Portrait of Kenneth Dixon playing Shuttlecock
(William Beechey)


Sir William Beechey was born at Burford, Oxfordshire, on 12 December 1753, the son of William Beechey and Hannah Read. Both his parents died when he was still quite young and he and his siblings were brought up by his uncle Samuel. Sir William Beechey’s early career was dedicated to specialising in small-scale full-length portraits. Between 1782 and 1787 he lived in Norwich and eventually painted four works for the collection of civic portraits hung in St Andrew’s Hall in that city.

Sir William Beechey returned to London in 1787. Eventually he came to the attention of the royal family, and in 1793 painted a full-length picture of Queen Charlotte, who appointed him her official portrait painter. In the same year Sir William Beechey was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. He painted not only the portraits of the royal family, but of nearly all the most famous or fashionable people of the time. His George III and the Prince of Wales reviewing troops, a large composition showing the king and prince surrounded by a brilliant entourage on horseback, was painted in 1798. It resulted in his being awarded the honour of a knighthood and also in his election to full membership of the Royal Academy. The painting was destroyed in the 1992 Windsor Castle fire. Other celebrity sitters included Lord Nelson, John Kemble, and Sarah Siddons, which would indicate that he was a direct competitor of Sir Thomas Lawrence (13 April 1769 – 7 January 1830). The latter was the most fashionable painter in Europe as the Romantic Portraitist of the Regency, and to whom we owe the famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington among others.


According to  genealogy records, Kenneth Dixon, son of John and Ann Dixon of Totteridge, was born in 1782 in Hereford and died in 1814, aged 32, in Essex in a carriage accident. Both Kennet and his father were London solicitors. Kennet was articled to a solicitor in the Chancery Court in 1802 and is described as a solicitor at the Christening of his son Dennison Gregson Dixon in 1814.

In our portrait the little boy looks to be around 8, which would date the painting c.1790. He is wearing typical late 18th century French fashion, except for the hat that has a more English flare, which makes sense on account of the  rampaging fad for French couture all across Europe that had been instigated by that eternal style icon herself, Marie Antoinette. Interestingly, Kenneth Dixon was only one year younger than the eldest French prince, the Dauphin Louis Joseph. The French royal couple had a very specific approach to education. This included the way children were represented in portraiture participating in everyday life.  This was a modern concept representing the children as natural beings carrying on normal activities rather than as juvenile formalised symbols of title and privilege.

Both Greuze and Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun had pioneered more natural representations in such paintings as Madame Vigée-Lebrun et sa fille, Jeanne-Lucie, Louise, dite Julie (1789), Paris, musée du Louvre or the Portrait of the princess Golitzyna, née Alexandra Pétrovna Protossova, and her son Piotr Alexéevich Golitzyne, 1794, Moscow, Puschkin State Museum of Fine Arts or Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, reine de France et ses enfants, 1785, Versailles, etc…

In England Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1787, also represented more natural family groups as in Lady Smith (Charlotte Delaval) and Her Children (George Henry, Louisa, and Charlotte), Metropolitan Museum, New York. All of these paintings are illustrations of the development and an emphasis on the late 18th century’s concept of Maternal Love, supported by such thesis as Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. Portraits of Children on their own, not just family portraits, became more and more popular as views on education and the space given to children in society changed at that time, or at least in the way people wanted to represent it.

This trend may have started with Jean-Baptiste Greuze in the second half of the 18th century with his numerous children’s portraits such as Jean Baptiste Greuze’s,Young Girl Weeping for her Dead Bird, 1759 or Titus, 1755.

Attention focussed not simply on children but more particularly on these children’s interests. In our painting, young Kenneth is surrounded by what we can imagine being his favourite games, the toy gun, what looks like a pony lunging whip and the battledore and shuttlecock., leading us to believe he was an active little boy who enjoyed playing outdoors as a wealthy and healthy young child from the end of the 18th century would.

Shuttlecock is believed to have originated more than 2000 years ago. The earliest known sources are in ancient Greece where drawings depict a similar game and in China, where shuttlecock was played as a kicking game called ‘Ti Jian Zhi’ from as early as 5th century BC. The game then spread all over Asia and became known as Hanetsuki in Japan as early as the Nara period (8th century) when it was used for exorcism rites and is still played nowadays traditionally during the New Year by girls, and could be played by one or more players. The word Hanetsuki comes from hane: feathers and tsuki: the act of throwing.

It is unsure how it becomes the traditional game called battledore and shuttlecock in Europe by late 16th century, or Jeu de Volant which means ‘flying game’ in French. It was played with a small hand paddle that were made of wood. The shuttlecock was often called a ‘bird’ then because it was made of feathers with cork attached at the base. The social game was played by hitting the shuttlecock to and fro to another player, but without the net separating them as we have today in the modern version we know as Badminton .

The game took its final name towards the end of the 19th century in England, once more made fashionable by British Army officers returning from India, where its local form was called Poona, and today called Pune, was immensely popular. The ‘father’ of badminton is generally accepted to be the Duke of Beaufort who lived in Gloucestershire, in England. The Duke’s residence, called Badminton House on the Badminton Estate, thus became the name of the game as it is commonly used nowadays.

53 in. x 40 in. (135 x 100 cm.)
Oil on canvas

Christie’s, London, May 3rd 1092, lot 73 ‘An admirable portrait of Kenneth Dixon, son of John and Anne Dixon of Totterhidge, Herts, when a young boy, in dark suit and white frills, large hat with feathers, in a landscape playing battledore’. Acquired at this sale by Mr. Home.

Private collection, Paris.


W. Roberts, Sir William Beechey, London, 1907, p. 201

Where is It?
Acquired by the SMK - National Gallery of Denmark
Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820