Dighton, Robert (1751-1814)

Dighton, Robert (1751–1814), draughtsman and singer, was baptized at St Andrew's, Holborn, on 5 December 1751, the son of John Dighton, a print seller, and his wife, Hannah. Both were portrayed in a mezzotint by Robert Laurie after Robert Dighton, Court of Equity, or, A Convivial City Meeting (1778), which shows a gathering of friends at the Belle Savage on Ludgate Hill, London. Robert Dighton entered the Academy Schools in 1772 and afterwards set up as a drawing-master and miniature portrait painter. The first prints that he designed were of actors in character for John Bell's edition of Shakespeare's works (1775–6) and for Thomas Lowndes's New English Theatre (1776–7). In 1779 sets of his portraits of actors and actresses in mezzotint were published by William Richardson and a Book of Heads, with a self-portrait as title-plate, was engraved for Carington Bowles. Dighton exhibited seventeen miniature portraits and comic drawings with the Free Society (1769–74), and he also occasionally exhibited at the Royal Academy (1775–99).

Dighton's career developed in two distinct directions. He achieved considerable popularity as a singer. On 27 August 1776 the Morning Post identified him as the gentleman who had performed at the Haymarket the night before, and in 1777 he probably appeared at Brighton during the summer season. Quite soon he was in demand for benefit nights at Covent Garden, playing such leading roles as Mungo in The Padlock (1781), Hawthorn in Love in a Village (1784), and, for his own benefit, Macheath in The Beggar's Opera (1784). Since he had no regular place in the Covent Garden company it is likely that this celebrity status was acquired by singing at the pleasure gardens. By 1792 he was certainly also appearing at Sadler's Wells, but it is impossible to establish how frequent his performances were owing to the fragmentary nature of the evidence. He was principal tenor in 1794 and appeared regularly until 1800.

As an artist Dighton is most interesting as the foremost designer of droll mezzotints and engravings after the death in 1780 of the previous master of the field, John Collett. Dighton worked chiefly for Carington Bowles, and also designed comic literary series such as Twelve prints illustrating the most interesting, sentimental and humorous scenes in Tristram Shandy (1785) and, around 1800, sporting prints. Most of these were published anonymously but can be assigned to Dighton, as his original drawings, 128 signed watercolours, and twenty-one Indian ink wash drawings were preserved in an album by the Bowles family. The album surfaced at auction in 1953 but was broken up and dispersed at a second auction in 1978. Dighton's earliest comic designs date from 1781, and their flavour is indicated by such titles as Mr Deputy Dumpling and Family Enjoying a Summer Afternoon (1781), The Return from a Masquerade—a Morning Scene (c.1784), or The Frenchman in Distress (1797). Much of his work is enduringly funny.

On 22 September 1771 Dighton was married to a Latitia Clark and they had two children, Latitia Sarah (b. 1775) and Robert (b. 1777). By the late 1780s Dighton was involved with the Vauxhall Gardens soprano Catherine Caroline Bertles (fl. 1787–1794), who in 1792 appeared on stage with him at Sadler's Wells. Together they had four sons and two daughters. With the help of his offspring he drew, etched, and published lightly caricatured portraits from his house at Charing Cross. But times were hard in the art world on account of the war. In 1806 it was discovered that since 1798 Dighton had been regularly stealing prints from the British Museum. In 1812 he tried to put one of his daughters on the stage ‘by which she might obtain the favour of assisting me in my present pecuniary embarasment [sic]’ (Rose, 27). He died in 1814 at his home, 4 Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. His prints and drawings are held by the British Museum, London, the Royal Library, Windsor, the Sadler's Wells Library, and several private collectors.

After his death Latitia Sarah, by then married to Thomas Burnell, was, as ‘the natural and lawful daughter and only next of kin of the said deceased’ (Rose, 26), granted administration of her father's estate. This implies that Dighton's three (or possibly four) surviving sons were conceived out of wedlock. Of these, Robert Dighton (c.1786–1865) worked as a caricature portrait etcher from 1800 until 1809, when he was commissioned in the army; he served as a regular soldier until 1847. Denis Dighton (1791–1827) painted battle scenes, while Richard Dighton (1795/6–1880) continued his father's business as an etcher of mildly caricatured portraits. A Joshua Dighton produced sporting caricatures between 1820 and 1840.

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