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. He was a fifth-generation descendant of a long line of deeply religious protestant non-conformists with strong Whig political principles,and inherited substantial fortunes on the death first of his father and then his grandfather. His ancestors had been successful cutlers in Rotherham.

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. Having returned to England in 1755 aged 35, after almost six years in Europe on the Grand Tour (often in the company of his life-long friend Thomas Brand) when he had observed “varying degrees of foreign despotism and misrule”, Hollis (then based mostly in London) resolved to devote his inexhaustible energy to a “plan” dedicated “to the private service of English liberty”. Hollis’s abhorrence at the corruption then inherent in the electoral system and his repulsion at the necessity for conformity led him to eschew a career in Parliament, a course usually available to an individual of wealth and refinement, but he determined to do privately everything in his power to promote civil and religious freedom. It was in the pursuit of his plan that Hollis’s relationship with the artistic world manifested itself. Hollis was also a man of charitable disposition, financially and in other ways supporting the Foundling Hospital, Guy’s Hospital, Lock’s Hospital, St. Thomas’s Hospital, The Asylum and the Magdalen Charity.

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 had believed that the British political system offered the best example among European models of government for fostering the defence of civil and religious liberty. That pre-eminence arose out of the struggles of the British Parliamentarians against the Crown in the seventeenth century and the final recognition that ultimate power resided not in the monarch but rather in the people through their elected representatives.

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.  Although Hollis sought anonymity for his many literary, political and philanthropic activities, and largely managed not to draw public attention to himself during his life - which is one reason why his death was not marked by an outpouring of grief expressed in poetry - there is little doubt that he was a major influence on both the artistic and political scenes of his time. In Hollis’s opinion the leadership of William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) epitomised the commercial, imperial and constitutional virtues of Whig liberty. Forced by opinion on George II “to save the nation”, Pitt, from a commercial background, led the House of Commons and organised thevictories of 1759 over France which consolidated British sea power and brought territorial gains in India and Canada. During that period, Hollis extended his acts of charity to the Marine Society, the Troop Society and the Committee for the Relief of French Prisoners. Despite Britain’s success in that war and its triumphs over regimes Hollis disapproved, he was soon to observe Whig virtuosity decline as George III manifested the desire, following his accession in 1760, to re-assert his Royal  authority after more than 50 years of Whig control of Parliament and government under the first two Hanoverian kings. In this policy, George was ably assisted by his favourite, John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (1713-1792), who became chief minister in 1761 and remained the major and “malign influence” on the King long after Bute ceased to be prime minister in 1763. George III’s desire to be perceived as peacemaker infused Bute’s challenge to the war effort which had been so ably managed by Pitt and led, in due course, to a peace treaty under which many perceived that the territorial gains and various conquests during the war had been squandered.

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.

The zeal that Hollis henceforth applied to the execution of his plan was further  increased by certain ‘tyrannical’ conduct of those who wielded the instruments of power in the name of the young King, such as the abuse of governmental authority evidenced by the suppression of civil liberty and the press in the Wilkes affair, and the growing mismanagement of the American colonies by the enactment of penal and coercive legislation. The former matter concerned the arrest for sedition of the politician and writer John Wilkes (1725-1797) for having attacked the King’s speech
to Parliament in 1763 (written by Bute) praising the terms of the peace treaty with France, a treaty whose terms were scorned by many, including Hollis. As regards the American colonies, their mismanagement from London was typified by the Stamp Act, which sought to tax legal transactions of subjects who were themselves denied representation in Parliament and, as Professor William Bond observed, was to imbue Hollis with a “premonition of the American Revolution, a prospect that he laboured mightily to prevent and mercifully did not live to see”. On 11 February 1766, two
months before the repeal of the Stamp Act (following a campaign supported by Pitt who had been out of office since 1761), Hollis recorded in his diary that the treatment of the colonists was “tending to the greatest extremities, unless prevented by healing measures immediately from home.” Hollis’s attempts to secure fairer treatment for the colonists from the British government, especially over the Stamp Act, meant that he was courted by the leading members of the Americanpolitical élite including Jonathan Mayhew (a leading propagandist and one of the key formers of American revolutionary ideology), Andrew Elliot, Benjamin Franklin and  John Adams. These connections were greatly strengthened by Hollis’s private opposition to Archbishop Thomas Secker’s proposal to establish an episcopate in the New England colonies – Hollis sharing the view of his later biographer, Archdeacon Francis Blackburne, “that Episcopacy, as it is administered in our View, is a dead Weight upon Christian Piety”. Following the repeal of the Stamp Act, and as relations later deteriorated between the Motherland and the colonists, Hollis wrote in his diary for 3 June 1768 that, “unless there should prove that wisdom in Administration here at home, which I fear is not, the N. A. Colonies will break from us!” On 25 August 1768, he recorded his view that “the whole Equity lies on the side of the North Americans.” Hollis’s efforts on behalf of the colonists and his airing of their grievances on this side of the Atlantic led him to arrange the publication and distribution of a substantial number of radical texts by leading Americans, so that by 1770 “he had become…the busiest literary agent for American writers against the ‘usurpations’ of George III’s ministers.” These included John Adams’ famous Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, “in which the past & present cases of  the People of N. England & Liberty in general is considered.” (Hollis’s Diary, 21

November 1765) Thus a “plan” which had commenced as a project to communicate Hollis’s belief in the superiority of the British system of government, gradually evolved, in the context
of first of George III’s approbation of Bute’s activities, and then the deteriorating relations with the American colonies, into a “resolute assertion of Old Whig values as embodied in the ‘Glorious’ revolution of 1688.” Despite his opposition to Bute’s policies, Hollis remained loyal to the Crown. His aim (as he stated as late as 1767) was to do “all that can be done in favour of Liberty, and support of the House of Hanover”, Hollis regarding himself as “a friend to Liberty and King George”. Hollis’s “plan” – whose elements of propaganda had strong literary and visual elements - included the publication and distribution of thousands of volumes of books, and medals and prints, to selected individuals and public institutions and libraries in Britain, the North American colonies and Europe. As far as the literary aspect of his plan was concerned, Hollis selected volumes germane to his objectives and included texts by writers such as Milton, Locke, Marvell and Sidney – seventeenth century British heroes who had suffered for their principles and who  were enshrined within the Whig pantheon. Hollis’s role in life was “to attract public attention to such memorials and the proper political moral to be drawn from them”. The emblems were intended not only to call attention to a book but to convey Hollis’s views of the contents of that book, with some emblems, for example the
seated owl, when inverted, denoting disapproval of the contents. The execution of Hollis’s ‘plan’ through the production of medals commemorating Pitt’s triumphant war strategy was translated into one of the most publicised of all gardens, that at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, long associated with the politicisation of landscape design and by then a longstanding, ideological signifier of Whig policies associated with leading politicians, who were from the later 1750s leading the successful war effort. The designs for a series of medals depicting Britain’s victories in the Seven Years War, which had been promoted by Hollis, largely through the Society of Arts of which he was a member, had by 1763 been enlarged on behalf of one such politician into sculptural medallions for the interior of the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe. In the design of his emblems, prints and medals, Hollis either employed or encouraged the employment of leading artists of the day in their respective fields. During the 1760s, Hollis was a regular writer of articles in the St. James’ Chronicle and the London Chronicle reporting violations of civil rights and supporting liberty, contributions that were made under various pseudonyms. Hollis’s Diary records numerous occasions when he made gifts of money to the printers of these articles and other papers “for services to freedom”. Hollis died suddenly while out walking on his estate in Dorset on the morning of 1 January 1774. He had given instructions that his body was to be buried in one of his fields, ten feet down, which should then be ploughed over with no stone to mark his final resting place. An obituary in the January edition of The Public Advertiser commented that:

“… formed on the severe but exalted plan of antient Greece; in whom was
united the humane and disinterested virtue of Brutus, and the active and
determined spirit of Sidney: illustrious in his manner of using an ample
fortune, not by spending it in the parade of life, which he despised, but by
assisting the deserving, and encouraging the Arts and Sciences…His humanity
and generosity were not confined to the small spot of his own country; he
sought for merit in every part of the globe, considering himself as a citizen of
the world, but concealed his acts of munificence, being contented with the
consciousness of having done well. Posterity will look up with great
admiration to this great Man, who, like Milton, is not sufficiently known by
this degenerate age in which he lived, tho’ it will have cause to lament the
loss of him.”

While in Rome, in 1752, Hollis was painted in contemporary wig and clothing by Richard Wilson (1714-1782). That portrait is now in the Harvard University Portrait Collection. The name of Hollis had been associated with Harvard since the seventeenth century, owing to generous benefactions from Hollis’s greatgrandfather, and more importantly his great uncle, who not only provided gifts with
a value then of over £5,000, but also established the Hollis professorships in Divinity and Natural Philosophy, the oldest chairs in America. The link with the Hollis name was to be immortalised as a result of the generous benefactions commencing in 1764 of Thomas Hollis following a disastrous fire at Harvard College in January of that year which destroyed almost the entire library. On learning the news in March of that year, Hollis set about rebuilding the collection and over the next decade he shipped to Harvard thousands of volumes on subjects as diverse as government, classical antiquity, medicine and agriculture, many of the volumes bearing his special emblems. Neither Hollis nor any of his forbears ever visited Harvard or America.

“Their good works were founded on faith, reinforced by the reports of travellers,
correspondents and agents in and from the new World.” Ironically, a few months
after Hollis embarked on his project to re-stock the library at Harvard, a fire
destroyed a large number of books which he had left with his bookbinder in London
for binding prior to their shipment to America. In his diary for 6 June 1764, Hollis
records: “I have lost by [the fire] a large and very fine collection of books, relating
chiefly to Government, which were there for binding, and were intended to be sent
to Harvard College in N. E., besides much time and thinking. I will not be
discouraged, however, but begin collecting a finer parcel for that College…”

Hollis was physically conspicuous, described by a friend as
“over six feet tall, Herculean in size and strength, with a round face, low
prominent forehead, bright brown eyes, high cheek bones, short nose,
laughing mouth, and short neck, wide in the chest and shoulders. The rest of
his body was similarly proportioned, and his knees and calves… were perfect
in their beauty, their shape and curves, and in keeping with his Herculean
character; with all this there wonderfully joined an incomparable manner of
gentleness and sweetness.”

Hollis left his estate to his friend, Thomas Brand, who afterwards changed his name to Brand-Hollis, and it was in the latter’s home, The Hyde at Ingatestone, Essex, that is found the first recorded reference to Wilton’s bust of Thomas Hollis. In his diary entry of 24 July, 1786, John Adams, at that time United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James and later Vice-President and President of the United States of America, recorded a visit to The Hyde (originally called ‘The Hide’). He noted that it was

“the Residence of an Antiquarian”, all the rooms being decorated with large
numbers of antiquities, many of which had been given, or bequeathed, by Hollis to
Brand, and continued:
“I will perhaps take a list of all antiques in this Hall. The most interesting to
me is the bust of my friend, as well as Mr Brand’s friend, the late Thomas
Hollis Esq. …in beautiful white marble

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.

As a teenager, he used his two inherited family fortunes philanthropically, donating antiquities to the British Museum, Christ’s College Cambridge and Oxford. He sent a book to Bermuda’s public library where Bishop Berkley established a college. At Harvard University, he established a Chair of Divinity and supplied its library with thousands of books after a major fire. In gratitude, they established Hollis Hall, still extant. In 1765, he showed continued interest in America and went to the Prime Minister to raise objections to the Stamp Act, which he was concerned would impact adversely on the New England colonies. 

Thomas Hollis owned 3000 acres of estates at Corscombe near Beaminster in West Dorset. In the late 1760s, he visited Lyme Regis regularly and rented a suite of rooms at the Three Cups Hotel, which he termed Liberty Hall, later purchasing the property. 

In the 1760s, Thomas Hollis was instrumental in Lyme Regis's rejuvenation. He bought slums and derelict buildings for demolition, including buildings below Middle Row in Broad Street and buildings in Pound Street. Hollis purchased land on the shore to create the first public promenade, referred to by Jane Austen as The Walk, now part of Marine Parade. 

New turnpike roads from Axminster and Charmouth enabled easy access to Lyme Regis to visitors for their ‘season’. Its description as a fashionable Georgian watering place and in one Georgian travel guide as the Naples of the South reflected Hollis’ pride in the town. He invited his friends to the town, including Prime Minister Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and William Pitt the Younger.

Hollis wanted Lyme Regis  to provide opportunities to fraternise, play cards and billiards and to hold evening dances. His action of buying and demolishing Cobb Gate Warehouses allowed space for a complex which included Assembly Rooms. Completed in 1777, they were located on the site of the present car park by the millennium clock at the bottom of Broad Street. They attracted visitors, including Jane Austen who enjoyed dances there. 

On 1st January, 1774, Hollis died while walking over his fields at Urles Farm. His last words were: Lord have mercy on me and receive my soul. In compliance with his wishes he was buried 10ft deep in an unmarked grave in the field then ploughed over. 

Although not religious, Hollis was opposed to religious discrimination. He gave money for Church repairs and generous monetary gifts to the Baptist Church. Such acts led to his description as having acted the good Samaritan all his life, helping the poor and living for the benefit of others. 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.