Peters, Matthew William (1741/2–1814), painter and clergyman, was probably born at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England, one of three children of Matthew Peters (1711–c.1776), a garden designer and agricultural writer, of Belfast, and Elizabeth Peters (née Younge), a daughter of George Younge, of Dublin. The family moved to Dublin in 1742 when his father obtained a post in the customs, and where he worked as a seedsman in Capel St.; as one source states that Matthew William was born in Capel St. (Walker's Hibernian Magazine (November 1794), 437) it is possible that he was born after the move. He was educated at a school managed by a descendant of Dr Sheridan, who was a friend of Jonathan Swift (qv). Although his studies prepared him for the church, Peters entered the Dublin Society drawing school, where he was taught by Robert West (qv) and won prizes in 1756 and 1758. Sent to London (c.1756) to study under Thomas Hudson, he obtained a premium (1759) from the London Society of Arts for his painting ‘A gladiator dying’. In 1762 the Dublin Society gave Peters a £30 allowance to travel to Italy, where he studied under Pompeo Batoni. When visiting Florence in 1763 he was elected a member of the Accademia del Disegno and copied Rubens's works at the Pitti palace. He returned to Dublin (1765/6), but was unsuccessful in his attempt to become a portrait painter there. Moving to London in 1766, he lived in Tavistock Row, Covent Garden, and showed his Italian paintings, including ‘Florentine lady in a Tuscan dress’, at the Society of Artists. In 1768 he exhibited a ‘Portrait of a gentleman’ with the Society of Artists in Ireland at William St., Dublin. At the first exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1769 he showed a portrait of Mary, duchess of Ancaster. Made an associate of the academy in 1771 and elected a full member in 1778, he continued to show works there until 1785. He also exhibited with the Free Society of Artists in 1769. Becoming a freemason, he was initiated in the Somerset House lodge. Peters returned to Italy in 1772, travelling to Venice, Rome, and Parma, where he made a copy of Correggio's altarpiece ‘The Madonna with St Jerome and the Magdalen’, now in the church of Saffron Walden, Essex. Returning to London in 1776, he studied for a time under Joshua Reynolds while setting up his own studio in Great Newport St. His notoriously lascivious painting ‘A woman in bed’, controversially exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777, is probably identical with the ‘Lydia’ (now in the Tate collection) that Peters painted for his patron, the rakish Lord Grosvenor, and was the most celebrated of numerous such compositions, chiefly of bare-bosomed women in seductive poses, that he executed for private patrons. Though regarded as risqué, if not obscene, especially by subsequent Victorian critics, these works were popular and widely circulated in engraved prints.
In 1779 Peters entered Exeter college, Oxford, where he studied for the anglican priesthood and obtained a BCL (1788). Ordained a deacon (1781) and a priest (1782), he became rector of Eaton, Leicestershire. Said to have regretted his earlier erotica, he concentrated on painting religious subjects, such as ‘An angel carrying the spirit of a child to paradise’ (1782). His patron, the duke of Rutland (qv), sent him to Paris in 1782 to copy Charles Le Brun's portrait of Madame de la Vallière in the Carmelite church. Remaining in Paris for a time, he became acquainted with Antoine Vestier, who influenced his art. Peters was chaplain to the Royal Academy (1784–8), but resigned his membership in 1788, in which year he became rector of Wolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. He contributed five paintings to John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery (1789), including scenes from the Merry wives of Windsor and Much ado about nothing. In 1789 James Woodmason commissioned Peters to complete six paintings for the Irish Shakespeare Gallery, including ‘Prospero dismissing Caliban’ from The tempest; the exhibition opened in Whistler's Great Room, Exchequer St., Dublin, in 1793. Peters married (1790) Margaret Susannah Fleming, a daughter of Rev. John Fleming, of Burton Fleming, Yorkshire; they had three sons and two daughters. Appointed grand portrait painter of the freemasons (his works hanging in Freemasons' Hall were destroyed in a fire of 1883), he became first provincial grand master of Lincolnshire (1792). He became prebend of Lincoln cathedral in 1795, and was also chaplain to the prince of Wales (after 1811, the prince regent). Some of his paintings and etchings were shown at the New Shakespeare Gallery at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, London, in 1794. He was a curator of paintings at Belvoir castle, for which he contributed an account in The history of Leicestershire (1795) by John Nichols. He died on 20 March 1814 at Brasted Place, Kent.
Peters was one of the few eighteenth-century Irish painters who can be described as a colourist. Prints of his paintings, including a mezzotint portrait of his father, are held in the NGI. A pastel self-portrait of 1758, which also depicts his art master, West, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Peters was satirised by Peter Pindar, who called him ‘Luke the saint, a man of gospel, art and paint’.