- Deborah Graham-Vernon
Bowyer, Robert (1758–1834), miniature painter and publisher, was born in Portsmouth, the son of Amos Bowyer, a shipwright, and his wife, Betty Ann. He was baptized there on 18 June 1758. He served first as a clerk to a merchant in Portsmouth and then in London; there are conflicting accounts as to why he changed career. The first ('Bowyer memorials'), recounts that he intended to travel to America as a supercargo at his employer's request but, engaged to Mary Shoveller, he wished to present her with a likeness of himself before setting sail, and, unable to afford the services of a miniature painter, painted his own. Encouraged by a number of commissions, he abandoned his plans to go to America and began to take likenesses from a booth at Coxheath camp. Another version of Bowyer's life cites his need for employment as the motivation for his taking up painting (N&Q, 350). Bowyer married Mary in Portsmouth on 14 July 1777; they had one daughter.
At some time, probably in the late 1770s, Bowyer undertook professional training in London with the miniature painter John Smart. He exhibited first at the Free Society of Artists in 1782 (a portrait of a gentleman) and at the Royal Academy in 1783. About this time he moved to 68 Berners Street, London, Smart's former residence. Bowyer enjoyed much success as a miniature painter and his patrons included the duke of Rutland, the marchioness of Salisbury, and Lord Nelson; by April 1790 he described himself as miniature painter to his majesty. However, during the next decade Bowyer's interests became more concerned with print publishing, beginning with a number of his own portraits, including that of Dr Francis Willis, physician to George III, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789 and published that same year with a dedication to Queen Charlotte.
During the 1790s Bowyer began two major publishing projects: an illustrated edition of the Bible and Hume's The History of England. The earliest plates for the Holy Bible were published in 1791 and the series included thirty-two engravings by James Fittler after old masters in English private collections and was completed in 1795. The publication of the first part of The History of England in 1793 coincided with Bowyer's move from Berners Street to Pall Mall, to what he called the Historic Gallery. There he displayed the paintings commissioned from leading artists such as Benjamin West and P. J. de Loutherbourg for this series. By 1806 Bowyer had published five large folios reaching the year 1688 but the work was never completed owing to the high costs involved, a loss of £30,000 said already to have been incurred.
Bowyer also published a number of engraved series connected with India, probably facilitated by his friendship with Smart, who had gone there in 1785 and to whose children Bowyer acted as guardian. A proposal to publish, in collaboration with the engraver William Sharp and the painter Robert Smirke, the latter's Lord Cornwallis Receiving as Hostages the Two Sons of Tipoo Sultan was abandoned; however, Bowyer later published portraits of the three main protagonists by Smart. In 1794 he published Picturesque Views, with a Descriptive History of the Country of Tipoo Sultan after drawings by Robert Home and in 1797 Oriental Scenery: Twenty-Four Views in Hindoostan after drawings by Thomas Daniell.
The last years of the eighteenth century were difficult for Bowyer personally. The loss of his only daughter at eighteen in summer 1796 caused great personal anguish. In a letter to Warren Hastings he expressed his fear that his loss might be compounded as he was extremely doubtful whether his wife would survive the tragedy. However, in 1799 Bowyer and his wife took into their household a young, orphaned, wax modeller from Bristol named Catherine Andras. She became a member of the family and shared a number of sitters with Bowyer. Bowyer was a member of the Baptist Missionary Society and during the peace of Amiens he, his wife, and Andras travelled to Paris; this visit resulted in the formation of the French Evangelical Society. However, this visit had another important purpose for Bowyer, the collection of prints and engravings of scriptural subjects, which formed the basis of his famous edition of the Bible.
Bowyer's financial difficulties arising from the publication of The History of England were compounded by a lawsuit over Views in Egypt, Palestine and other Parts of the Ottoman Empire (1803). In 1806 he avoided financial ruin by disposing of the contents of the Historic Gallery by lottery. In that same year he moved to Byfleet in Surrey, although he maintained a house at various addresses in Pall Mall from where he continued to run his publishing business. At Byfleet, Bowyer pursued his evangelism, establishing a Sunday school and giving sermons. He purchased a public house that stood opposite his own residence, pulled it down, and erected a chapel; he also established a day school. Bowyer continued to publish up to his death, including Works of Raffaelle, Domenichino, Poussin, and Albano, issued in five volumes in 1819, and his last publication, A selection of fac-similies of watercolour drawings from the works of the most distinguished artists in 1825. However, Bowyer was also occupied in the creation of what became known as the Bowyer Bible. The religious prints and engravings he had collected in Paris were augmented by others, purchased by an agent in Paris by special permission during the Napoleonic wars. Bowyer's collection of prints was inserted into a copy of Thomas Macklin's illustrated edition of the Bible, and the resulting work reached forty-five volumes. Bowyer also took up painting again in his later years; George IV, the duke of York, and other members of the royal family sat to him.
However, Bowyer's last years were not free from difficulties. Following the death of his landlord at Byfleet, the duke of York, Bowyer had to purchase his house at a much increased value, which his own improvements had brought about. Further, great expense was incurred when, acting as executor for a friend, he became involved in a lawsuit. His home was mortgaged, only to suffer a fire. He died at Byfleet on 4 June 1834. The publishing business was left to Mary Parkes who, originally a housemaid at Byfleet, had been involved in the business from at least the late 1820s.
- V&A, MS biography
- BL, letters to W. Hastings, Add. MSS 29174–29180