Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman with a Young Servant, possibly Sir George Thomas Bt (c.1695-1774) 

Charles Philips (1703-47)

Portrait of a Gentleman with a Young Servant, possibly Sir George Thomas Bt (c.1695-1774), Charles Philips
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Oil and Canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 in (127 x 101.6 cm)
 
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Charles Philips is perhaps best known for his small-scale conversation pieces, in the manner of Arthur Devis. But towards the end of his short career he also painted large-scale portraits. This example is an unusual double-portrait, and is unique in Philips’ large-scale oeuvre for the inclusion of a young black servant, a subject then used to demonstrate a sitter’s wealth and status.

Philips work in both small and large-scale formats contains a certain naive charm, which, combined with the stiff formality seen here, fitted well into the prevailing English taste before the age of Hogarth. Like most followers of Kneller and the ‘St Martin’s Lane School’, Philip’s portraits are often simply composed, with distinctly drawn eyes and the liberal use of red for details such as the lips, eyes and even nostrils. His pictures are often brightly coloured, but differ from contemporaries such as Dandridge and Vanderbank in their smoother application of paint. His direct, if uncomplicated, characterisation proved popular, and his sitters included important members of the aristocracy such as the Duke of Marlborough, and later Frederick, Prince of Wales, then the most significant patron of the arts in England.

This portrait can be dated to the late 1730s, and shows a colonial trader or administrator. Although it was painted in England, the curved archway in the background is suggestive of a foreign setting, as is the flamboyant costume of the young servant. The sitter has been traditionally identified as ‘a West Indian Governor, Captain Alexander Thomas’. However, no Alexander Thomas is known, or at least there is no West Indian governor of that name.

Nevertheless, there was a prominent family of West Indian planters called Thomas, who had owned large estates in Antigua since the 1660s. If the traditional identification of the sitter as a West Indian figure is correct, then this seems the most obvious place to look for a sitter for this portrait. No members of this family were called Alexander, but the sitter may in fact be George Thomas, who inherited the bulk of the family estates on the death of his uncle, the Hon. William Thomas. Significantly, George Thomas later became Governor of the Leeward Islands, and held the title of ‘Captain-General’, which accords well with the traditional identification of this picture as both a Captain and a Governor. In fact, he was the only Thomas of the early seventeenth century to hold this combination of office. Furthermore, we know George Thomas was in England at about the time this portrait would have been painted, for he arrived in England in the late 1730s to discuss his future role as Governor of Pennsylvania with the Penn family, a post he held from 1739-47. George Thomas would also be the correct age to be the sitter here (his early forties) and as a West Indian Planter would no doubt have traveled with a black servant as a matter of course.
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