to get his daughter, Delia, onto the stage, explaining to a manager that if she succeeded, ‘she might obtain the favour of assisting me in my present pecuniary embarasment [sic]’ (from a letter reproduced in Rose 1981, page 27).
Dighton died at 4 Spring Gardens and was buried at St Martin’s in the Fields on 13 June 1814. His legitimate daughter, Letitia Sarah (wife of the architect, Thomas Burnell), administered his estate. It is likely that Catherine had already died.
His work is represented in the Royal Collection, and numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford).
Further reading: Timothy Clayton, ‘Dighton, Robert (1751-1814)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 16, pages 175-179 David Padbury, A View of Dighton’s. The Dighton family, their times, caricatures and portraits, London: The Cartoon Museum, 2007 Dennis Rose, ‘Dighton’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 8, page 886 Dennis Rose, Life, Times and Recorded Works of Robert Dighton (1752-1814). Actor, Artist and Printseller and Three of His Artist Sons, Tisbury: Element Books, 1981