Thomas Frye, Painter and Mezzotinter

(b. 1710, d. 1762)

Painter and Mezzotinter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Thomas Frye. Mezzotint by Himself.

This clever and versatile artist was born in or near Dublin in 1710, and probably began the study of art in Ireland. A notice of him in the "Hibernian Magazine" for January, 1789, says: "It is asserted that he was indebted to strong and natural genius only for his knowledge in the art he possessed, from which it may be presumed that his master, for he had one, was neither eminent nor skilful." Nothing, however, is known of his early life until, while still a young man, he left Dublin, accompanied by Herbert Stoppelaer (q.v.) and settled in London, where he commenced to paint portraits in oil, crayons and miniature. In 1734 he painted a full-length portrait of Frederick Prince of Wales, for the Hall of the Saddlers in Cheapside. This portrait attracted much attention and brought the artist a considerable and profitable practice as a portrait painter. Through Mr. John Ellis, whose portrait he painted, he obtained an introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds whose close friendship he enjoyed throughout his life.

In 1744 he became interested in a project for making porcelain, and in conjunction with Edward Heyleyn, merchant, of Bow, took out a patent for "a new method of manufacturing a certain mineral whereby a ware might be made of the same nature or kind, and equal, if not exceeding in goodness and beauty, china or porcelain ware imported from abroad. The material is an earth, the produce of the Cherokee nation in America." This earth had been brought over by an American and offered to the Bow factory. Frye, then living at West Ham, became manager of the factory, which he called New Canton, and, after devoting four years to experiments in the composition of the porcelain, he took out another patent in his own name, in 1749. For fifteen years he gave all his energies to the manufacture, and, under his management and by his talents as an artist, brought it to perfection. Some of its pieces are marked with his monogram, the same monogram he used afterwards upon his mezzotints. But the laborious work and the time spent among the furnaces impaired his health; he was forced to relinquish an active share in the business, and he retired from the management in 1759.

After a tour in Wales to restore his health he resumed his profession as a portrait painter and settled in Hatton Garden, at the Golden Head and Red Lamp, near the corner of Greville Street. Here he painted portraits in oil, crayons and miniature. His miniatures were highly finished in black lead, and some were in water-colour of small size for jewellery. But his chief work now was mezzotinting which he added to his other artistic activities. He had indeed already used the scraper, for in 1737 he did a mezzotint plate of Thomas Wright, and in 1741 one of Frederick Prince of Wales after his picture in Saddlers' Hall. He now turned seriously to this form of art, but he was not content to follow in the way of other engravers. He struck out a path for himself and produced a number of heads, almost life-sized, some from his own drawings in black and white chalk. These he published in 1760 and 1761. They were unnamed and issued as fancy subjects, but were done from life. He is said to have had a difficulty in getting ladies to sit for him, as they said that they did not know in what company they would appear; and he frequented the theatres where he made surreptitious sketches of ladies in the audience. These large heads, by which he is chiefly known as an artist, are executed with much power, though they often lack vigour and decisive modelling, and the charm of mezzotint is lost on so large a scale. In 1760 he exhibited a portrait of Richard Leveridge, the singer, at the Society of Artists, as well as three miniatures and one of his large mezzotints, and he also exhibited in 1761. William Pether, who was his pupil in Hatton Garden, and under his master's influence developed into an engraver of distinction, became a partner with Frye and assisted in the engraving of some of the large heads.

Frye was very corpulent and subject to gout, and adopting a spare diet fell into consumption and died on 2nd April, 1762, in his fifty-second year. By his wife, who survived him, he had a son and two daughters. The son, the notice in the "Hibernian Magazine" tells us, "turned out an idle, drunken fellow, and after marrying a pot girl at an ale-house died in a barn in a state of intoxication." The daughters assisted their father in painting the china at Bow. One of them, Catherine, married a painter of Worcester china named Wilcox, and she and her husband were employed by Wedgwood in his works at Etruria.

"Frye," says the "Hibernian Magazine," "was open, affable and humane, and, when unsuccessful or in ill-health, patient under the pressure of affliction. He was particularly kind to young artists, whom he often permitted to stand by him while he was working in order that they might improve themselves."

In the possession of Lady Charlotte Schreiber were some memoranda and account books which belonged to John Bowcocke, an employe at the Bow Works. Frye's name frequently occurs in them.

Jeremy Bentham, Painted in 1761. [National Portrait Gallery.]

Queen Charlotte. Mezzotint, large plate; Thos. Frye pictor ad vivum delineavit et sculpsit; dated 1762. (C S. 1.)

Queen Charlotte. Similar to above, but smaller. (C. S. 2.)

Queen Charlotte. Another similar to last. (C. S. 3.) Houston, Purcell and J. Watson produced plates similar to it.

Charles Cholmondeley. Mezzotint after B. Wilson.

Alexander Cruden. Engraved by T. Kitchen as a frontispiece to Cruden's "Concordance of the Bible"; and by T. Trotter for the 1782 edition of same work.

John Theophilus Desaguliers, F.R.S. Engraved in mezzotint by R. Scaddon, 1743.

John Ellis, Painted in 1761. Engraved in mezzotint by Frye's former pupil, W. Pether; W. Pether olim Discipulus ejus Sculpsit 1781.

Frederick Prince of Wales. Painted in 1734. [Saddlers' Hall, London.] Engraved in mezzotint by T. Frye in 1741.

Thomas Frye. Mezzotint. T. Frye Pictor Invt. & Sculp., Hatton Garden 1760. This print is the last of the first series of Large Heads. (C. S. 6.)

Thomas Frye. Mezzotint. A small plate. To left T. F.; to right Ipse. (C. S. 7.)

George III. Engraved in mezzotint by W. Pether, 1762.

George III. Engraved in mezzotint by C. Spooner, Walker and Frye delint.

Thomas Haselden, head master of Royal Academy, Portsmouth. Painted in 1735. Engraved in mezzotint by J. Faber, 1740.

C. Lempriére, draughtsman in the Office of Ordnance. Painted in 1735. Engraved in mezzotint by J. Faber, 1745. This plate underwent a strange transformation, being altered to represent Hannah Snell, the woman who served as a marine; the artists' names were changed to James Wardell, pinxt; John Johnson, fecit.

Richard Leveridge, singer. [Garrick Club.] Soc. Artists, 1760. Engraved in mezzotint by W. Pether; also engraved by S. J. Saunders in 1793.

Sir Peter Thompson. Christie's, 5 Feb., 1910.

Mary, wife of Capt. Thomas Thompson. Christie's, 5 Feb., 1910.

Sir Charles Townley. National Portrait Ex., 1868, by Charles Townley.

Mrs. James Townly. [Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.]

Thomas Wright, author of "Louthiana." Mezzotint. Thos. Frye Pinxt & fecit April ye 18 1737.

A Lady. Etching; in second state, completely covered with mezzotint. Brit. Mus.


First series, 12 plates in mezzotint, published in 1760. The names of the personages are not given on the prints, which were issued without any titles. Several of the portraits have been identified with more or less certainty. The plates measure about 19 7/8 by 13 7/8 inches.

Old Man, in profile, black velvet cap; spectacles in right hand. (C. S. 9.) ? Portrait of T. Frye.

Young Girl, feather in front of hair, holding up a string of pearls with right hand. (C. S. 10.) ? Portrait of Elizabeth Countess of Berkeley.

Young Man, holding open book before him, a lighted candle to right. Same personage as No. 19. (C. S. 11.)

Young Woman, in profile, cap with black ribbon, left hand holding ermine-lined mantle. (C. S. 12.)

Man, with turban, right hand raised. Called a "Turkish Bashaw" in Boydell's Catalogue. (C. S. 13.)

Man, back of fingers of right hand to chin, cloak falling from left shoulder. Same personage as No. 9. (C. S. 14.)

Old Woman, nearly in profile, cap with dark kerchief over it, both hands leaning on top of crutch. Called a portrait of Mrs. Frye, the engraver's wife, in Boydell's Catalogue. (C S. 15.)

Man, in turban, both hands leaning on a large book upright before him. (C. S. 16.) ? Portrait of T. Frye.

Man, leaning on his left elbow, his hand to chin and forefinger pressed against cheek. Same personage as No. 14. (C. S. 17.)

Young Woman, in dark hat and mantle, right hand holding fan, left hand to cheek. (C. S. 18.)

Young Man, with frightened expression, holding up a lighted candle. Same personage as No. 11. (C. S. 19.)

Thomas Frye.—See above.

Second Series; 6 plates, published in 1761 and 1762. "Ladies very elegantly attired in the fashions, and in the most agreeable attitudes."

Lady, in lace cap, flowers and jewels, left hand holding up mantle. ? Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Argyle. (C. S. 20.)

Lady, cap with pearls worked in, right hand on left wrist. ? Portrait of Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry. (C. S. 21.)

Lady, jewelled ornament on head, right hand to breast, left hand on back of chair, holding a closed fan. ? Portrait of Miss Susan Skothouse. (C. S. 22.)

Lady, face in profile, jewelled ornament on head, right hand holding lace fall. (C. S. 23.)

Lady, with cap, right hand holding fur-lined robe across chest. (C. S. 24.)

Lady, head-dress of lace and flowers and pearls, left hand holding robe. (C S. 25.)

« — Frith | Contents and Search | Gaspare Gabrielli»