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Robert Dighton
Nationality: 
english
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1751
Birth Place: 
London
Death Date: 
1814
Death Place: 
London
English painter, printmaker and draftsman Robert Dighton had a parallel career as a singer and became notorious for stealing prints from the British Museum and attempting to resell them. Dighton was born in 1751 in London, the son of a print dealer. He first exhibited at the London Society of Artists in 1769, showing portrait drawings. Dighton entered the Schools of the Royal Academy in 1772, and exhibited in several Academy exhibitions over the two decades from 1775. His musical career had started by 1776, when a newspaper described his performance in the Haymarket. His singing career continued at such venues as Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells until 1800. The first prints Dighton designed were to illustrate an edition of William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) works, published in 1775-6, and depictions of actors in a book on the English theater published 1776-7. Portraits of actors done in mezzotint to Dighton’s designs appeared in 1779, followed by a “Book of Heads”. The print publisher Carington Bowles (1724-1793) hired Dighton in 1780, after the death of his previous designer, the painter John Collett (ca. 1725-1780). A profusion of mezzotints and engravings after Dighton designs appeared over the next two decades, including comic images, caricatures and portraits of the grandees of the day and sporting and theatrical scenes. He also painted a number of watercolors in the 1790s, many of which were published as engravings. Two of these are in the collections of the Fine Arts Museums, along with the engravings after Dighton’s watercolors (in addition to other works by him). Frequently suffering financial distress, Dighton began stealing prints from the British Museum around 1804. Many of the prints he stole came from distinguished and well-known private collections. Recent scholarship has shown that he attempted to erase old collectors’ marks on the verso of many of the prints and added spurious collectors’ marks to conceal the provenance of the prints. Sale of some of the prints with Dighton’s collector’s stamp led to the discovery in 1806 of his thievery. The British Museums’ prints had not been inventoried or registered, so proof of ownership could not be established, although Dighton did confess to the theft, apparently at a later time. He returned the prints he still had and cooperated in recovering others, thus avoiding conviction, but the scandal forced him to flee London for Oxford, where he drew caricatures, later moving to Cambridge and Bath. He returned to London in 1810, where he published prints by his own hand and by his son Robert the younger (1786-1865). Dighton died in London in 1814. An album of 128 watercolors and 28 drawings by Dighton that had been held by the descendants of his publisher Bowles was sold at auction in 1953. The album was broken up for sale in a 1978 auction, which included the two watercolors later purchased by the Museums. (TNB 3/2105). Selected bibliography: Clayton, Timothy. “Dighton, Robert (1751–1814),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Van Camp, An. 'Robert Dighton and his spurious collectors' marks on Rembrandt prints in the British Museum, London', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 155, mo. 1319 (February 2013), p. 88-94.