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Pilkington, Matthew

    Full Name: Pilkington, Matthew

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1701

    Date Died: 1774

    Place Born: Ballyboy, King's County, Ireland

    Place Died: Dublin, Ireland

    Home Country/ies: Ireland

    Subject Area(s): biography (general genre) and nineteenth century (dates CE)

    Career(s): clergy


    Church minister and author of Pilkington’s Dictionary of Painters, a standard work for most of the nineteenth century. Pilkington was the son of a watchmaker, William Pilkington. He attended grammar school in Dublin, Ireland, where his family had resettled. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1718 graduating with a BA in 1722 in preparation for church work. He married Laetitia Van Lewen (1712-1750) in 1725 and after receiving a master’s degree, promoted with the help of his father-in-law to to curate at St. Andrew’s the same year. Pilking was already a published poet and his poems caught the attention of Jonathan Swift. With Swift’s assistance, he traveled to London in September 1732 as chaplain to the incoming lord mayor of London, John Barber. His association with Edward Walpole, the prime minister Robert Walpole’s profligate son, and liaison with the actress Mary Heron, caused the ire of many. He was arrested in 1734 for an inflammatory piece published under Swift’s name. Suspicion on his release that he had betrayed Swift forced Pilking to keep a low profile, receiving an assignment in the bishopric of Dublin under archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765). In 1737 his father-in-law died, leaving the Pilkington’s with large debts. Matthew trumped up charges of infidelity and obtained a divorce in 1738 while he himself took up with a rich widow of a former member of Parliament. When his ex-wife published her version of his exploits, Memoirs (1748) Pilkington’s hopes for higher Church of Ireland position were dashed. The couple fought a very public character assassination battle, with Pilkington issuing broadsides and Laetitia publishing subsequent volumes of her “memoirs.” Perhaps as a distraction, Pilkington began studying paintings and their histories. By the mid-1750s, Pilkington was advising Thomas Cobbe, the son of Charles Cobbe in painting acquisition. The Cobbes were zealously building a collection for their Newbridge House estate. In 1770, Pilkington published a dictionary/handbook on eminent artists titled, The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters. The work contained artists biographies, critical rankings of the artists, and an analysis of the art market in the Netherlands and England. The book, the first of its kind in England, quickly became popular, going through numerous editions. In the early nineteenth century it was taken over by the artist and art historian Henry Fuseli and appearing as A Dictionary of Painters in 1805 and 1810 editions. After 1824, it appeared standardly as A General Dictionary of Painters and was commonly known as “Pilkington’s Dictionary.” He claimed to his publisher that he also had a profile of the artist William Hogarth too politically volatile to incorporate into his dictionary. This work has never been traced, and given the unreliable nature of its author, may never have been written. Pilkington assembled a fine personal art collection of his own, all the more surprising given his modest income. These included works by Camphuysen, Heemskerk and a purported Tintoretto oil sketch. Pilkington married Nancy Sandes (d. 1785) in 1750. His account of his actions in Rapin de Thoyras’ Impartial History (1784) is an extreme falsification of his life. Pilkington died in Dublin in 1774 a resentful man whose will cut out his only heirs for siding with their mother in custody arrangements. His papers are at the Huntington Library, San Mateo, CA, The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters was the first handbook to connoisseurship and artists’ biography written in English. Although not a work of scholarship, it is reflective of the age and aspirations of eighteenth and nineteenth century art-going British public. Pilkington dwells on Italian painters, at the time fashionable, and somewhat neglecting the Dutch and Flemish who were not yet as revered. His advice on the art markets of both the British Isles and the Netherlands and Belgium is an illuminating period piece. The Pilkington Dictionary when through numerous revisions and was the standard for connoisseurs and neophytes for much of the nineteenth century. The publication was taken over by Richard A. Davenport (c.1777-1852) and last appeared in 1857.

    Selected Bibliography

    The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters . . . to Which are Added Two Catalogues [etc.] London: Cadell, 1770; [first Fuseli edition] A Dictionary of Painters, from the Revival of the Art to the Present Period. London: J. Johnson, 1805; [fragmentary manuscript, ca.1769], Huntington Library MSS CD 293-295; [writings contained in] Rapin de Thoyras, Paul. Impartial History of England [etc.]. 4 vols. London: J. Harrison, 1784-89.


    Laing, Alastair, and Turner, Nicholas. Clerics and Connoisseurs: the Reverend Matthew Pilkington, the Cobbe Family and the Fortunes of an Irish Art Collection through Three Centuries. London: English Heritage/Azimuth, 2001; Pilkington, Lætitia. The Memoirs of Mrs. Lætitia Pilkington. 2 vols. Dublin: Prvately Printed, 1748; Pilkington, Lætitia. The Third and Last Volume of the Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington. London: Printed for R. Griffiths 1754; Elias, A. C., Jr. “Pilkington, Matthew (1701-1774).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


    "Pilkington, Matthew." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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