Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillips, Thomas (1770-1845)
PHILLIPS, THOMAS (1770–1845), portrait-painter, was born at Dudley, Warwickshire, on 18 Oct. 1770. His parents occupied a respectable position, and, after having given their son a good education, they encouraged his inclination for art by placing him with Francis Eginton, the glass-painter, of Birmingham. Towards the close of 1790 he came to London with an introduction to Benjamin West, who found employment for him on the painted-glass windows of St. George's Chapel at Windsor. In 1791 he became a student of the Royal Academy, and in 1792 he sent to the exhibition his first picture, a ‘View of Windsor Castle.’ This was followed in 1793 by ‘The Death of Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, at the battle of Châtillon,’ and ‘Ruth and her Mother-in-law;’ and in 1794 by ‘Cupid disarmed by Euphrosyne,’ ‘Elijah returning the recovered Child to the Widow,’ and a ‘Portrait of a young Artist.’ He soon, however, discovered that the scope of his talent lay in portrait-painting, but competition in this branch of art was then severe. Lawrence was in favour with the king and court, and Hoppner with the Prince of Wales and his circle at Carlton House, while Beechey, Owen, and Shee were rivals of repute. Phillips's sitters were at first chance customers of no distinction, and from 1796 to 1800 his exhibited works were chiefly portraits of gentlemen and ladies, often nameless in the catalogue, and still more nameless now. But a notable advance soon took place in the social position of his sitters, and in 1804 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, together with his rival, William Owen. About the same time he removed to 8 George Street, Hanover Square, formerly the residence of Henry Tresham, R.A., where he continued to reside until his death, forty-one years later. He became a royal academician in 1808, and presented as his diploma work ‘Venus and Adonis,’ exhibited in that year, the best of his creative subjects, the ‘Expulsion from Paradise’ at Petworth House alone excepted. Meanwhile he rose steadily in public favour, and in 1806 he painted the Prince of Wales, the Marchioness of Stafford, the ‘Marquess of Stafford's Family,’ and Lord Thurlow. In 1807 he sent to the Royal Academy the well-known portrait of William Blake, now in the National Portrait Gallery, which was engraved in line by Luigi Schiavonetti, and afterwards etched by W. Bell Scott.
His contributions to the exhibition of 1809 included a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, engraved by Niccolo Schiavonetti, and to that of 1814 two portraits of Lord Byron, one in Albanian costume, and the other, considered to be the best likeness of the poet, that which was painted for John Murray, and engraved in line by Robert Graves, A.R.A. A replica of this portrait was in the possession of Sir Robert Peel. In 1818 he exhibited a portrait of Sir Francis Chantrey, R.A., painted in exchange for his own bust, and in 1819 that of the poet Crabbe, also painted for John Murray.
In 1825 he was elected professor of painting in the Royal Academy, and, in order to qualify himself for his duties, visited Italy and Rome in company with William Hilton, R.A., and also Sir David Wilkie, whom they met in Florence. He resigned the professorship in 1832, and in 1833 published his ‘Lectures on the History and Principles of Painting,’ reviewed by Allan Cunningham in the ‘Athenæum’ for 9 Nov. 1833.
Phillips's finest works are at Alnwick Castle, at Petworth, and in the possession of Mr. John Murray of Albemarle Street. The last-named possesses his portraits of Lord Byron, one of his best works, Crabbe, Sir Walter Scott, Southey, Campbell, Coleridge, Hallam, Mrs. Somerville, Sir Edward Parry, Sir John Franklin, Major Denham, the African traveller, and Captain Clapperton. Besides these he painted two portraits of Sir David Wilkie, one of which he presented to the National Gallery, and the other is now in the National Gallery of Scotland; also, the Duke of York for the town-hall, Liverpool, Dean Buckland, Sir Humphry Davy, Samuel Rogers (now at Britwell Court), Michael Faraday (engraved in mezzotint by Henry Cousins), Dr. Dalton, and a head of Napoleon I (now at Petworth), painted in Paris in 1802, although not from actual sittings, yet with the connivance of the Empress Josephine, who afforded him opportunities of observing the First Consul while at dinner. His own portrait, exhibited in 1844, was one of his latest works. Phillips wrote many occasional essays on the fine arts, especially for Rees's ‘Cyclopædia,’ and also a memoir of William Hogarth for John Nichols's edition of that artist's ‘Works,’ 1808–17. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. He was also, with Chantrey, Turner, Robertson, and others, one of the founders of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution.
Phillips died at 8 George Street, Hanover Square, London, on 20 April 1845, and was interred in the burial-ground of St. John's Wood chapel. He married Miss Elizabeth Fraser of Fairfield, near Inverness, a lady whose beauty and accomplishments were commended by Crabbe in his ‘London Journal.’ They had two daughters and two sons, the elder of whom, Joseph Scott Phillips, became a major in the Bengal artillery, and died at Wimbledon, Surrey, on 18 Dec. 1884, aged 72.
His younger son, Henry Wyndham Phillips (1820–1868), born in 1820, was a pupil of his father. He also adopted portrait-painting as his profession, and exhibited first at the Royal Academy in 1838. Between 1845 and 1849 he painted a few scriptural subjects which he sent to the British Institution, but his works were chiefly portraits. Among them were those of Charles Kean as Louis XI, painted for the Garrick Club; Dr. William Prout, for the Royal College of Physicians; Robert Stephenson, for the Institution of Civil Engineers; and Nassau William Senior. He was also for thirteen years the energetic secretary of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, and he held the rank of captain in the Artists' volunteer corps.
He died suddenly at his residence, Hollow Combe, Sydenham, Kent, on 8 Dec. 1868, aged 48. His portrait of Sir Austen Henry Layard has been engraved in mezzotint by Samuel W. Reynolds; ‘The Magdalen’ has been engraved by George Zobel, and ‘Dreamy Thoughts’ by W. J. Edwards.
[Athenæum, 1845, p. 417, reprinted in Gent. Mag. 1845, ii. 654–7; Sandby's Hist. of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1862, i. 331–4; Royal Acad. Exhibition Catalogues, 1792–1846; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, ed. Graves and Armstrong, 1886–9, ii. 284; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists of the English School, 1878. For the son: Art Journal, 1869, p. 29; Athenæum, 1868, ii. 802; Times, 10 Dec. 1868; Royal Acad. Exhibition Catalogues, 1838–68; British Institution Exhibition Catalogues (Living Artists), 1845–9.]