Thomas Hosmer Shepherd – A Recorder of London

T H Shepherd – painted the good, the bad & the ugly of London’s streets

In my previous post I wrote about the tremendous debt Londoners owe to Frederick Crace, whose collection of some 5000 prints, maps and paintings of London and its environs was purchased by the British Museum in 1880. Actively collecting between 1815 and his death in 1859, Crace amassed an cornucopia of scenes encompassing and embracing times of great change in the topography of the city. He particularly excelled in ensuring that soon-to-be demolished buildings were recorded for posterity. Sometimes the doomed structures were depicted in their final dismal state, but others were carefully illustrated as they were in their heydey.

Self-Portrait of Shepherd and his muse: London

This post is about perhaps the most important artist associated with Frederick Crace’s collection, certainly in terms of output, if not by reputation. Crace’s collection contains individual works by legendary artists, such as Paul Sandby or Wenceslaus Hollar, but it is dominated by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, whose 720+ works constitute about 15% of the entire portfolio. Additionally, the British Museum holds almost 300 Shepherd artworks not associated with Frederick Crace. So here we have in just one location over 1000 examples of his works of art:-  the fruits of a very industrious and important artist principally engaged in recording London as it was undergoing huge changes towards modernity.

Tumbledown buildings in Grub Street complete with broken windows c.1840

A quick search on google returns some 192,000 pages linked to Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. But this is entirely down to the wide dissemination of his drawings and watercolours. Very little is recorded about his life and times – and practically no images of the artist himself. When I searched the British Library newspaper archive I found that Shepherd’s death on July 4th 1864 was not reported in the press – indicating that his final years were spent in obscurity. However, I was pleased to discover that Shepherd does have a blue plaque at No 26 Batchelor Street in Islington, so at least he is being commemorated today.

T.H Shepherd’s old stomping ground at Islington Green (1850)

The story of Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in many ways mirrors the life of any struggling painter in the early modern period: i.e. one of dependency upon a patron in order to facilitate one’s career. In the age before consumerism it was common for artist to find favour with a wealthy or influential connoisseur through which they were enabled to thrive. Artists such as Hogarth and Nollekins forged their career in this way. However by the late 1700s a new genre of independently successful artists emerged – most particularly Sir Joshua Reynolds – who were sufficiently renowned to stand on their own merit, and benefitted from a surge in purchasing power from the mercantile and middling classes as Britain underwent rapid industrial change. However, when we look at Thomas Hosmer Shepherd we can see that even by the mid 1800s it was only the very elite artists that were capable of choosing their own commissions and setting their own prices.  For everyone else it was a question of finding favour with clients, meeting their needs, and striving for regular and constant output – without which the spectre of poverty always beckoned. Shepherd’s story of boom and bust parallel’s that of Thomas Hood, of whom I have previously written.

Landmark or no mark: Shepherd always had bystanders

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd was born in France on 16 January 1793, the son of a watchcase maker. At this time France was in the throes of revolution, and war was about to break out against a coalition of her neighbouring countries including Britain. So the family hastened home settling in a house near the City Road, in what was then the village of Islington, and Thomas was baptised at St Luke Old Street, on 24 February.

St Luke’s Church, Old Street (Magnoliabox.com)

Perhaps Thomas’s most important influence in his early years was older brother George, an artist working in both pencil and watercolours – who began working for Frederick Crace around 1810. By this time young Thomas had already obtained commissions from Rudolph Ackermann, for whom he regularly supplied prints and etchings right up until Ackermann’s magazine The Repository of Arts folded in 1827. The two brothers often worked together on projects as their skills complemented each other – George was very fast with the pencil outline, and Thomas a better finisher. Thomas did very little work for Frederick Crace before 1820 (certainly not that he was credited for) and looked more likely to establish himself independently, as he undertook a series of sketching tours and earned his living in that way. However, it seems that once Thomas settled down and became a father, it became vitally important for him to have a regular workflow – so he gravitated back to employment by others.

George Shepherd was more adept with a pencil than brother Thomas

Thomas married in 1818, spending his honeymoon in France. Somewhat tellingly his first-born son was named Frederick Napoleon Shepherd, perhaps in homage to his nationality and political leanings (in terms of Napoleon) but also crediting his benefactor (Frederick Crace). By 1820, the family lived at 26 Chapman Street (now Batchelor Street), Islington, just west side of Liverpool Road. He used his home address when advertising as a drawing master.

Shepherd’s seemingly mundane images are fascinating for historians

Throughout the 1820s Shepherd worked hard to establish himself as a popular artist, both by touring and contributing to numerous topographical publications. He undertook a series of paintings of Edinburgh, and also worked at Bath and Bristol. But after 1830 his output as an illustrator of books rapidly declined  – possibly due to a change in public demand for such books, as a couple of planned commissions that year never came to fruition – one of which had necessitated a wasted trip to Ireland.

Edinburgh Castle (1829) with obligatory dog and kilts

Shepherd then took a change of direction by exhibiting four watercolours of Scotland at the Society of British Artists, in 1831 and 1832, but as the years passed by he increasingly relied upon Frederick Crace for employment. Luckily for Shepherd, Crace seems to have accelerated his demand for pictures – and work was plentiful right up until Crace died in 1859. In the early 1840s Shepherd moved to 2 Bird’s Buildings (now part of Colebrooke Row), north of Camden Passage, Islington – and he also began contributing images for The Illustrated London News. Shepherd’s final years were spent in poverty, possibly through ill health as old age set in, but more likely as a result of lack of work after Crace passed away. It is sad to think that somebody capable of creating thousands of historically important images of nineteenth century Britain should die unnoticed and unwanted, just as new photographic technology usurped his genuine talent for recording life as it was back then.

Temple Bar (1844) – Streetscene as interesting as the edifice

Shepherd’s style of painting was characterized by an attention to detail towards to subject building or street being depicted, but his scenes often contained people, carriages, horses, or dogs. Thus his collection of paintings gives us an excellent by-product of olde London via the fashions and activities of the people. For example we often see children playing in the streets, and the enduring British love for dogs is more than abundantly represented via a variety of pooches of differing sizes and shapes adorning his works. Whilst it is true that Shepherd’s paintings tend to avoid the filth, smoke, and grinding poverty of London – he doesn’t shy away from decay or of realistic portrayal of slum areas and prisons, which he was commissioned to accurately record. We must remember that his brief was to concentrate upon the buildings  as subjects, and that his only individual artistic outlet was the ability to add by-standers for context and adornment purposes. In his world too, it seldom rains and plants are always in bloom – So we get Dickensian buildings in abundance – without the depressing realism of London as it really must have been.

I hope you will join me on this progressing journey through olde London courtesy of Crace and Shepherd. I have already extensively used their images for my series of postings on Regency Stagecoach Travel and also when relating the story of Wellesley Pole at the Mint

As my series of posts relating to the Crace Collection unfolds, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd will feature heavily. All images used will come directly from the British Museum images database. However, Shepherd’s prints are abundantly held by numerous other public bodies – most notably Kensington and Chelsea Library -which has done a series of excellent posts regarding their own collection, the V&A Museum, the Science Museum, the Government Art Collection, and a small number at the Royal Academy.

Shepherd as a recorder of change: Blackfriars Bridge and Steamship (1848)

Please note that my use of British Museum images in on a non-commercial basis –  my primary intention being to promote the British Museum as a source of reference for all historians. Several times in the past I have paid initial photographic fees to digitise their images for my own use, knowing that once this fee is paid such imagery becomes available to all. I could not recommend use of the British Museum strongly enough, especially if you are looking to source illustrations for publication. In return for obtaining pricelessly detailed high resolution images, you in return get the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to the continued development and protection of this vital resource.

For more information on Thomas Hosmer Shepherd I recommend

  • Brian Reginald Curle and Patricia Meara, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1793-1864, (London: Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries, 1973)
  • J F C Phillips, Shepherd’s London, (London: Cassell, 1976)
  • Chris Beetles Gallery has a range of original Thomas Hosmer Paintings for sale as well as an excellently detailed biography
  • On 6th April 2015 Bonhams sold an exquisite collection of Thomas Hosmer Shepherd views of Edinburgh, pencil on paper – with 5 in watercolour for £5625.00

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