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Phillips, Thomaslocked

  • Annette Peach

Thomas Phillips (1770–1845)

self-portrait, c. 1802–3

Phillips, Thomas (1770–1845), portrait painter, was born on 18 October 1770 in Dudley, Worcestershire, the elder of the two sons of Thomas Man Phillips (bap. 1745), mercer, and his wife, Sarah, daughter of Thomas Brett, ironmonger, whose family came from West Bromwich, Staffordshire.


It seems that his father died while Phillips was a boy: he later described Dr Joseph Wainwright (1741–1810), surgeon, of Dudley as his guardian and uncle. His grandfather, Samuel Phillips, a dissenting minister in Bromsgrove, made arrangements for the boy's education. In his autobiographical essay covering the early part of his life Phillips recalls taking lessons in drawing and Latin. He attended the grammar school in West Bromwich for eight years up to the age of thirteen, when 'it was thought I had attained scholarship enough for … the choice made by my Guardians for my future station in life … that of a japanner' (Miller, 1). When Thomas Brett died c.1782 he left his grandson £700; out of this inheritance his guardians paid the premium of 40 guineas for his seven-year apprenticeship to the glass engraver and japanner Francis Eginton, of Handsworth, near Birmingham. Eginton soon afterwards abandoned japanning and began making 'a kind of polygraphic picture' in which he was assisted by his apprentice . This early photographic process, which produced strong chiaroscuro effects, was to have an influence on Phillips's later portraiture in which strong contrasts of tone assist in conveying psychological depth. His chief employment with Eginton, however, was to provide copies of old-master paintings for his master to use in glass painting. Eginton lent his pupil books on perspective, architecture, anatomy, and the history of art, and 'having a turn for mechanics & natural philosophy with an itinerant lecturer called Wall he [Phillips] formed a philosophical society which is now the Birmingham Library' (Turner, 4). At the end of his apprenticeship Eginton furnished him with a letter of introduction to the engraver Valentine Green.

In 1790 Phillips moved to London. There, through Green, he met the painter Benjamin West, who gave him permission to use his studio to make a large (10 feet high) copy of a Descent from the Cross after Rubens which Green had commissioned from Phillips for Worcester Cathedral. Following Green's financial ruin (brought about by the hindering of international trade by French military action in Europe) Phillips applied to West and spent two years assisting him on a commission from George III, never completed, for a series of paintings on the subject of revealed religion intended for a private chapel the king planned on the site of Horn Court, Windsor Castle. On the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1792, West became president of the Royal Academy, and by 1799 the project for the chapel paintings was abandoned. Phillips had enrolled in 1791 at the Royal Academy Schools, together with William Owen and Martin Archer Shee, who became perhaps Phillips's strongest rival as a portrait painter. J. M. W. Turner, admitted in 1789, was still attending the schools when Phillips enrolled there. In 1792 Phillips, then living at 398 Oxford Street, exhibited for the first time at the academy, showing View of Windsor Castle from the North-East. His diploma work, 'a repetition of a portion' of his Venus and Adonis (exh. RA, 1808), was heavily influenced by his study of Titian (Turner, 3). In addition he exhibited further historical pictures, including The Death of Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, at the Battle of Châtillon [Castillon] (exh. RA, 1793), and Elijah Returning the Restored Son to the Widow (exh. RA, 1794), but soon realized that 'I must attach myself to Portraiture if I hoped to live by my Profession' (Miller, 3).

Men (and a woman) of science

In 1795 Phillips was commissioned by the medical officers of St Thomas's Hospital for a portrait of their apothecary, Dr George Fordyce. Its success was significant, marking the beginning of Phillips's role throughout his long career as a portrait painter of many eminent men of science, including Sir Humphrey Davy (1821; NPG); Isambard Kingdom Brunel (exh. RA, 1829); Francis Baily, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (exh. RA, 1839); John Dalton (1835); and Michael Faraday (exh. RA, 1842). 'My father painted 4 presidents of the Royal Society Mr Joseph BanksMr Davies Gilbert—the Duke of Sussex and then his last the Marquis of Northampton' (H. W. Phillips, MS note bound into Turner, facing p. 3). Phillips's obituarist referred to his pensive 'Mrs Somerville, one of the most intellectual of his female portraits' (1834; formerly John Murray, Scot. NPG) (The Athenaeum, 418).

Through Mr Birch, surgeon at St Thomas's, Phillips gained an introduction to Lord Winterton of Shillinglee Park, Sussex. 'He stopped at Petworth en route with a letter to Monr. André, the Librarian [and] became known to Lord Egremont' (H. W. Phillips, MS note bound into Turner, facing p. 3). George O'Brien Wyndham, third earl of Egremont, was the munificent patron of several artists including Turner, and an enlightened landowner who took a keen interest in scientific and mechanical developments relative to agriculture. He was a man 'whose kindness', Phillips recalled, 'extended to me and my family … and whose friendship … never failed me for 44 years. … By his continued patronage I was drawn into notice' (Miller, 4). The largest collection of his work, including his View of Petworth Park (1798), a rare foray by Phillips into landscape, remains at Petworth House, Sussex. Phillips's early interest in natural science led in 1819 to his election as a member of the Royal Society to which in November 1834, following an excursion from Petworth that summer, he presented a paper on his discovery of 'a prehistoric canoe made out of a hollowed oak log' at North Stoke near Arundel (Hamilton, 17). The opportunities for conversation between artists, men of science, and antiquaries were frequent and convenient in Somerset House, where the Royal Academy, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries were all then situated. Phillips had been particularly stimulated by Davy's paper in 1815 on the pigments of the ancients, writing to Banks: 'we artists feel a hey-day kind of exhilaration in consequence … It appears we have better colours than the ancients ever possessed and I believe are better painters' (ibid., 10). In his portraits of men of science Phillips engaged with the task of representing visually the sitter's intellectual life. His interest in this ‘interior’ aspect of portraiture was to develop further in his portraits of men of letters, where the need to represent the creative imagination visually took him to the fount of Romanticism. Though the portraits are presented here as groups or series of portraits (and Phillips himself responded to earlier series of portraits in conceiving of many of his individual portraits as part of a larger series or grouping) each one is nevertheless characterized by its central concern with its sitter's individuality.

Noble patronage

Following the peace of Amiens Phillips departed in September 1802 for Paris, where he remained for three months to execute a commission from the duke of Northumberland for a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. By the intercession of Cardinal Fesch 'admission was obtained to the Consular presence at the hour of dinner, & the result was eminently successful' (Turner, 6). Copies of his portrait of Napoleon (prime version, priv. coll.) were made for 'Lords Hastings & Egremont & Talbot & Erskine, and also for Mr. Power'. That done for Lord Egremont (a head and shoulders view in an oval frame) remains at Petworth. In addition to two privately commissioned mezzotints from the portrait by Charles Turner, Phillips made a sketch from the head in profile and from this an engraving was made by W. G. Edwards. Painted in the same year as J. D. Ingres's whole-length Bonaparte as First Consul (1803; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), for which the sitter similarly permitted the artist time only to make a brief sketch, Phillips's portrait also deploys the glamour of his subject's consular dress to emphasize his sitter's then refined (and idealized) features; but where the maître of the French nineteenth-century portrait conveys an unswerving image of Napoleonic will, Phillips imparted to his sitter a melancholic sensibilité that almost certainly came to the attention of his most famous sitter, the poet Lord Byron.

In portraiture Mr Phillips quickly won his way: the beauty of his colors, the truth of his eye, & the agreeableness of his manners were certain attractions; & if the assertion be true, that every painter braids a portion of his own character with his colours on his pallet, his studio had the additional charm that it was sure to produce gentlemen. Hence beauty, learning & rank soon resorted to it: in 1800 he had the honor of painting Earl Percy, & M de Calonne; the following year the Duke of Northumberland; the next the Chancellor, Lord Thurlow … among his subsequent sitters he reckoned George IV, both as Prince of Wales & Prince Regent, the Dukes of York & Sussex, the Hetman Count Platoff, the Marquis of Stafford and his family, the Archbishop of York, & Lord Byron.

Turner, 3

Marriage and establishment

In 1804 his growing success was marked by Phillips's move (he had moved several times in the last ten years) to a substantial house at 8 George Street, Hanover Square, London, formerly belonging to Henry Tresham RA (of whom he painted a portrait, exh. RA, 1811), which remained his home for the rest of his life. In later years his son Henry Wyndham Phillips [see below] made a watercolour drawing of the large studio and gallery that was attached to the back of the house (c.1840; repr. Miller, pl. 2). In 1805 Phillips was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and Royal Academician in 1808. He retained a connection with his native area, becoming a member of the Birmingham Academy of Arts in 1814 and exhibiting there until 1844. In 1809 he married Elizabeth Fraser (1782–1856) of Fairfield, near Inverness, at the home of the bookseller and publisher William Miller and his wife, both close friends of the bride, who lived at 50 Albemarle Street. In 1812 Miller sold his property and much of his business to the publisher John Murray the younger, and it may have been through Miller that Phillips gained an introduction to Murray.

Representing the imagination

Murray commissioned Phillips to paint a series of portraits of contemporary poets whose work he published. Like the celebrated series by Sir Godfrey Kneller of the Kit-Cat Club, this series was painted in kit-cat size (36 inches × 28 inches) with the intention that they should be hung together at the publisher's house at 50 Albemarle Street, a meeting place for many well-known writers of the age. Phillips's William Blake (1807; NPG) had earlier established his ability to convey in a portrait of a poet the contemporary fascination with imaginative genius. With the traditional attributes of the imaginative writer—Blake sits pen in hand, his large forehead (visual symbol of his vast imagination) brightly lit—and with 'a rapt poetic expression' that Allan Cunningham famously recorded as 'conjured up by Phillips's luring Blake to talk about his friendship with the archangel Gabriel' (Walker, 1.50), his portrait of Blake demonstrates the sensitive rapport Phillips was able to engage in with his creative sitters whether poets or men of science. In 1813 Murray commissioned from Phillips a portrait of Byron (who brought the publisher more commercial success than any other of his writers), which still hangs over the drawing-room fireplace in Albemarle Street. The half-length view famously shows a pale-complexioned Byron in a white shirt with a large turned-down ‘Byronic’ collar open at the neck to reveal his throat, and wrapped in a dark cloak. The dress and pose are identical to that of Charles Mayne Young in his portrait by G. H. Harlow (1809; Garrick Club, London), where the actor is portrayed as Hamlet, and it is possible that Byron saw Young perform this role. As in his portrait of Blake, Phillips's ability to convey the Romantic (and here self-dramatizing) cast of his sitter's imagination indicates that, although his œuvre is less flamboyant than that of his contemporary Sir Thomas Lawrence, he, too, was quintessentially a Romantic painter. Of the rest of the series, which includes portraits of Thomas Southey (c.1815; John Murray, London), the Revd George Crabbe (1817; John Murray, London), Samuel Rogers (1817; NPG, on loan to Dove Cottage, Grasmere), Thomas Campbell (1818; John Murray, London), S. T. Coleridge (1819–21; priv. coll.; copy, 1835, John Murray, London), Sir Walter Scott—with whom Phillips became friends (1815; with the John Mitchell Gallery, London, 1960), and Thomas Moore (1819–22), several still hang together at John Murray, London.

According to Dawson Turner, Phillips conceived a scheme for 'an interesting series of portraits of explorers' for his own gallery (Miller, 24). Major Denham in an African Bornouse (formerly John Murray, NPG), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826, the year when Denham's Narrative of Travels in Africa (written with Captain Hugh Clapperton and Dr Walter Oudney) was published by Murray, was not part of this series and was sold to John Murray. 'In Lawrence's eyes his best performance' (The Athenaeum, 418), Denham forms one of a group including, possibly, Denham's fellow African explorer Captain Hugh Clapperton, and the Arctic explorers Sir John Franklin (1828; NPG), who was a close friend of Phillips's, and Sir (William) Edward Parry (1827; Scott Polar RI). In addition to their interest as portraits of men of natural science, Phillips's portraits of explorers may be compared with those he made of Romantic poets for their interpretation of individuals for whom the exotic and the remote were of prime importance to the imagination.

While sitting to Phillips for his picture for Murray, Byron also, as he recorded to Lady Melbourne, had to 'stand for my picture' in Albanian dress (July 1813, Byron's Letters and Journals, 3.70). In his painstakingly accurate recording of the richly coloured and ornately embroidered dress (priv. coll.) which had 'so much gold [it] would cost in England two hundred [guineas]' (Byron's Letters and Journals, 5.227), Phillips ensured that this exotic three-quarter-length portrait (Gov. Art Coll., British embassy, Athens, on loan to NPG) of perhaps the most sought after man in London could not fail to dazzle the visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1814 who were, that season, eagerly reading copies of Byron's oriental tales. (Together with his half-length portrait, Phillips exhibited his 'Albanian' portrait of Byron in the same exhibition.) Though it undoubtedly succeeded in drawing favourable attention to the painter (an important consideration for an artist in submitting works for exhibition) and possessed much 'that conveys the idea of the softness and the wildness of character of the popular poet of the East', Hazlitt rightly criticized its 'too smooth' appearance in which Byron appears 'barbered ten times o'er' (Complete Works, 18.18–19). Perhaps overwhelmed by the need to represent the charismatic identity of the sitter and satisfy the exacting requirements for painting the flamboyant dress (or possibly constrained by the need to rely on his half-length portrait rather than further ad vivum sittings), Phillips only partially fulfilled the opportunity for portrayal this commission presented. Nevertheless, the image is one that continues to fascinate viewers, and the half-length replica in the National Portrait Gallery is one of its most popular portraits.

Romantic portraiture

'A witty poet', quoted in Phillips's obituary, wrote that '“Phillips shall paint my wife, and Lawrence my mistress”' (The Athenaeum, 418). Perhaps because it was never intended for public exhibition Phillips's portrait of Byron's lover, Lady Caroline Lamb in the Costume of a Page (1814; priv. coll., repr. Lister, no. 32), intended by the sitter as a pendant to a portrait of Byron and painted while the Albanian portrait was in his studio, provided him with an opportunity to explore the portrayal of Romantic passion. In 1812 Byron had described Lady Caroline as 'a little volcano … the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that lives' (Byron's Letters and Journals, 2.170–71). In a composition based on Titian's Girl with a Platter of Fruits (c.1555; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Lady Caroline appears in a vine-hung arbour as Biondetta (a spirit of the devil) bearing a gold platter of grapes. As in the picaresque tale (published in English in 1810) to which the painting alludes, the opalescent clarity of Biondetta's/Lady Caroline's face and the smooth texture of her complexion stand out as an apparition within the surrounding richly coloured and textured fruit and foliage, and silk and velvet fabrics. It is Phillips's engagement with his subject (as well as his rich use of colour) that makes this painting a masterpiece of Romantic portraiture.

Artistic responsibilities

In 1813 Phillips briefly took on as a pupil his distant kinsman Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who made a copy of his half-length portrait of Byron (Nottingham City Museums, Newstead Abbey collections). In 1814 Wainewright was succeeded by John Partridge, who became a successful portrait painter. That year Phillips visited his friend the banker, botanist, and antiquary Dawson Turner (who later wrote a memoir of Phillips) at Yarmouth; he also visited Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Wilton House near Salisbury, where he superintended the repair of some sculptures. In 1815, accompanied by Dawson Turner, he visited Paris, where they saw the 'occupation of the French capital by the allied troops' and the Louvre.

We saw it as left by Napoleon in its glory; we saw it in the confusion of Christie's auction room the day after a sale; & we saw it in its desolation. We walked down the steps with the Apollo of Belvidere & the Medicean Venus; we examined the beauties of the Madonna della seggiola leisurely in our own hands at the Austrian barracks; & we at the same place stood beside the Horses of St Mark, the proudest trophy in the world, as they lay stretched upon [a] litter in a waggon apparently neglected & forgotten. Impressions these, never to be effaced … I had the great pleasure of associating in his [Phillips's] company with Humboldt, Denon, Millin, Canova, Costa, Apostol, Gerard & Prud'hon; &, among our own countrymen, with Lord Dudley, & Mr Rogers, and with Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mr R. R. Reinagle, Mr Cook & Mr Underwood.

Turner, 8

In 1817 Phillips painted The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, June 24, 1814 (Petworth House; engraved by W. Ward), a crowded canvas that depicts, in the Marble Hall of Petworth, Lord Egremont receiving, among others, George, prince of Wales, Tsar Alexander of Russia, and Frederick William III, king of Prussia. Visits by Phillips and his family to Petworth, where in addition to executing commissions for portraits including several of his host (Petworth House, and NPG) he apparently compiled a list of Lord Egremont's collection of pictures, are recorded in the housekeeping books, together with those of Turner, C. R. Leslie, and George Clint. With his fellow artists Phillips was a mourner at Lord Egremont's funeral in November 1837.

With Turner, the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey (of whom he made a portrait in 1818, now in the National Portrait Gallery, in exchange for his own bust), and a Mr Robertson (possibly Andrew Robertson), Phillips had assisted in founding the Artists' General Benevolent Institution in 1814 and served as its vice-president. In 1825 Phillips had been appointed professor of painting at the Royal Academy and in consequence of this made a visit to Italy with Dawson Turner, the painter William Hilton, and, while in Florence, Sir David Wilkie, of whom he made a portrait in 1829 (Tate collection; replica, Scot. NPG). After resigning his professorship in 1832 Phillips published his Lectures on the History and Principles of Painting in 1833, which was reviewed by Allan Cunningham in The Athenaeum (9 November 1833). Further publications included contributions to Rees's Cyclopaedia and a memoir of William Hogarth for John Nichols's The Genuine Works of W. H., 3 vols. (1808–17). Phillips was actively involved in the business of the academy and served on its hanging committee. Following his 'bitter and acute disappointment' with the academy over the hanging of his history painting Dentatus at the academy's exhibition in 1809 ('they placed it in the dark'), Benjamin Haydon maintained a grievance against Phillips who that year served on the academy's council (Diary, ed. Pope, 1.123). Haydon felt that this experience 'threw a cloud on the whole of my life'. In 1826 he noted that Phillips was 'kind but peevish. His manner of Art is heavy, a sort of exaggeration of Kneller's and Reynolds's breadth' (ibid., 3.124), and reached a climax in his extended rhyming diatribe against Phillips entered in his diary on 20 August 1831.

Death and reputation

After a period of frailty Phillips died at his home in George Street on 20 April 1845 and was interred in Paddington church, Middlesex, next to his brother Samuel (d. 1830), who in 1796 had engraved in mezzotint his portrait of the apothecary George Fordyce. Haydon noted, 'Poor Phillips is dead! … [I] hope [he] has left his family well off—his Wife was always true to my Genius & Works' (Diary, ed. Pope, 5.429).

Phillips painted over 700 portraits, many of which are entered in the transcript of his sitter book held at the National Portrait Gallery. Though he received many commissions from aristocratic patrons, he is now chiefly remembered for his portraits of 'the men of genius of his time', especially Byron (The Athenaeum, 418). In a full-face self-portrait (NPG) he is seen with grey hair, elegantly dressed in a dark green coat, striped yellow waistcoat, and white neckcloth and cravat, and appears in a painted oval holding brushes and palette. Light falls from the right on to his prominent forehead. This portrayal of his status as a gentleman and ‘man of genius’ is in harmony with the sensitive expression of his large dark eyes and refined facial features, which convey an emotional appeal to the viewer's imagination. Overshadowed as they have been by Lawrence's bravura portraits of the aristocracy and beautiful women, Phillips's portraits provide a fascinating (and substantial) record of many of the keenest minds of his age and demonstrate that interest in the interior life of the individual at the centre of Romanticism.

Henry Wyndham Phillips

Of his two sons and two daughters, Phillips's elder son, J. Scott Phillips (d. 1884), became an officer in the Bengal artillery. In his will Phillips left all his painting materials to his younger son, Henry Wyndham Phillips (1820–1868), painter, with the instruction that he should be permitted to use his father's painting rooms at 8 George Street, Hanover Square until he reached the age of twenty-five. He lived at Hanover Square for the remainder of his life. Trained under his father, H. W. Phillips was also a portrait painter. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1838; between 1845 and 1849 he also showed a few scriptural subjects at the British Institution. He served for thirteen years as secretary of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, and held the rank of captain in the Artists' volunteer corps. He died suddenly at his country home, Hollowcombe, Sydenham, Kent, on 8 December 1868, leaving a widow, Susanna Catherine. Some of his works, including his portrait of A. H. Layard, were engraved.


  • D. Turner, ‘Slight biographical sketch of Thomas Phillips Esq. RA in a letter to a friend … followed by a list of the engravings after his pictures’, V&A NAL, MS L. 135–1980
  • C. Miller, ‘Thomas Phillips RA, FRS, FSA, 1770–1845: portrait painter’, MA diss., Courtauld Inst., 1977
  • ‘Thomas Phillips catalogue of his works, 1899’, NPG [Phillips's sitter book]
  • A. Peach, ‘Portraits of Byron’, Walpole Society, 62 (2000), 1–144
  • A. Peach, ‘I have a love for freedom too: Byron in Albanian dress’
  • The Athenaeum (26 April 1845), 418
  • R. J. B. Walker, National Portrait Gallery Regency portraits, 2 vols. (1985)
  • photographs, annotated sale catalogues, MS notes, NPG
  • W. Sussex RO, Petworth House papers, MSS 8064, 7520, 7525–7527
  • housekeeping books, W. Sussex RO, Petworth House archives, MSS 3109–3111
  • C. H. Collins-Baker, Catalogue of the Petworth collection of pictures in the collection of Lord Leconfield (1920)
  • J. Hamilton, Fields of influence (2001)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2018, sig. 417
  • The diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. W. B. Pope, 5 vols. (1960–63)
  • S. C. Hutchison, ‘The Royal Academy Schools, 1768–1830’, Walpole Society, 38 (1960–62), 123–91, esp. 152–3
  • D. Solkin, ed., On the line (2001)
  • F. Russell, Portraits of Sir Walter Scott (privately printed, 1987)
  • M. D. Paley, Portraits of Coleridge (1999)
  • private information (2004) [Virginia Murray]
  • Byron's letters and journals, ed. L. A. Marchand, 12 vols. (1973–82)
  • C. R. C., ‘Thomas Phillips, Esq. R.A.’, The Athenaeum (26 April 1845), 468
  • O. Millar, The later Georgian pictures in the collection of her majesty the queen, 2 vols. (1969), xix
  • R. Lister, British Romantic painting (1989)
  • The complete works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (1930–34)


  • NL Scot., John Murray archive, letters
  • NPG, sitters book [MS transcript]


  • W. Sherlock, miniature, 1795, V&A
  • T. Phillips, self-portrait, oils, 1802–1803, NPG [see illus.]
  • T. Phillips, self-portrait, 1815–1820, NPG
  • F. Chantrey, bust, 1821, AM Oxf.
  • T. Phillips, self-portrait, oils, 1830, RA
  • W. Brockedon, pencil and chalk drawing, 1834, NPG
  • J. Linnell, oils, 1835
  • H. W. Phillips, oils, 1839
  • T. Phillips, self-portrait, 1844
  • T. Lupton, mezzotint, pubd 1845 (after T. Phillips, 1844), BM, NPG
  • F. Chantrey, plaster mask, AM Oxf.
  • Mrs D. Turner, etching (after T. Phillips), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

left house at 8 George Street, Hanover Square, London; also collection of paintings: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2018, sig. 417

West Sussex Record Office, Chichester
National Portrait Gallery, Heinz Archive and Library
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
J. Farington, ed. K. Garlick, A. Macintyre, K. Cave, & E. Newby, 17 vols. (1978–98)
A. Graves, , 8 vols. (1905–6), repr. (1970), repr. (1972)
Victoria and Albert Museum National Art Library, London