Stephens on Barlow

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J. E. Millais, Thomas Oldham Barlow, 1886

Stephens’s professional biography of T. O. Barlow reads like a legend, the story of a man who made himself into an eminent artist through sheer determination and the bonds of friendship. It begins with the child prodigy who “manifested considerable tact in draughtsmanship and an active general taste for art,” whose father wisely allowed him to apprentice to some respected Manchester engravers while attending that city’s School of Design. The plot doesn’t thicken, however, until 1846, when Barlow happens to see a small painting titled Courtship by a young artist, John Phillip, whose reputation was only just “beginning to bud”: he recognizes it as just the thing for him to engrave “as an example of his skill and an introduction for himself to those from whom he might seek employment in the metropolis.” Even though the price was low, Barlow had little money to his name, so he left Manchester empty-handed to try his fortunes in London. There he took cheap lodgings in Ebury Street while he fruitlessly sought employment. At last he met a kind gentleman who offered to purchase an inexpensive painting for Barlow to reproduce, and the very next morning the engraver set off for the British Institution’s gallery in Pall Mall, the only exhibition open at the time. Lo and behold—there on the walls hung the little picture by Phillip! It cost a little more than the patron had promised, so Barlow trudged back to the City to see his benefactor to ask for a further advance, and to his surprise the patron generously acceded, “so that, starting once more on the road to fortune, our engraver bent his steps to No. 30, College Street, Camden Town, where, in modest quarters, the future ‘Don Phillip of Spain’ was residing.”

As Stephens well knew, the contemporary reader would have delighted in this tale of these two prominent Royal Academicians living so close to poverty in their youth, and then finding their fortune together. For the future “Spanish Phillip,” it turns out, was happy to sell his painting to the stranger and even threw in the copyright—often worth more than the work itself in those days—for good measure. Stephens draws the story out—Barlow had to wait for the exhibition to close before he could take the picture in hand, all the while shifting for himself in Ebury Street, as he was “by no means overloaded with money.” When the plate was nearly finished, “he began a wearying search for a publisher or buyer of the prints for sale,” and eventually, after much trouble, found an interested printseller. But Barlow’s trials were not yet at an end: the dealer informed him that “line-engraving was out of date,” meaning that he would have to re-do parts of the plate in the newer, “stipple and line” style. “Barlow’s dismay when he was thus instructed,” Stephens writes, “is easily conceived.” Yet he persevered, reproducing the picture for the second time. For all that, the “pecuniary result” of the venture, Stephens concludes with a touch of humor,  “was, so far as the engraver was concerned, neither more nor less than nothing!”  

Yet the production of that first plate, however tedious it might have been, turned out to be consequential for both painter and engraver since it launched a long and fruitful partnership, with Barlow engraving some forty of Phillip’s works. It also inaugurated an enduring friendship that lasted until Phillip’s death in 1867. Phillip painted one portrait of his friend, which unfortunately seems to have disappeared: the artist is shown “in the act of engraving ‘The Huguenot’ by Mr. Millais, on a plate which is one of the best-known of my subject’s works, and the first of a category of plates after this painter’s better-known pictures.” This first engraving after a painting by Millais was published in 1857, and Stephens studiously lists the other paintings by that artist reproduced by Barlow, which reads like a list of Millais’s greatest hits. Two of them—Henry Irving and Cardinal Newman (which Stephens misremembers as “Cardinal Manning”)—appear in the photogravure published in Artists at Home. A few years later, in 1886, Millais would paint a portrait of his friend that Stephens considered “the happiest” of them all, though according to G. D. Leslie, Barlow himself "was not at all pleased" with it.

The other details of Barlow’s professional life that Stephens recounts in Artists at Home are grounded in biographical fact, but the extended anecdote about that first plate, which occupies considerably more of the text, indicates a close acquaintance with the artist. Stephens’s final paragraph, too, in which he points out the salient features of Mayall’s studio portrait, suggests some familiarity with the engraver’s home. A few years later, after Barlow’s death, Stephens largely reprises the text from Artists at Home in The Athenaeum, informing the reader that it had been “revised for the author” by Barlow himself. But he also adds a paragraph that reveals his affection for the amiable artist. "Whenever there was a kindly act to be done, an artist to be assisted in distress, a brother engraver to be helped or advised, a good word to be said, or a generous task to be performed, Barlow was among the foremost in the matter."

Linda Merrill


Leslie, George Dunlop. The Inner Life of The Royal Academy. London, 1914; reprinted New York: Benjamin Blom.

[Stephens, F. G.] “Mr. Thomas Oldham Barlow, R.A.” The Athenaeum, no. 3244 (December 28, 1889): 901–2.

Stephens on Barlow