Thomas Snagg, Amateur

(b. 1746, d. 1812)


From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Thomas Snagg. Miniature, by Himself; in possession of Sir Thomas Snagge, K.C.M.G.

Was born on the 28th February, 1746, in London, where his father, Richard Snagg, and his grandfather, Henry Snagg, carried on a successful business as upholsterers. Thomas was apprenticed to his father; but on the death of the latter in 1760, and of Henry Snagg in 1763, he succeeded while still under age to their property, including a residential estate, called Holbrook, near Chislehurst. In 1764, in his nineteenth year, he was seized with the desire to become an actor. To the dismay of his family he adopted the stage as a calling, but, being possessed of independent means, more as a pastime than a profession. For stage purposes he adopted the name of Wilks, and as Snagg-Wilks he acted for some time in Manchester and other parts of the country, and afterwards at Drury Lane with Garrick, making a success as Bellamy in "The Suspicious Husband," on the occasion of the visit of the King of Denmark in August, 1768. About the year 1770 he resolved upon a visit to Ireland. "The Stage," he writes in his journal, "had long been honoured there; and a campaign in that country was considered indispensably necessary.... It was not only the standard school but the university for the establishment of a Roscius." Arrived in Dublin, he was engaged by Mossop, and was enrolled as a light comedian in the company at the Capel Street theatre, and made his first appearance there as Lord Winworth in Hugh Kelly's comedy of "False Delicacy."

His engaging presence and fascinating manner brought him immediate success, particularly in the part of Jessamy in Bickerstaff's play of "Lionel and Clarissa." In 1772 he joined the Smock Alley company under the management of Ryder, and remained there for four years. In 1777 he left Smock Alley and went to Crow Street; but soon afterwards he left the stage. During this period he married Elizabeth, daughter of Benjamin Garstin, of Dublin. The marriage, which took place on 1st June, 1773, was the sequel to a romantic elopement, in which he was aided and abetted by his friend, Henry Tresham, the artist (q.v.).

He acquired a residence, "Broomfield," in the county of Wicklow, and took up painting as an occupation, probably influenced by his friend Tresham. His wife, dying in 1774, after the birth of a son, Thomas, he a year or two afterwards disposed of Broomfield and left Ireland. On the 16th March, 1783, he married, at St. George's, Hanover Square, Sarah Lilley; and in the same year sold his property at Chislehurst and went abroad.

He travelled through Europe and for a few years lived at St. Petersburgh, and there painted a portrait of the Empress Catherine. He left St. Petersburgh in 1793, and while passing through France on his way to England he was arrested with his wife and children, and with a number of other English subjects was detained at Arras by the order of Robespierre. While in captivity he painted a picture of the interior of his prison—the disused convent of "Les Orphelins," introducing portraits of his fellow-prisoners. After the fall of Robespierre he was released early in 1794, and returned to London. His picture of the prison he had engraved, together with a key, by Peter Mazell, and published it in London in 1802.

This engraving is inscribed: "T. Snagg pinxt. Peter Mazell sculp. To the Friends of Freedom and the English who were imprisoned during the French Revolution. This Plate is humbly dedicated by their obedient servants Thos. Snagg and Peter Mazell. This plate represents the prison of the Orphelins at Arras. It was arranged by each family separating themselves with sheets trunks etc. A third storey from the ground; with brick flooring, without casements or window shutters. The prisoners had only straw to sleep on and black bread and water for subsistence. The length of the room was about 25 yards and the breadth 9. In this loft were confined 93 men and women and children. They were committed to it as hostages in Feb., 1794; their whole term of arrestation being nearly 13 months. Published as the Act directs, Feb. 5, 1802 by Peter Mazell, Clipstone Street, Marylebone, and T. Snagg, No. 25 Norton Street."

Snagg lived for a few years in London, where, by his extravagance and improvidence, he dissipated most of his inheritance, and in 1800 reappeared on the stage with a monologue entertainment with transparent views, "A Cabinet of Fancy." His wife died, and he returned to Dublin after an absence of more than a quarter of a century. In 1804 he made his only appearance as an exhibitor, sending from 172 Great Britain Street three miniatures and four landscapes in oil to the exhibition at Allen's in Dame Street.

On the 19th February, 1805, he married, for the third time, at St. Mary's Church, Mrs. Eliza Robinson, a widow, née Dobson. He continued to reside in Dublin until his death on 1st February, 1812. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Dublin, where there is an inscribed stone to his memory.

By his will (dated 5th December, 1811, and proved 24th February, 1812), he left to his wife his "painting of Killiney Bay, with two frames of miniatures containing the head of the Empress Catherine II, and that with the heads of Vandyke and Rubens." To his son by his first marriage, Thomas, he left "all the paintings of my own that I may leave, whether in oil or miniature, and all designs and drawings, with all my several apparatus." In order, apparently, to defeat this bequest to his son, his wife, a week before his death, sold by auction in Dublin on 22nd January, 1812, all his drawings, miniatures, etc., described in an advertisement as "the property and sole production of Thomas Snagg." His widow died in 1825. His son Thomas Snagg, brought up by his mother's relations, became an attorney and lived in Molesworth Street with his uncle John Garstin (d. 1808), whose daughter, Henrietta, he married in 1805. He died on 13th April, 1821, and was buried at St. Paul's, North King Street, and is described in an obituary notice as having "a vivid relish for all that is estimable in literature and the arts" (Carrick's "Morning Post").

A portrait of Thomas Snagg as a boy, painted by Mason Chamberlin, and a miniature painted by himself about 1800, belong to his great-grandson, Sir Thomas Snagge, 17 Cadogan Gardens, London. His friend Henry Tresham did a small full-length portrait of him, drawn in chalk, in 1772, representing him in the character of Jessamy in "Lionel and Clarissa." This drawing, which is signed and dated, belongs to Mr. J. G. Fottrell, Richelieu, Sydney Parade, Dublin. An engraving of it appeared in the "Hibernian Magazine" for November, 1772. A miniature copy of the drawing, on ivory, is in the possession of Sir Thomas Snagge, who has also two miniature portraits of the painter's daughters done in the prison at Arras.

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