Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tomkins, Thomas (1743-1816)

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TOMKINS, THOMAS (1743–1816), calligrapher, born in 1743, kept for many years a writing school in Foster Lane, London. For boldness of design, inexhaustible variety, and elegant freedom, he was justly considered to have attained the highest eminence in his art. Among the productions of his pen are: A transcript of the charter granted by Charles II to the Irish Society, containing 150 folio pages; ornamental titles to many splendid editions of valuable books, particularly Macklin's Bible (8 vols. 1800–16, fol.), Thomson's ‘Seasons,’ and the Houghton Collection of Prints; a transcript of Lord Nelson's letter announcing his victory at the battle of the Nile—this was engraved and published; titles to three volumes of manuscript music presented to the king by Thomas Linley the elder [q. v.]; honorary freedoms presented to celebrated generals and admirals for their victories (1776–1816)—framed duplicates of these are preserved among the city archives; and addresses to their majesties on many public occasions, particularly from the Royal Academy, duplicates of which documents were placed in the library of the academy as choice specimens of ornamental penmanship. Tomkins was intimate with Johnson, Reynolds, and other celebrities, whom he used to astonish by the facility with which he could strike a perfect circle with the pen. He died in Sermon Lane, Doctors' Commons, in September 1816. His partner in the writing academy, John Reddall, survived till 17 Aug. 1834. Besides being the finest penman of his time, Tomkins was a most amiable man, and certainly did not deserve the ridicule which was cast upon him by Isaac D'Israeli.

He bequeathed to the city of London his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, from which there is a fine mezzotinto by Charles Turner. Another good portrait, painted by George Engleheart and engraved by Lewis Schiavonetti, is prefixed to Tomkins's ‘Rays of Genius.’

He published: 1. ‘The Beauties of Writing, exemplified in a variety of plain and ornamental penmanship. Designed to excite Emulation in this valuable Art,’ London, 1777, oblong 4to; again London, 1808–9, oblong 4to, and 1844, fol. 2. ‘Alphabets written for the improvement of youth in Round, Text, and Small Hands,’ 1779. 3. ‘Rays of Genius, collected to enlighten the rising generation,’ 2 vols., London, 1806, 12mo. 4. ‘Poems on various Subjects; selected to enforce the Practice of Virtue; and with a view to comprise … the Beauties of English Poetry,’ London, 1807, 12mo.

[Athenæum, 1888, pt. i. p. 259; D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (1841), p. 436; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, No. 10440; Gent. Mag. 1816, ii. 77, 280, 292; Monthly Mag. (1816), xlii. 274.]

T. C.