Thomas Hickey, 1741 - 1824
Portrait of Thomas Hollis 1720 -1774
Portrait of Thomas Hollis
Oil on Canvas
27.50 x 22 cm. (10.3/4 x 8.3/4 in.)


Hollis, Thomas (1720–1774), political propagandist, was born in London on 14 April 1720, the only child of Thomas Hollis (d. 1735) and the daughter of a Mr Scott of Wolverhampton, in whose household he lived until he was four or five years old. His great-great-grandfather had been a Baptist whitesmith in Rotherham, Yorkshire, and his great-grandfather established a London branch of the cutlery business. Hollis was educated at the free school in Newport, Shropshire, until the age of nine or ten, then in St Albans, and for fifteen months in Amsterdam, where he learned Dutch, French, writing, arithmetic, and accounts in preparation for a business career. He lived with his father, who died in 1735, and then under the guardianship of John Hollister, and was trained to public service partly by John Ward of Gresham College, London. He took chambers in Lincoln's Inn, though without reading law, from February 1740 to 1748. By then he was rich, having inherited from his uncle as well as his father and, in 1738, his grandfather. In 1748–9 he toured Europe with his friend Thomas Brand (later Brand Hollis), and, during 1750–53, largely on his own, meeting many leading French philosophes and several Italian painters. Back in England he was an ardent member of the Society of Arts, for a time chairing its committee on the polite arts. A member himself, he proposed Piranesi for membership of the Society of Antiquaries, gave numerous commissions to Cipriani, and, as one of Canaletto's best friends in England, commissioned six paintings from him. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1757. Sometimes accused of being an atheist, Hollis was a rational dissenter who supported Caleb Fleming's ministry at Pinners' Hall. In common with many contemporaries he was rabidly anti-Catholic and campaigned vigorously against popery; he became convinced that he was the intended victim of a Catholic plot. He had many connections, among them liberal churchmen such as Francis Blackburne and Theophilus Lindsey, John Wilkes, several peers, and especially the elder William Pitt (though this friendship was suspended when Pitt accepted a peerage in 1766 and resumed only about 1771).

Hollis believed citizenship should be active: individuals had an important role to play in public life. He partly fulfilled this responsibility by charitable work as a governor of Guy's and St Thomas's hospitals, and a guardian of the asylum and Magdalen Hospital. Applauding Wilkes's cause privately, he deplored political bribery and declined to stand for parliament at Dorchester in 1761. He believed that legitimate government was contractual, and that the people as constituent authority were entitled to replace tyrants by new governments. As a republican Hollis provided material for Catharine Macaulay's History of England. Yet he was also a patriotic Englishman and warm supporter of the house of Hanover. His heroes were Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, and Pitt, all of whom extended England's international standing, as well as John Milton, his particular hero.

Convinced of the decadence of his own times but hopeful for the future, Hollis's principal contribution to public service was the protection and advancement of English liberty by circulating appropriate books on government, for he argued that ‘if government goes right, all goes right’ (Robbins, ‘Library’, 8). From 1754 onwards he reprinted and distributed literature from the seventeenth-century republican canon, thus keeping the cause of parliamentary reform alive during a difficult period. Among the works were Toland's Life of Milton, tracts by Marchmont Nedham, Henry Neville, and Philip Sidney, and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government; they were elegantly bound to give them greater effect and tooled with libertarian ornaments such as the liberty cap and owl. He also designed and distributed medals based on Greek and Roman models and prints as part of his plan. Initially the tracts were directed towards libraries throughout Britain and continental Europe; later he turned his generosity to America.

Continuing his great-uncle Thomas's practice, Hollis was a great benefactor to American colleges, especially Harvard, sending donations and numerous books, often decorated with libertarian symbols. From 1755 his principal American correspondent was Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, and, after his death in 1766, Andrew Eliot. He also followed worsening Anglo-American political relations during the 1760s. Declining to participate directly in politics he published short pieces in the newspapers and printed and circulated colonial tracts in Britain, frequently subsidizing the printers to ensure their appearance. In particular he contributed to the successful campaign against the appointment of an American bishop by reprinting sermons by Mayhew and others. He also compiled The True Sentiments of America in 1768; it incorporated John Adams's Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, which he greatly admired. But he denied inciting the colonies to independence.

Horace Walpole considered Hollis ‘as simple a poor soul as ever existed’ (Robbins, ‘Strenuous whig’, 409). Cipriani, who described him as over 6 feet tall, Herculean in size and strength, and possessing bright brown eyes, a short nose, and laughing mouth, remarked on his gentleness and sweetness of manner. His diet was eccentric, but he kept himself fit by walking, riding, and fencing. Exhausted by the effort of what he originally intended as only a ten-year campaign to disseminate libertarian tracts, Hollis retired in 1770 to Urles Farm, at Corscombe, Dorset, where he owned about 3000 acres. He died there suddenly on 1 January 1774, and was buried in one of his fields and the grave ploughed over. He was unmarried, and after minor legacies left his estates to Thomas Brand, who added Hollis's name to his own.

Colin Bonwick  DNB

Artist biography

Hickey, Thomas (1741–1824), portrait painter and traveller, was born in Dublin in May 1741, the second son of Noah Hickey, a confectioner in Capel Street there. Between 1753 and 1756 he studied at the Royal Dublin Society Schools, where he won several prizes. His earliest portraits, chalk drawings of 1758 and 1759, are in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. In April 1762 George Dance reported him in Rome ‘a very agreeable young man’ (Ingamells, 496) who had been recommended by one Captain Smith and William Dance (a miniaturist, brother of George). He was still there in April 1765, living in the strada Felice, and in May 1765 he visited Naples. He was said to have been one of those artists who paid court to Angelica Kauffman (who was in Rome from January 1763 to June 1765). In May 1767 he was back in Dublin, where he exhibited with the Society of Artists during 1768–70, before moving to London. He exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy (1772–6), and in 1775 his sitters included the duke of Cumberland and the actress Mrs Abington (Garrick Club, London). In December 1776 he moved to Bath for two years, where he painted two full-length portraits of masters of ceremonies, William Dawson and William Brereton (both engraved).

On 26 March 1780 Hickey received permission from the East India Company to go to India, and on 6 July Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote on his behalf to Warren Hastings, recommending ‘a very ingenious young painter’ who wished ‘to make a trial of his own abilities’ (Archer, 206). Hickey sailed from Portsmouth on 27 July but the convoy of five vessels was captured by the French and Spanish on 9 August. Hickey was taken to Cadiz but released as a non-combatant; he made his way to Lisbon where, for three years, he established a profitable practice as a portrait painter. In 1782 he was living in ‘four handsome rooms on the ground floor of Mrs Williams' hotel’ (Memoirs, 2.386). The elegant Girl Leaning on a Piano in the Tate collection belongs to this period. At the close of 1783 he left Lisbon and arrived at Calcutta in March 1784.

For three years Hickey had considerable success, living in ‘a large handsome house in the most fashionable part’ (Memoirs, 3.202) and enjoying the patronage of the attorney William Hickey (who was not related). The Indian Lady of 1787 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), possibly Jemdanee, William Hickey's bibi, remains one of his finest pictures. Late in 1786 the painter John Zoffany returned to Calcutta, and Hickey's practice declined. He turned to compiling a History of Ancient Painting and Sculpture, the first, and only, volume of which was published in 1788; future volumes, the Calcutta Chronicle announced in February 1789, would have to await further research by the author in Europe. From February 1789 Hickey had some success in Madras, but he was back in Calcutta by 1790. In January 1791 he sailed home.

Hickey again encountered a lack of business, although he was able to exhibit the portrait of a nobleman at the Royal Academy in 1792. He was preparing to return to India in February when he received an invitation from Lord Macartney, whose portrait he had previously painted, to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to Peking (Beijing). The mission lasted from September 1792 to September 1794, during which Hickey entertained Macartney with shrewd and clever conversation, but devoted more time to writing than to drawing or painting.

On his return, Hickey spent four years in London and Dublin, without any marked success. Early in 1798 he returned for the last time to India with his two daughters (but nothing is recorded of his marriage). They had left London by 23 February 1798 and arrived at Madras later in the year. The Anglo-Mysore wars, establishing British ascendancy in southern India, were then in their final throes; in May 1799 Tipu Sultan was slain and Seringapatam was taken. Hickey found himself the only portrait painter on the spot and his services were urgently sought. He made chalk drawings of fifty-five British officers (Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire) which were much admired, and he intended to paint a series of large history paintings describing the last Mysore war, which never materialized. Portraiture took up all his time: in 1799 he painted a full-length portrait of Lord Mornington, the British supreme commander, for the Exchange at Madras (Apsley House, London); a series of sixteen Indian dignitaries for Government House, Calcutta, was completed in 1805, and there were many portraits of British inhabitants, of which the full-length of William Kirkpatrick (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) was perhaps the most accomplished.

In 1804, when a history of the East India Company was being contemplated, Hickey unsuccessfully proposed himself as the company's historical and portrait painter with responsibility for describing the different Indian inhabitants and their surroundings. In May 1807 he moved to Calcutta where he stayed five years, although only one portrait has been identified from this period. In December 1812 he was invited back to Madras, where he settled with his elder daughter. He was much employed in repairing paintings and few of his portraits survive from these years. The last was of the celebrated Indologist the Abbé Dubois in ‘Bramanical costume’, painted in 1823 (Madras Literary Society). Hickey died at Madras in May 1824 at the age of eighty-three.

Throughout his restless career Hickey never quite attained eminence as a painter, and he was frequently concerned over his prospects. Though his drawings could be vigorous, his paintings, particularly the whole-length presentation pieces, tended to be wooden; ‘combination & general effect are the great difficulties’, wrote Lord Sydenham in 1800, ‘and we are yet to know whether Mr Hickey possesses these requisites’ (Archer, 221). It is, however, apparent that Hickey's personal charm and erudition, quite apart from his extensive experience of the world, considerably helped his social progress.