The Circus

The Circus


18TH C

Gainsborough was a deeply moral and religious man according to art historian John Hayes.  He was a Christian who trusted in Divine Providence and Mercy.  In his later years in Bath he attended Church of England services regularly.

In 1773 Gainsborough painted the portait of the popular preacher Dr. William Dodd.  This painting was exhibited in his exhibition room on the first floor of this house to coincide with the grand opening of the newly-built Margaret Chapel, presided over by the flamboyant figure of the doctor.

The chapel was erected in Margaret Buildings situated off Brock Street, between The Circus and the Royal Crescent.  It pleased Gainsborough so much that he informed Dodd that he intended to visit it frequently.  The building was one of several chapels erected in Bath in the last quarter of the 18th C and its official opening on 3 October 1773 was a major social event.  Gainsborough made the most of it by featuring his portait of the preacher at No. 17, just round the corner, to the benefit of both men, and it was publicized accordingly.

Mrs Dodd, who was an unlikely partner to this highly popular well-educated parson, was so pleased with Gainsborough's depiction of her famous husband that she sent Margaret the gift of an expensive silk gown from London.  Gainsborough personally wrote a thank you note as his wife was indisposed at the time.  The artist was pleased with this portrait too  and he told the Dodds that ladies who came to the house to see it also approved.  He knew this, he confided, because he hovered outside the door of his exhibition room and then peeped through the keyhole to listen to their remarks.  One woman, he claimed, commented that Dr Dodd had such a lively eye!

William Dodd was a colourful figure who dressed imaginatively.  Born in Lincolnshire, a vicar's son, he proved to be an academic success at Cambridge and then moved to London where he became a highly popular preacher in various churches and because of his extravagant lifestyle and his love of fine clothes he was known affectionately as the "Macaroni Parson."  Soon heavily in debt he made an impulsive marriage to Mary Perkins, daughter of a domestic servant, a woman of low birth who brought nothing in the way of a dowry to her husband, a match that further damaged his alarming financial situation.

In spite of his success and popularity as a preacher he was living on borrowed time when fortune favoured him:  he won £1000 in a lottery.  This sum (a huge amount at the time) brought him financial relief for a short time but he continued his extravagant lifestyle and debt piled up again to the point where, in 1774, he tried to bribe his way into a lucrative position as rector at the wealthy Church of St George's, Hanover Square in London.

His action was discovered and he was dismissed from his church posts.  He was publicly ridiculed as the scandal of his bribery spread in the year the Gainsboroughs moved to live in London.  They saw their friend the preacher flee to Europe to escape the indignity he faced in the capital.   He remained abroad for two years until the gossip subsided, returning to London in 1776.  Ever the survivor, he immediately resumed his most extravagant lifestyle, again incurring huge debts.

In an effort  clear them he made a fatal lmistake:  he forged a bond for a huge sum, £4,200, in the name of his former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield.  In good faith a banker accepted the bond and lent Dodd the money.   Later, a small ink blot in the text of the bond was noted.  The document was re-written and presented to the Earl to sign in order to replace the inferior original.  The forgery was discovered.   Dodd immediately confessed, begging for time to repay the debt.   This request was refused.  Dodd was imprisoned pending trial.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.

There was an immediate outcry at the severity of the sentence.  No less than 23,000 people signed a petition seeking a pardon for the popular "Macaroni Parson," friend of Thomas Gainsborough and a man supported by many other famous 18th C figures, including Dr Samuel Johnson who personally wrote several papers in his defence.  The Law Lords were not swayed.

William Dodd was hanged in public at Tyburn on 27 June 1777.  Was Gainsborough, I wonder, standing among the crowd to see his friend face the gallows?