Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady 

Thomas Hickey (1741-1824)

Portrait of a Lady, Thomas Hickey
Oil on copper
18th Century
10 ½ x 8 ½ inches 27 x 21.5 cm
German Private Collection
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Thomas Hickey was born in Dublin in May 1741 and trained at the Royal Dublin Society Schools were he took prizes from 1753 to 1756. After visiting Italy c.1761-7 he returned to Dublin for three years and then moved to London, where he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy between 1772 and 1775. By 1778 he was painting in fashionable Bath. But, unable to attract sufficient patronage, he left England to work in India in 1780.

In doing so, Hickey was following the many Englishmen who sought their fortune in India. The subcontinent was then an unprecedented source of wealth, and was the closest the English ever got to a ‘gold rush’. India gave rise to a new phenomenon, the highly wealthy English ‘nabobs’, or merchants, who returned from India with enough money to live like aristocrats, having left as relatively poor middle-class tradesmen. In the big cities such as Madras and Calcutta there were numerous well paid East India Company officials and soldiers to paint, and there Hickey joined fellow artists such as Tilly Kettle, and most notably Johan Zoffany.

Hickey was amply qualified to do well in the taxing Indian environment, in which an engaging personality, resilience and humour were as essential for success as skill with the brush. Many of Hickey’s Indian portraits, such as this example, are painted with a strong, warm light, and he seems to have relished the tropical conditions. Furthermore, Hickey was not only ‘brilliantly skillful in the capture of likeness’ [Mildred Archer India and British Portraiture 1770 – 1825 Oxford 1979 p.205], but also the painting of detail and costume, and was thus able to rely heavily on the patronage of soldiers who favoured the smaller, more portable (and cheaper) portrait format seen here. Hickey’s smaller scale portraits are invariably oval, but in India he seems to have preferred to use a copper support instead of the canvas he had favoured in Ireland and India. This may be due to the difficulties of getting good quality canvasses made in India; Hickey’s Calcutta-based contemporary, Robert Home, imported his canvasses from London.

Hickey cultivated a large circle of patronage in India, including the most senior members of the Company. In 1792 he was invited by Lord Macartney, Governor of Madras from 1781 to 1785, to accompany him on his embassy to China as a salaried painter. On his return, he tried once more to resurrect his career in England, but struggled again, and so sailed back to Madras in late 1798. He remained there until 1807, when, disillusioned by the East India Company’s refusal to appoint him its official painter he went to Calcutta. There he remained until 1812, when he finally returned to Madras. He still produced some works of distinction in his old age, and the Madras Gazette recorded that ‘the portraits he had finished only a few days prior to his dissolution bore every appearance of his wonted vigour, genius a
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