- Paul Stirton
Phillip, John (1817–1867), genre and portrait painter, was born at 13 Skene Square, Aberdeen, on 19 April 1817. The son of an old soldier turned shoemaker, he first became a tinsmith's errand boy and later, aged fifteen, was apprenticed to Mr Spark, a jobbing painter and glazier in Wallace Nook, Aberdeen. The young Phillip is said to have shown a flair for art, producing portrait sketches of his fellow artists and receiving a commission to paint a signboard for a basketmaker in Queen Street. Several colourful passages have been written into Phillip's early life, the most famous being that he stowed away on the brig Manly from Aberdeen to London in 1834 in order to see the pictures at the Royal Academy exhibition. The artist himself seems to have recounted many of these anecdotes, but they should not be dismissed out of hand; there is a small oil painting of the Manly in Aberdeen Art Gallery, signed by Phillip and dated 1834. He found some encouragement from a local portraitist, James Forbes, and an early painting by Phillip, The Pedlar or Newsvendor, in the style of David Wilkie, was brought to the attention of William Ramsay Maule, Lord Panmure, who agreed to sponsor the young artist. Panmure supported Phillip's move to London in 1836; there he studied first under Thomas Musgrave Joy, a minor portrait and subject painter, before entering the Royal Academy Schools in the following year. Despite their prestige within Britain, the Royal Academy Schools were felt to be somewhat moribund at this time. To counteract this Phillip and his fellow students Alfred Elmore (1815–1881), Augustus Leopold Egg (1816–1863), Edward Matthew Ward (1816–1879), Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Henry O'Neil (1817–1880), and William Powell Frith (1819–1909) set up a private sketching club named the Clique. Such groups became fairly common during the following decade and beyond, but this one appears to have been the first youthful art society set up in reaction to the academy. Its programme, as such, was hardly radical, the young artists meeting once a week to draw illustrations of passages from Shakespeare and other English literary works. Furthermore, all members of the group with the exception of Dadd, who was incarcerated owing to madness, eventually became members of the Royal Academy.
Phillip's early manner conforms to that of many young artists of the period, and from 1838 he contributed a number of portraits and figure subjects to the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. He also maintained his links to his native city, producing several portraits of prominent citizens including a full length of James Blaikie of Craigiebuckler, provost of Aberdeen in 1840. His painting Bruce about to Receive the Sacrament on the Morning Previous to the Battle of Bannockburn (Brechin town hall) of 1843, and another of Wallace and his schoolfellows at Dundee (exh. RA, 1846) of 1846, suggest he also aspired to be a historical painter. The first indication of a distinct direction to his work is found in Presbyterian Catechising (exh. RA, 1847; NG Scot.), a Scottish genre painting in the style made popular by Sir David Wilkie in the early years of the nineteenth century. It has often been compared to Wilkie's Blind Fiddler (1806) and Rent Day (1809) in that several figures are seen to respond in different ways to a central action. Phillip's technique and working methods, as indicated by his sketches in Aberdeen Art Gallery, are also close to Wilkie's in the use of numerous figure studies or small groups which were patiently worked up into more complex combinations to elaborate the emotional range of the picture. Phillip's early essays in this style lack the older artist's depth of characterization—as revealed by pose, gesture, and facial expression—and he is less able to orchestrate the responses of his various figures into a satisfactory ensemble. Phillip did, however, achieve some success at this type of work, and he followed Presbyterian Catechising with similar Scottish rural scenes such as A Scotch Fair (exh. RA, 1848) and Baptism in Scotland (exh. RA, 1850; both Aberdeen Art Gallery), and The Spae Wife and Scotch Washing (both exh. RA, 1851).
In 1846 Phillip married Maria Dadd, the younger sister of his friend Richard Dadd. Unfortunately, she suffered from a similar mental disorder to her brother and was committed to an asylum in 1863. The strain this placed on his home life may have contributed to Phillip's ill health. On his doctor's advice, Phillip spent the winter of 1851 in southern Spain, an experience which marked a watershed in his career and led ultimately to the sobriquet Spanish Phillip. The landscape of Andalusia and the first-hand experience of Spanish painting of the golden age may have opened up new possibilities for his art, but most commentators, notably his friend W. P. Frith, remarked that this initial visit did not have a significant effect on Phillip's colour or handling of paint. In one sense Phillip was still following in the footsteps of David Wilkie, who had visited Spain in 1827–8 and made a considerable impact at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1829 when his modern history piece The Defence of Saragossa was acquired by George IV. Phillip was more attracted to exotic genre scenes of Spanish rural life and quickly made his mark at the Royal Academy with this type of picture. In 1853 The Spanish Gypsy Mother (Royal Collection) was purchased by Queen Victoria on the recommendation of Sir Edwin Landseer, and in the following year she commissioned another Spanish subject, The Letter-Writer of Seville (Royal Collection) as a present for Prince Albert. This began a fruitful association with the royal family, who commissioned several pictures by Phillip as private family gifts.
Phillip's immediate success with these pictures was due, in part, to a rising interest in Spain in the wake of the Peninsular War (1808–14). More recently, the publication of George Borrow's The Bible in Spain (1843) and Richard Ford's Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) had brought the picturesque features of Spanish life to the attention of a new generation of British readers. In 1856–7 Phillip returned to Spain with the painter Richard Ansdell for a longer tour of the country, the chief product of which was The Prison Window and Charity, both exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857. These collaborative works, in which Phillip undertook the figures while Ansdell did the animals, are less convincing to modern eyes but they were well received, and Phillip was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in the same year. More significantly, the experience of Spain began to exert a greater influence on Phillip's handling of colour and atmosphere in pictures such as The Evil Eye (1858; Hospitalfield House, Arbroath; two other versions at Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum and Smith Art Gallery, Stirling) and The Dying Contrabandista (exh. RA, 1858; Royal Collection). Ruskin was almost alone in expressing doubts over this tendency, describing Phillip's picture A Huff as 'slightly vulgar' in his Academy Notes of 1859, the year in which Phillip was elected Royal Academician.
Phillip's final visit to Spain in 1860 confirmed his tendency towards stronger colour contrasts and richer handling of paint, under the influence of Velázquez and Murillo; he produced several studies after their work including a large copy of Velázquez's Surrender at Breda (Museo del Prado, Madrid) which now hangs in the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh. The principal achievement of this trip, however, was the series of mature exhibition pictures of Spanish life and customs which he worked up from sketches made on the spot. La Gloria: a Spanish Wake (exh. RA, 1864; NG Scot.), widely regarded as his masterpiece, depicts the funeral of a child in which the grief of the mother is contrasted with the exuberance of revellers in the background. According to the explanation which Phillip provided, the death of a child in Spain was accompanied by celebrations and dancing since it was believed that the child's soul was spared the pains of purgatory, going directly to heaven. This subject gave full rein to his enriched palette in describing traditional Spanish costume, but it equally allowed for dramatic contrasts of light and shade to emphasize the sentiment of the scene. The following year saw The Early Career of Murillo (exh. RA, 1865; Forbes Magazine collection, New York) at the Royal Academy, in which Phillip again demonstrated his ability to exploit popular fascination with the culture and history of Spain. The details of the subject were drawn from William Stirling-Maxwell's Annals of the Artists of Spain, a pioneering historical work published in 1848 which recounts the anecdote that Murillo would often sell sketches in the street during the feria in Seville. Both these paintings fetched huge sums when sold and maintained their high reputation long after Phillip's death.
Throughout this period of success for his Spanish pictures, Phillip continued to produce portraits of a wide range of sitters including several of his artist friends and a full length of Prince Albert in highland dress (exh. RA, 1858; Town House, Aberdeen). He undertook two paintings of formal events, The Marriage of the Princess Royal with the Prince Frederic William of Prussia (1858; exh. RA, 1860; Royal Collection) and The House of Commons (1860; exh. RA, 1863), although these were probably not typical. The few Scottish genre scenes produced in his later career are often marred by excessive sentiment, but he seems to have shown some interest in recent trends in art. In 1860 he purchased At the Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati), the first major oil painting by the young James McNeill Whistler, no doubt reflecting their shared interest in Velázquez. In 1866 Phillip embarked on a tour of Italy where, like Wilkie before him, he studied the work of Titian. Soon after his return he fell ill with paralysis. Phillip died at his home, 1 South Villas, Campden Hill, Kensington, on 27 February 1867.
- D. Irwin and F. Irwin, Scottish painters at home and abroad, 1700–1900 (1975)
- J. L. Caw, Scottish painting past and present, 1620–1908 (1908), 179–84
- W. Hardie, Scottish painting, 1837 to the present (1990), 50–53
- Permanent collection catalogue, Aberdeen Art Gallery (1968)
- R. Brydall, History of art in Scotland (1889), 448–54
- W. P. Frith, My autobiography and reminiscences, 1 (1887)
- Art Journal, 29 (1867), 127, 153–7
- MS letters between John Phillip and Patrick Allan-Fraser, Patrick Allan-Fraser Hospitalfield Trust, Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, Scotland
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1867)
- Patrick Allan-Fraser Hospitalfield Trust, Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, corresp. with Patrick Allan-Fraser
Wealth at Death
under £16,000: probate, 12 March 1867, CGPLA Eng. & Wales