George Henry Harlow, 1787 - 1819
Portrait of Mrs Thomas Wright Hill, Nee Sarah Lea (1765–1842)
Mrs Thomas Wright Hill, Nee Sarah Lea
1st April 1790
Oil on Canvas
76 x 64 cm. (30 x 25 in.)


Sarah Lea (1765–1842) married Thomas Wright Hill  on 29 July 1791 at St Martin's Church, Birmingham and had 8 children:

  1. Matthew Davenport Hill (1792–1872), the criminal law reformer
  2. Edwin Hill (1793–1876), mechanical inventor and writer on currency
  3. Rowland Hill (1795–1879), the postal reformer
  4. Arthur Hill (1798–1885), headmaster of Bruce Castle School
  5. Caroline Hill (1800–1877), married Francis Clark and in 1850 emigrated to Adelaide, South Australia
  6. Frederic Hill (1803–1896), inspector of prisons, assistant secretary of Post Office
  7. William Howard Hill (1805–1830)
  8. Sarah Hill (1807–1840)

Thomas Wright Hill (24 April 1763 in Kidderminster – 13 June 1851 in Tottenham) was a mathematician and schoolmaster. He is credited as inventing the single transferable vote in 1819. His son, Rowland Hill, famous as the originator of the modern postal system, introduced STV in 1840 into the world's first public election, for the Adelaide City Council, in which the principle of proportional representation was applied.

In 1791, Thomas Wright Hill courageously tried to save the apparatus of Dr Joseph Priestley from a mob in the Birmingham 'Church and King' riots of 1791—the offer was declined.

He was interested in astronomy, being a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in computers, as is shown by a letter of his to Charles Babbage, dated March 23, 1836, among the Babbage manuscripts at the British Library, returning some logarithm tables that he had borrowed and adding "How happy I shall be when I can see such a work verified and enlarged by your divine machine".


Hill and education

He started work as a brassfounder, but was more interested in intellectual pursuits, so in 1802 he bought a boys' school on Lionel Street, Birmingham moving it to Hill Top, Gough Street. In 1819, it moved again to a new purpose-built school designed by Rowland at Hazelbrook called Hazelwood on Hagley Road in Edgbaston.

From the start the school seems to have been out of the ordinary. In its original prospectus Hill says that "he will make it his study to excite [his pupils'] reasoning powers, and to induce in them habits of voluntary application ... he will always endeavour, by kindness and patience, to secure for himself their affection and esteem"; perhaps not revolutionary aims nowadays, but this was more than 25 years before Thomas Arnold became headmaster of Rugby or Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby. It is also noteworthy that he was offering "instruction in art and science". How many schools at that date would have thought of including science in their curriculum?

At Hazelwood School, with his sons now bearing a full share in its running, it became a school in which the rules were formed by a committee of the boys, elected by the boys, and enforced by the boys' own law court. Whether or not that is a good way to run a school, the amazing thing is that it existed at all at that time.

In 1827 a London branch of the school was opened at Bruce Castle, Tottenham, and within a few years all the Hazelwood students had transferred to Bruce Castle, which had been taken over almost entirely by his sons. Hazelwood then became the home of Francis Clark and his wife Caroline (daughter of Thomas Wright Hill) and their large and growing family. They remained there for fifteen years before emigrating to South Australia.

Political views and activities

Thomas Hill and his sons had strong political views which, at that time, were certainly radical, but always with the conviction that reforms had to come by persuasion, and constitutionally, not by violence. During the agitation leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832, the fifth son Frederic Hill was freed from duties at the school to devote his time to an active part in the struggle as part of the Birmingham Union. A letter to his son Edwin, dated May 15, 1832, says "These my dear boy are stirring times ... the enthusiasm and unanimity of the mass who form the Birmingham Union is at once delightful and astonishing. I hope that it will be kept quite within the law. Let the honour of a vigour surmounting that boundary belong to our adversaries; they will not find such forbearance as they may have met with in days past". As his contribution to the cause "I am abstaining from tea, coffee, sugar etc., as taxed articles. Would that the massive unions would concur. The revenue then would soon require parliamentary help, and funds would be reserved for useful purposes. But this kind of passive procedure is too much to hope for as a general procedure".

He does not seem to have disapproved of a little political trickery, provided the right side was doing it. Writing to his wife, dated May 11, 1831, about the "patriotic fellows of Haddington" including her brother, he says "Their district has five boroughs which choose a member of parliament by one [delegate] from each borough. Haddington was firm and Jedburgh was firm in the good cause. Dunbar was Rotten and the same was North Berwick. Lauder had seven good men in the council out of sixteen. By excellent management the men of Haddington brought away two councilmen from Lauder and entertained them until the business was accomplished, so that now three delegates out of the five are sound reformers ... It is a glorious victory and a proud thing for us to have so near a relative bearing such a part in it".

In spite of radical views, he evidently thought well of King George III, for in a letter dated February 9, 1820, just after George IV's accession, he wrote to his son Matthew "How did your taste accord with bell-ringing and huzzas at the King's proclamation? To me, connected as it was with the death of our late aged and virtuous monarch it was revolting, even to hear of; I saw nothing of the pageantry".

Hill and the single transferable vote

In 1819, Thomas and Rowland were instrumental in founding the Society for Literary and Scientific Improvement of Birmingham. The Society's bylaws include a description of Hill's method of proportional representation, the earliest known version of the single transferable vote:

X. At the first meeting in April, and also in October, a Committee shall be elected, which shall consist of at least one fifth of the members of the society. The mode of election shall be as follows. A ticket shall be delivered to each member present, with his own name at the head of it, immediately under which he shall write the name of the member whom he may wish to represent him in the Committee. The votes thus given shall be delivered to the president, who, after having assorted them, shall report to the meeting the number of votes given for each nominee. Every one who has five votes shall be declared a member of the committee; if there are more than five votes given to any one person, the surplus votes, (to be selected by lot) shall be returned to the electors whose names they bear, for the purpose of making other nominations, and this process shall be repeated till no surplus votes remain, when all the inefficient votes shall be returned to the respective electors, and the same routine shall be gone through a second time, and also a third time if necessary; when if a number is elected, equal in all to one half of the number of which the committee should consist, they shall be a committee; and if at the close of the meeting the number is not filled up, by unanimous votes of five for each member of the committee, given by those persons whose votes were returned to them at the end of the third election, then this committee shall have the power, and shall be required, to choose persons to fill up their number; and the constituents of each member so elected shall, if necessary, be determined by lot. …

Hill's grandson (and Rowland's nephew) George Birkbeck Norman Hill wrote, "The plan of election had been devised by his [Rowland's] father who … was strongly in favour of the representation of minorities."

In 1821, Hill used an informal version of proportional representation in his school.

…[Hill's] pupils were asked to elect a committee by standing beside the boy they liked best. This first produced a number of unequal groups, but soon the boys in the largest groups came to the conclusion that not all of them were actually necessary for the election of their favourite and some moved on to help another candidate, while on the other hand the few supporters of an unpopular boy gave him up as hopeless and transferred themselves to the candidate they considered the next best. The final result was that a number of candidates equal to the number required for the committee were each surrounded by the same number of supporters, with only two or three boys left over who were dissatisfied with all those elected. This is an admirable example of the use of STV.

Although this seems likely to be true, when Enid Lakeman was asked for the source of it she could not remember it. It would be wise to regard it with caution until an original reference can be found.

Artist biography

Harlow, George Henry (1787–1819), painter, was born on 10 June 1787 in St James's Street, London, the youngest child and only son of a merchant of Canton, China, who died in February 1787, four months before he was born.

Early years and education

Harlow was brought up by his mother, Elizabeth (1759/60–1809), who was widowed at the age of twenty-seven; of his five sisters only one survived to adulthood. From a young age he attended Dr Barrow's classical school in Soho Square, London; then he was sent to a Mr Roy in Burlington Street before his interest in drawing led to his being placed with the landscape draughtsman Henry de Cort. Next he became the pupil of the painter Samuel Drummond and, having rejected the offer made by friends of his father of a writership in India, when about fifteen entered the studio of the celebrated portrait painter Thomas Lawrence. A memorandum of an agreement dated 9 December 1803 made between Lawrence and Elizabeth Harlow records that from that day for one year Harlow would ‘faithfully serve and assist’ Lawrence ‘in his art or profession of a portrait painter’, and that in return Lawrence would ‘to the best of his abilities teach and instruct … Harlowe in the Art or profession of a portrait painter’ and ‘at his own expence find and provide … Harlowe with all such Canvas colours paints brushes and other ingredients’ (Lawrence papers, RA, Law 1/105). On the same day Joseph Farington noted in his diary that ‘Lawrence has got a young pupil of 15 years of age, who draws, Lane says, better than He does. His name is Harlow’ (Farington, Diary, 5.1943).

With his mother, who ‘spoiled her good-looking boy’ (Redgrave, Artists, 198), and two surviving sisters Harlow left Queen Street, Mayfair, to lodge with a Mr Hamilton in Dean Street, Soho. Two years later Mrs Harlow retired to the country leaving Harlow, aged seventeen, with one sister in London. Described by J. T. Smith, biographer of the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, as ‘naturally vain’, Harlow ‘became ridiculously foppish, and by dressing to the extreme of fashion, was often the laughing-stock of his brother artists’ (Smith, 2.410). John Knowles, biographer of Henry Fuseli, who supported Harlow when others remained critical, also noted that:

Harlow proved himself, on many occasions, to be among the vainest of men … It is said that he had affected a sort of swagger in his gait, and unlicensed audacity in speech, from a belief that they became him, and that it was proper to mark out a man of genius from the … crowds. (Cunningham, 5.286, 288)

His foibles led his friends to give him the nickname Clarissa Harlowe (many later references to Harlow include the final ‘e’ to his surname). Following a breach with Lawrence about a painting, Harlow stayed at the Queen's Head, Epsom, where, to discharge his bill, he painted a signboard in a style caricaturing that of his master which he signed ‘T. L., Greek Street, Soho’ (ibid., 279). After this rupture Harlow did not seek further instruction but went on to paint ‘at a low price many of the actors of the day, and thus fell into their society, and being of an easy, careless disposition, soon became embarrassed in his affairs’ (Redgrave, Artists, 198).

Portraits of artists

From 1804 Harlow had sent works for exhibition at the Royal Academy, where in 1806 he exhibited a drawing of his mother, who died in 1809 when Harlow was twenty-two. After completing a few historical pictures including Bolingbroke's Entry into London and Queen Elizabeth Striking the Earl of Essex (exh. RA, 1807) he turned his attention to portraits. He was an excellent draughtsman and his portraits, whether in oils, pencil, chalk, or crayon, show much sensitivity. Redgrave notes that:

in 1815 he commenced a series of small size [portraits], of eminent painters and some of the notorieties of the day; they are refined, yet broadly finished, and full of character. He also made portrait sketches in chalk, slightly tinting the face, many of them admirable in taste and manner. Several of his portraits were engraved. (Redgrave, Artists, 198)

They included one of Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy (exh. RA, 1815; Sothebys, 9 November 1994, lot 62), who appears to have shown some encouragement to Harlow. In June 1817 Joseph Farington recorded that ‘West last night, was at the British Institution and had Harlowe under His care & introduced Him to many of the principal people there’ (Farington, Diary, 14.5029). At the end of that month he noted, ‘Lord Abercorn sitting to Harlowe’ (ibid.). Harlow also made a portrait of Colonel George Wyndham, first Baron Leconfield, eldest son of the third earl of Egremont, the munificent patron of J. M. W. Turner and other notable contemporary artists. In 1816 Harlow exhibited portraits of two Royal Academicians, James Northcote and Sir William Beechey, and the following year another of Northcote and one of Henry Fuseli (Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection), which was commissioned by John Knowles and subsequently reproduced in his biography of Fuseli. He also made a drawing of the sculptor Peter Turnerelli and another of Thomas Rowlandson (1814; Hunt. L.). There is an oil sketch of Thomas Stothard at Petworth House, Sussex, showing, in the background, Stothard's Mars and Venus. Of two self-portrait drawings one, signed and dated 1810, is in the National Portrait Gallery and another, signed and dated 1813, is in a private collection. J. T. Smith commented:

of the immense number of portraits painted of Northcote, perhaps the one by Harlow may be fairly appreciated as the best likeness … [He] also made a highly spirited beginning of a portrait of Nollekens [and] produced one of the most dignified and characteristic likenesses of Fuseli, for which that artist threw himself into a position, and gave the Painter every possible advantage, by affording him numerous sittings … From its richness of colouring, grandeur of effect, and exquisite finish [it may be] fairly considered as the chef-d'œuvre of that highly-talented Artist, though perhaps most improvident of men. (Smith, 2.410)

Financially dependent, as most artists then were, on portrait commissions, and seeking further patronage through the exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy, Harlow evidently sought also to redeem his early loss of position as Lawrence's pupil by seeking the notice of other academicians and thus to gain a stronger foothold within the academy. His series of artists' portraits was done ‘con amore and gratis’ (Literary Gazette, 202). In 1816, however, his candidacy for associate status within the academy received only one vote (from Fuseli, who commented, ‘I voted for the talent—not for the man!’ (Cunningham, 5.281)).

Portrait drawings

Of Harlow's portrait drawings that of Haydon reproduced as the frontispiece to The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1926) is similar in format to several others, including a fine one of William Godwin, signed and dated 1816 (priv. coll.), and the elegant and highly finished chalk drawing of Lord Byron (c.1815; priv. coll.) engraved by Henry Meyer for the New Monthly Magazine (July 1815). The fashionable fencing master Henry Angelo recollected that ‘Harlow … whom I had known from a boy, made two drawings (through my recommendation), one of his lordship, another of his sister’ (Angelo, 131). While staying with Charles Madryll Cheere at Papworth Hall, Cambridgshire, Harlow wrote on 8 August 1815 to Henry Colburn, publisher of the Monthly Magazine, stating, ‘We are all great admirers of Lord Byron here and it would be very gratifying to give away a print or two of him to my friends’ (Michael Silverman sale catalogue). Harlow's obituarist recorded that ‘Mr Harlow was in the habit of drawing, and depositing in a book, the likenesses of eminent persons with whom he was struck on meeting them in company. These are among the most precious of his remains.’ (Literary Gazette, 202) Of those mentioned many are signed with Harlow's initials G. H. H. or sometimes G. H. Harlow and dated with the day, month, and year. Other sitters included the Gothic novelist M. G. (Monk) Lewis (engraving by J. Hollis, repr. in Finden's illustrations to … Byron, 1834); Horace and James Smith, authors of Rejected Addresses (1812); and the actors Elizabeth Inchbald (1814), Robert Elliston (1814), John Kemble, and Charles Mathews (first two, Garrick Club, London). Others are listed in the catalogue of the posthumous sale of ‘a few capital original pictures, studies and drawings, the works of G. H. Harlow’ held ‘by Mr Christie’ on 3 June 1820 (Catalogue).

Theatrical portraits

Of Harlow's other known portraits in oil, those of actors form a distinctive group. These include Robert Elliston (c.1808), John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus (c.1808), A Group of Portraits of Mr Mathews in Private, and in Various Characters (exh. RA, 1814; engraved Henry Meyer 1817, and W. Greatbach for Mathew's Memoirs, 1838), Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth (c.1813), another Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth (c.1814), and Catherine Stephens as Diana Vernon (c.1818; all Garrick Club, London, all repr. in Ashton). All these portraits were formerly in the collection of the actor Charles Mathews, who was a close friend of Harlow's. A small bust-length portrait in a painted oval of Catherine Stephens, afterwards countess of Essex (engraved by W. Say, 1816), is at Petworth. For portraits such as the small whole length of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, Harlow charged 20 guineas.

The picture for which Harlow became celebrated when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1817 was entitled Court Scene for the Trial of Queen Katharine: Queen, ‘Lord Cardinal, to you I Speak.’—Henry VIII (priv. coll.), an indication that it was as a theatrical rather than a historical picture that Harlow intended it to be received. A reduced autograph replica is in the Royal Shakespeare Company collection, Stratford upon Avon (repr. Solkin, 122). It was originally commissioned by Thomas Welsh, the singer and composer, for 100 guineas, as a portrait from memory of Sarah Siddons as Queen Katherine; the actress subsequently, and at Welsh's request, gave Harlow a sitting and he then expanded the portrait into the trial scene. Exhibited five years after Siddons's official retirement:

[that] Harlow's picture was one of the most enduring theatrical images of the 19th century is demonstrated by the fact that most subsequent productions of Henry VIIIduring that century used it as the basis for their arrangement of the trial scene. Even 70 years later, Ellen Terry based her interpretation of Queen Katherine on that of Sarah Siddons and her trial scene on Harlow's picture. (Ashton, 393)

In April 1817 Farington noted that ‘Sir G. & Lady Beaumont were strongly impressed with the excellence of a picture by Harlowe, representing the Kemble family in characters forming a Scene in the Play of Henry 8th’ (Farington, Diary, 14.4998), but that ‘it was certainly a work which approached towards vicious art, finery & ostentatious display’ (ibid., 5008). Intended for display on the densely hung walls of the academy's great room where exhibited works competed for the attention of a large crowd of viewers, this work, with the melodramatic expressions and gestures of its characters, heightened by rich colouring and a composition that conveys an impression of deep three-dimensional space, was nevertheless highly successful as a theatrical genre painting. Fuseli advised Harlow on compositional details, including the placing of the two page boys in the foreground ‘to throw the eye of the spectator into the picture’ (Cunningham, 5.285). Harlow included in the painting a self-portrait; he is standing immediately to the left of the cross behind the cardinal. The copyright to a plate for engraving the painting was sold for 500 guineas, and the mezzotint by George Clint further enhanced its popularity.

Visit to Italy

Following the exhibition of three of his works at the Royal Academy in 1818 Harlow left on 22 June for Italy accompanied by his servant, William Gravely. During the early part of his visit he made a second drawing of Byron (John Murray, London) that is inscribed in Byron's handwriting ‘Byron. Venizia Ao 6. 1818’. That Harlow visited Byron at the Palazzo Mocenigo, Venice, where he also made a pendent drawing of Byron's housekeeper, Margarita Cogni, La Fornarina (John Murray, London), suggests a degree of intimacy between sitter and artist that went beyond the conventions of a formal portrait sitting. It was at Byron's instigation that Countess Benzoni provided a letter of introduction for Harlow (‘forwarded to Mr. H. Poste Restante Florence’) to the celebrated Italian sculptor Antonio Canova in Rome (Christies autograph letter sale catalogue, 22 October 1980, lot 126). At Rome, Harlow worked extremely hard: in eighteen days he made a copy of Raphael's Transfiguration (1517–20; Pinacoteca, Vatican, Rome). Earlier, at Venice, he had copied Tintoretto's Crucifixion (1565; Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice). From his lodgings at ‘4 Piazza Rosa, secundo piano in casa di Polidori, Roma’ he wrote on 23 November 1818 to a friend in London, Mr Tomkisson, a musical instrument maker in Dean Street, Soho, ‘I shall send the Transfiguration, which I think will make a stare in England, with other pictures, sketches, and prints’ (Literary Gazette, 203). After exhibiting his painting Wolsey Receiving the Cardinal's Hat in Westminster Abbey together with other works at Canova's house, he presented Wolsey to the Accademia di San Luca, Rome, and sent the finished sketch to England (Tabley House, University of Manchester). He was elected to the Rome academy, and invited to submit his own portrait (1818) to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Painted in the bravura style of Lawrence, this self-portrait leaves no doubt of Harlow's intention to claim the mantle of his master. To Tomkisson, Harlow noted further that he ‘was much pleased with Naples, stayed ten days; went to Portici, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, and ascended Mount Vesuvius … red hot ashes came tumbling down continually where I stood sketching’ (Smith, 2.412). Canova ‘expressed the highest admiration for Harlow’ and introduced him to Pope Pius VII (Literary Gazette, 202):

I am to be presented to the Pope either on the 2d or 3d of next month … I leave Rome directly after; perhaps the next day—a day that I most sincerely dread, for I have become so attached to the place and the people, that I expect a great struggle with myself. (Smith, 2.413)

After his triumphal visit to Rome, Harlow was elected a member of the Florence academy on his way home and landed at Dover on 13 January 1819 with a sore throat. His complaint soon became more serious and he took to his bed at his home, 83 Dean Street, Soho, London, where he died on 4 February 1819. He was buried on 16 February in St James's Church, Piccadilly, where his funeral was attended by Sir William Beechey RA and the enamellist Henry Bone. Joseph Farington confided to his diary on 27 February that John Aytoun, who had seen Harlow shortly before he died, had spoken to him of Harlow's death:

He had an external swelling in His throat, which [was] supposed to be the Mumps. It increased to a very large size & so disfigured Him that He would only admit to His room, Mr. Andrews, a Medical friend and a Servant, so unwilling was he to be seen under such an appearance … Such was His situation when He died, that had not Tijou, the frame maker, come forward to take charge of his funeral, He must have been buried at the expence of the Parish. (Farington, Diary, 15.5333)


‘That Genius must have panted for posthumous fame’ (Lawrence to Farington, 20 March 1819, RA, Law 3/19, fol. 7). Lawrence's comment comes at the end of a letter written from Vienna—where, before proceeding to Rome, he was painting portraits of sovereigns, statesmen, and generals which form part of his brilliant series done for ‘His late Majesty [George IV] FOR THE WATERLOO GALLERY AT WINDSOR’ (Millar, 1.xxxv). Replying to Joseph Farington's letter bearing news of Harlow's death, Lawrence's letter covers three folio sheets in closely written small handwriting, and is wholly devoted to his reflections on his former pupil. Though, to his close friend, he referred candidly to Harlow's former ‘defects’ he averred that:

No one I believe appreciated his Genius more highly than myself … I for one, had prepared myself for many an arduous struggle with him hereafter. … When I heard that he had copied the Transfiguration at Rome … it confirmed my Impression of his Genius, and the superiority of his Taste. … While he was with me his application was unremitting; and although every now and then he was disquieting to his Profession, at so early an Age … [he] had more than the usual follies of Youth to combat … So rare as is the appearance of great power in Art, one must wonder … that it is given to the World so suddenly to be withdrawn. (Lawrence to Farington, 20 March 1819, RA, Law 3/19, fol. 7)

Farington replied, ‘He appears to have been sadly and strangely neglected during his illness, and, if better attended and with proper medical advice, might probably have recovered’ (Farington to Lawrence, 6 April 1819, RA, Law 3/26). An ‘Exhibition of paintings and drawings of the late Mr George Henry Harlow’ held at 87 Pall Mall, London, in 1819, which included his sketches and sketchbooks, helped to discharge Harlow's debts to creditors of whom Welsh was the principal. Two sales held at Fosters on 21 June 1819 and Christies on 3 June 1820 comprised paintings and drawings by Harlow, including his Italian studies, the original sketch for Wolsey, and casts from antique sculpture which he acquired in Italy.

Although expressive of a different facet of Romanticism, like those of his contemporary, the landscape painter Thomas Girtin, who died at twenty-seven, Harlow's late works, for example, The Proposal (c.1819; ex Christies, New York, 11 January 1995, lot 36), demonstrate an assurance of style and interpretation in which his artistic future is clearly evident. He was celebrated for his own ‘unrivalled brilliance’ and ‘incomparable ability’ (Millar, 1.xxxiii), and Lawrence's opinion of Harlow's ‘Genius’ acknowledges his pupil's ascendancy and confirms that, had he lived, Harlow's success at Rome would undoubtedly have consolidated his position at home among the first painters of his age.

Annette Peach   DNB