The curfew tolls the knell of parting day...' And if you're of a certain age, chances are you can finish that opening four-line stanza from Thomas Gray's poem Elegy in a Country Churchyard which was anonymously published on this day in 1751.
Gray was born in London on St Stephen's Day, 1716. His father was harsh and violent and Gray's parents separated but his mother, a milliner, saw to it that her son was educated at Eton and Cambridge where he spent most of his adult life.
At Eton he became friends with Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, a man of letters and Whig politician, and in their early 20s they set off on a tour of France and Italy. However they fell out. Gray returned to England and for four years there was no contact and then on Walpole's initiative they became friends again. In 1747, when Gray was 31, Walpole commissioned this portrait of him by John Giles Eccardt. Walpole, Eccardt's main patron, commissioned 26 portraits of himself.
In this portrait, Gray holds the manuscript of his first poem, his Ode to Eton College. The serious face, the pursed lips, the focused eyes all suggest a deep-thinking individual yet the open-necked collar gives the portrait a casual look.
Contemporary reports depict Gray as reserved, proud, scholarly, fastidious. When he travelled he carried a plano-convex mirror and this allowed him to observe the landscape as something confined, arranged, gathered.
Elegy... became his most famous work, but Gray declined the Poet Laureateship, was appointed Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and when he died (at 54, of gout-related illness) he was buried beside his mother in St Giles's churchyard, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, the setting of his poem.
Gray published only 13 poems in his lifetime, but his elegy gave us well-known phrases: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave"; "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air"; "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife".
Gray's portrait painter John Giles Eccardt was born in Germany in 1720, moved to England. He ran a very successful portrait-painting business, he painted the privileged and wealthy of the time, many of them now long-forgotten.
But Thomas Gray is "in his narrow cell for ever laid". Gray lives on in this, one of Eccardt's best-known portraits, and in his poetry.
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