The more we think of the works he has publicly exhibited—the more we know of the pictures he has left and had planned—the more we learn of the nobility of the character and hear of the kindness of his heart, the more must John Phillip be admired and esteemed, both as painter and man—the more must we feel the loss British art has sustained in his untimely death. The short preceding attack of illness, though so terribly presageful, seemed but to render the fatal blow more sudden, by having admitted delusive hopes of recovery. But, now that we must perforce realise that he is indeed gone, we begin to feel that, although he lived long enough for lasting fame, his genius was still fast ripening; and had he been spared he would pro-bably have been, even more than he was, the pride and ornament of the English school.
John Phillip was born in Aberdeen, April 19, 1817, and, like his fellow-Academician David Roberts, and so many other eminent artists, was of humble Scottish extraction. Like Roberts, too, his first employment was in grinding colours for a house-painter to whom he was apprenticed. But he had began to conceive a passion for art at a very early age. In one of the quaintest parts of his native city, known as Wallace Nook, close beside an ancient turret with extinguisher roof, which abuts from the corner of a street, and has on the face an effigy of the Scotch hero, is shown a very low-browed window, whereat the future R.A. used to grind his master's colours. And it is added that on the boy’s lap, beneath slab and muller, was frequently concealed painting materials with which stealthily to copy another effigy or sign of Wallace swinging from the opposite side of the street. In his fifteenth year the young artist had already commenced taking likenesses, and (again like Roberts) one of his earliest exploits was to paint scenery for a little theatre in Aberdeen.
Most of our readers are acquainted with the stories of George Chambers, David Roberts, and (subsequently his rival scene-painter but fast friend) Stanfield having worked their passage by sea up to London—the last, by-the-way, with Douglas Jerrold as midshipman on board. A similar story is told of John Phillip; but, as inaccuracies are generally introduced in the narrative, we will, from an authentic source, correctly record a most characteristic anecdote. The artist had then, when only seventeen years of age, formed an ardent desire to see the pictures in the famous metropolitan exhibition of the Royal Academy, then located at Somerset House; and had confided his desire to the friendly skipper of a coasting vessel, who, probably more in jest than in earnest, promised its fulfilment. Wearied, however, by two or three disappointments, the young enthusiast secreted himself on board, and only discovered himself after the smack had left port. The skipper, enraged at finding he had been so unexpectedly taken at his word, threatened chastisement, but, soon pacified, set the extra hand to paint the figure-head. Arrived in London, the poor lad was detained two days to work out the ballast from the hold. At five o’clock in the morning of the third day he started from the docks and readied Somerset House, long before the doors were opened. Purchasing a biscuit for the day’s consumption, he at length gained admission, and remained in the rooms gloating over the pictorial marvels till, using the painter’s own words, he was “swept out with the sawdust in the evening.” He saw no other “London sight.” The same night, to redeem his promise, he went back to the smack, and in her returned to Aberdeen.
Not long after he found, through the late Major Pryse Gordon, a most liberal patron in the late Lord Panmure. In answer to an earnest letter of recommendation from his friend the Major, Lord Panmure, before he had seen either Phillip or any of his works, undertook to be at the expense of the youth's education as an artist, and, by way of giving an earnest of his intentions, inclosed a cheque for £50. By the noble and unostentatious generosity of this patron was the young artist made comfortable during the period of his studies in the Royal Academy, which he entered in 1837, and for some time after, till commissions flowed in upon him.
John Phillip, R.A. John Phillip's early practice was principally in portraiture; but in 1849 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a subject-picture entitled Tasso, in Disguise, Relating the History of his Persecutions to his Sister.This year he returned to Aberdeen, and, although he did not for a considerable period again put in a public appearance in London, he worked diligently and progressively, finding, like Wilkie before him, congenial employment in depicting the manners and humours of humble life in Scotland, and in collecting materials for a series of important pictures illustrative of subjects from the same source, the first of which, Presbyterian Catechising, was exhibited at Trafalgar-square, in 1847, and was succeeded by The Scotch Farm (1848); Drawing for the Militia (1840) — a very elaborate composition, full of character and humour; Baptism in Scotland (1850); The Spae Wife (or fortune-teller); and A Scotch Washing (1851). These works evinced shrewd observation, keen sense of humour, and dramatic power of telling a story; their execution, also, had a descriptive dexterity for wnich he had been noted as far back as among his fellow Academy students. The colouring, however, of these works was rather heavy and what is technically called horny; and scarcely gave promise of a great colourist.
Drawing for the Militia. 1840. Oil on canvas, 122 x 186 cm. Bury Art Museum, No. 0090; acquired as part of the Wrigley Gift. Click on image to enlarge it.
Being at the date to which we have arrived threatened by constitutional ill-health, and advised to seek a warmer climate, he selected that of southern Spain, and passed several months of the winter of 1851-2 in Seville. There he not only assiduously sketched and painted the novel and picturesque life about him, but also studied the Spanish masters, especially that prince of them with whose genius his own had most affinity—we allude, of course, to Velasquez. Of a portion of the famous Las Meninas, and of other chefs-d'oeuvre, Mr. Phillip painted copies, or, rather, reproductions in the same spirit, which seemed to contain the very essence of the great Spaniard's method. And two or three of these studies Mr. Phillip kept prominently before him for daily reference and admiration. The visit to Spain was in every way beneficial—to our painter's health and even more to his art. A new and inexhaustible field of character, humour, and pathos was opened; the sun of Spain seemed to give all that was wanting of brilliancy to his colouring and contrast to his effect: emulation of the magical touch of Velasquez led to still more skilful displays of handling. The first picture exhibited on his return — The Gipsy Mother (1853), purchased by the Queen — astonished all by his masterful qualities. Since then no English artist has risen so rapidly and deservedly in public estimation. The Spanish Letter-Writer (1854) and El Pasco (1855), both painted for her Majesty, followed, and more than maintained the artist’s newly-acquired position. Sunshine in a Cottage also appeared in 1855, together with Collecting the Offering in a Scotch Kirk — a picture said to have been begun before the artist's departure frem England, and, though admirable for character, solidity, and force, retaining some of the old mannerism.
In 1856 Mr. Phillip exhibited three brilliant Spanish pictures— Agua Freca—on one of the Bridle-roads of Spain; the well-remembered Gipsy Water-carrier of Seville; and Dona Pepita. These and other Spanish subjects were the ever-ripening fruits of subsequent residence in the Peninsula. In The Prison Window (engraved by Mr. Barlow) and the Charity, of the same year (1857)—pictures which secured his immediate election as Asscciate of the Academy; again in The Prayer of Faith and Spanish Contrabandistas, painted for the Queen (1858): and still more emphatically in subsequent works, Mr. Phillip proved himself to be not only a most admirable painter, but also an observer of national character and political influences, who sometimes rises to the dignity of a great moral teacher. Meanwhile, and indeed to the last, the artist from time to time exhibited his great powers in portraiture, the full-length of the Prince Consort of the last-named year being, however, not one of his most successful efforts in this direction.
The Huff. 1859. oil on millboard, 27 x 36 cm. Bury Art Museum. bequeathed by Charles Gassiot, 1902 Click on image to enlarge it.
With mention of Huff a delightful example of the pointer's exquisite humour and fascinating colour and execution, exhibited in 1851), when he was made an R.A. (two years only after his election as Associate), we come to the representation of The Marriage of the Princess Royal of the following year, and of which a fine line-engraving by Mr. Blanchard has lately been published. If the likenesses in this work were not altogether satisfactory—if there have been more precise and elaborate pictures of state ceremonial, yet never, certainly, was such intractable material more artistically treated. But this picture, with the not less happily treated portrait-composition of the leaders of the Ministry and Opposition, styled The House of Commons (1863), and the Gloria, which formed the principal attraction of the Academy display of ’64; the scarcely less important Murillo of the following year; and the Chat Round the Brasero of last year, will be too fresh in the memory of the reader to require further comment. We cannot refrain, however, from remarking that, to us, there were attributes in the last-exhibited picture, both mental and technical—a perfectly controlled power, an impassible, almost sardonically humorous, finesse; an attainment of superb colour and effect by simple gradation without resort to obvious contrasts; a determinate, expressive, thoroughly “understood” touch, which promised that in John Phillip we might long possess the acknowledged leader of our school.
Chat Round the Braserof. 1859. oil on millboard, 27 x 36 cm. Bury Art Museum. bequeathed by Charles Gassiot, 1902 Click on image to enlarge it.
If report speaks truly, the numerous studies and sketches for pictures the painter has left would have appeared to fully countenance these high, though, alas! never-to be-realised anticipations. Two elaborate Spanish pictures, illustrating that social pest in southern countries, the lottery system, are specially eulogised. The one represents persons of diverse classes purchasing the tickets; the other the drawing of the prizes: a priest is seen carefully inserting a ticket between the leaves of his breviary, whilst a child kisses the hem of the holy man's garment; but a poor, unsuccessful muleteer is twirling up the tobacco for a cigarette with his bit of worthless paper. The largest picture left on the painter's easel represents the selling of relics at a church porch, at which a number of figures, including a blind man with his dog and a pretty young girl, are entering. There is also a picture of a group of devotees presenting their offerings of flowers and coins at a shrine, with a gouty priest behind the seen, stooping, with his foot heedlessly planted on the rosas, to pick up the money. Then, in a picture styled The Confessional, is introduced an unctuous old father-confessor, of the type of the scanial-monger in the Chat Round the Brasero. Lastly, we may name a Bull-Fight in which a little boy is dressed up as the bull. From the painter's trip last year to Rome it appears that he has only brought back two studies of a Roman girl, and a sketch for a subject. We are happy to say that two pictures in Mr. Phillip's studio are sufficiently advanced to be sent to the forthcoming Academy exhibition. His remaining works will be disposed of at Christie’s one of the first days in June.
Of so admirable and essentially English a painter there should unquestionably be one or more examples in the national collection, and we cordially subscribe to an opinion publicly expressed by Mr. Firth, that some of the pictures in various stages of completeness would be of great me to students in showing the method in which the eminent artist worked.
We have only one word to add to what is generally known of the deceased artist’s paralytic seizure while in Mr. Frith’s studio. It appears that, some little coolness having arisen between the two distinguished artists. Mr. Phillip, with that presentiment of impending danger which of late possessed him, had through a “mutual” friend expressed a wish to see Mr. Frith, who, on hearing this, immediately called. Soon after Mr. Phillip returned the visit of his old friend, and appeared in the very highest spirits at the reconciliation, thereby showing a characteristic warm-heartedness, which the dreadful termination of that interview rendered doubly pathetic.
Our Portrait of Mr. Phillip is engraved by permission, from the excellent photograph taken by Messrs. Elliott and Fry, of the Talbotype Gallery, Baker-street, to whom we were also indebted for the portrait of Mr. Armitage. one of the new Associates of the Royal Academy, engraved for a late Number.
“John Phillip, R.A.” The Illustrated London News (Supplement 23 March 1867): 285-86.
Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. London: Barrie and Rockcliff, 1969.
Last modified 10 May 2019