EESE 2/2002


Biographical Note

Rev. Joseph Thomas (1765-1811): Connoisseur, Emblem Writer and Patron of William Blake

This Note is based on a letter by Leslie Parris, "William Blake's Mr. Thomas" in Times Literary Supplement, 5 December 1968 (p. 1390), on the works by G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (1969) and Blake Books (1977) and my own research. Blake never had too many patrons. Together with Thomas Butts and John Linnell, Joseph Thomas was one of his outstanding patrons. According to Gilchrist's Blake biography (1863), Flaxman suggested to several friends, a Mr Thomas among them, that they should buy copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Thomas, "wishing to give the artist a present, made the price ten guineas. For such a sum Blake could hardly do enough, finishing the plates like miniatures". (This is probably the copy Q, now in private ownership in the United States.) On 31 July 1801 Flaxman wrote to Blake to say that the Rev. Joseph Thomas of Epsom desired him to make a set of illustrations for Milton's Comus for five guineas (they are now in the Huntington Library), also to paint watercolours to be inserted in Thomas's extra-illustrated copy of the 1632 Shakespeare folio to which Thurston contributed, too (now in the British Library). Some of these are signed "1809", the year of the publication of Thurston's and Thomas's Religious Emblems, the work in which Blake almost certainly appears as a subscriber. In 1808 Thomas had subscribed to Blair's Grave, which included the designs by Blake. Subjects from Paradise Lost (Huntington Library) and Milton's Nativity Ode (Whitworth Institute, Manchester) were painted for Thomas in 1807 and 1809. Already in September, 1805 Mrs Flaxman had told her husband in a letter that their friend "Mr T" had been near death but now wished to see them at Epsom and, as a great favour, asked for the loan of their set of Blake's illustrations to the poems of Gray to amuse himself with copying some of them and keeping them with Young's Night Thoughts and other works of Blake's he owned. Here Thomas's habits as a connoisseur and collector and his enthusiasm for Blake and the close contacts between the two men during the period when Religious Emblems must have been prepared for publication, are clearly revealed. What was Thomas's situation in Epsom? Born in 1765 in Llanerfyl, Montgomeryshire, he attended Shrewsbury School and St John's College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1789, was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Winchester the following year, and in 1791 married Millecent Parkhurst, daughter of the biblical scholar, the Rev. John Parkhurst of Epsom (1728-97). In the Marriage Register Thomas is described as "of the parish of Camberwell", and elsewhere as "late chaplain of the Vanguard man of war", at one time the flagship of Nelson. A naval chaplaincy may account for his acquaintance with Edmund Boyle, eighth Earl of Corke (or Cork) and Orrery, whose chaplain he became and to whom he dedicated Religious Emblems in 1809. The Earl had houses in England and Ireland, was a General in the Army and ADC to the King with spells of overseas service (Holland 1797, Egypt 1801). It was probably due to his interest and influence that members of the nobility and several fellow-officers subscribed to Thomas's much admired emblem book, which had considerable artistic merit.

The Rev. Thomas had married an heiress. The wealthy Parkhurst family owned the manor of Epsom from 1706 to 1770. His father-in-law John Parkhurst had inherited considerable estates in Epsom and Catesby, Northamptonshire after the death of his elder brother. The Manor of Epsom was sold about 1770 but Epsom Court, the old manor house, with the great tithes and the advowson of St Martin's church descended to the Rev. John Parkhurst by a special arrangement. In 1797 Thomas paid Flaxman for a monument to Parkhurst. Apparently Thomas could afford to live as a collector and patron of the arts in fashionable Epsom, without depending on the income from a church benefice. Although one finds statements to the contrary, he was neither Rector nor Vicar of Epsom (the living was a vicarage). He resided with his family as a tenant of Miss Price (another subscriber) at Abele Grove, a fine house dating from 1667, which still survives as a listed building on the Dorking Road. It served as a Convent School until 1992 and is now (in 1996) being developed as a hotel. After her husband's death in 1811 Mrs Thomas stayed on as tenant until 1816. Thomas's daughter married John Woodford Chase (also a subscriber to the emblem book), and it was through the Chase family that several of the Blake treasures descended to their later owners. Drummond Percy Chase, grandson of the collector and Principal of St Mary's Hall, Oxford, believed that "Mr. Thomas had a large acquaintance with Artists" who included Flaxman, Mulready, Varley, William Hamilton, G. H. Harlow, John Thurston and Robert Ker Porter. William Blake would prove the most distinguished of them all.

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