I have been fascinated by the eighteenth-century British radical Thomas Hollis ever since I came across his diary in the Houghton Library, America. It was very exciting, therefore, that one of my first projects at the National Portrait Gallery was helping with fundraising to buy a marble bust of Hollis by Joseph Wilton. If Hollis’s name isn’t familiar to you, it’s probably what he would have wanted: he preferred to be anonymous.  Despite this reticence, the diary reveals a man who was tireless in attacking political corruption and defending civil liberties.

In a time when only property-owning men could vote, Hollis wanted to see power given to the people.  He railed against the government’s hounding of John Wilkes, who had criticised ministers in the press, and poured out his hopes that William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, might usher in a new reforming age in British political life.  His loss of faith in Pitt confirmed his opinion that all politicians were inevitably corrupt and it is unsurprising that he didn’t try to go into politics.  Instead, he wrote articles, supported new authors and republished books by radical British thinkers from the period of the civil war.

Hollis is best known for his support for American independence.  He made sure that American colonists’ voices were heard in the press and provided practical assistance in the form of money and books.  Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Hollis’s edition of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government and described it as ‘probably the best elementary book of the principles of government ... which has ever been published in any language.’

It’s this energy in promoting other writers, rather than just wanting his own voice to be heard, that makes Hollis so inspiring to me.  He encouraged debate and even supported the rights of people whom he didn’t like, such as Wilkes.  Reformers of every persuasion can find a lot to appreciate in his example.  

By Clare Barlow, Assistant Curator 18th and 20th Centuries



Image Credit

Thomas Hollis by Joseph Wilton, 1760, purchased with help from the Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and the Portrait Fund, NPG 6946

John Wilkes by William Hogarth, published 16 May 1763, NPG D1362

 

Comments

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Nicholas

28 February 2013, 10:18

I am a descendant of the Hollis family, and am slowly researching the much earlier connections between the family and figures such as Anthony Ashley Cooper and John Locke, amongst others. The family were insome way associated with Harvard from as early as 1660, so it is no surprise that he should have been a fervent supporter of American Independence. Another member of the family, Daniel Neal, wrote a History of New England as well as the standard History of the Puritans.

npgblogadmin

9 November 2012, 12:54

Thank you for your comment. Thomas Hollis seems to have come up with the idea of curating radical ideas by himself. He believed that if people had the opportunity to be educated and inspired by the past, they would be encouraged to challenge the status quo and take a more active role in politics. This belief also lay behind his support for the newly-founded British Museum and he gave them several works from his collection.

His impact is hard to assess but he helped to keep the concept of parliamentary reform alive in a period when it was comparatively unfashionable. His ideas also had a lasting influence on the 1790s radicals through his protégé, Thomas Brand Hollis.

It was particularly exciting to add this work to the Collection as it is one of the most important portrait busts by Joseph Wilton, one of the best British sculptors of this period. It is beautifully carved and depicts Hollis without any trappings of power or status, emphasising his republican principles. We look for the best available images of people who have had a lasting impact on Britain. The sitter is our primary focus and we then try to find the best representation of that person.

Barbarian

9 November 2012, 12:43

It is always inspiring to come across people who are (were) incorrigible idealists but possessed of a savvy that allowed them to find a way to influence. The latest person I've added to my collection of such characters is Sam Rayburn, wonderfully painted in Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Did Brand Hollis have somebody's example to follow when he decided to curate ideas for the benefit of policymakers? And did he develop a comparable influence at home to what he exercised over the Founding Fathers (limited though that may have been as well)?

I wonder if he became so dedicated to the cause of US independence in particular because he read into the colonies his personal utopia, or rather, the potential for it.

I also found it interesting that you did not comment on the bust as a work of art. What kind of a balance do you seek in the NPG collection between portraits that are outstanding because of their artistic value and those that represent outstanding personalities?

npgblogadmin

8 November 2012, 11:57

Thank you for your interesting idea. They are a fascinating group of people and we are currently conducting more research in this area. Our plans haven’t yet been finalised but we are considering the idea of eventually putting on an exhibition or display. These things take a lot of planning, though, so it may be several years before it all comes together.

Last Edit: 8 November 2012, 14:20 by npgblogadmin

Michael Ignatius

4 November 2012, 18:54

Thanks for this - one of the joys of the internet is coming across something which stirs a train of thought. I am sure there is scope for an exhibition, or at least a display, on the 18th century political "awkward squad" who arose say after the Seven Years' War - once the Jacobite issue had faded. Obviously the NPG has abundant materials for it. Apart from Hollis, there is for instance the rather elusive figure of Robert Edge Pine - the Washington NPG put on an exhibition about him in 1979-80 - and his Catherine Macaulay was one of your star exhibits in 2008. The 1790's Political Martyrs are commemorated by obelisks in Edinburgh's Old Calton Cemetery and in London at Nunhead; and John Cartwright has his statue in Cartwright Gardens. We could remind ourselves what these statues/monuments signify, so to speak. The focus might be on those who went to the new American Republic, such as Thomas Paine. Naturally it gets more complicated if you draw in people like him who were also involved in French politics. Many artists seem to have been involved - at random one thinks of William Hodges - and that is before you draw in other creative people, not least Wordsworth! I realise that "Romantics and Revolutionaries" covered a lot of this ground in 2002 in the USA and its content is now in the flesh in rooms 17-20, but still it would be nice to revisit it: that is if you can overcome Thomas' shyness. What do you think?

Last Edit: 15 November 2012, 12:59 by npgblogadmin

npgblogadmin

1 November 2012, 12:13

Hollis is slightly better known in America but he isn’t as famous as later reformers, such as Thomas Paine who wrote The Rights of Man. This is partly because Hollis wanted to be anonymous and partly because he died in 1774, before the full impact of his project was known (America finally declared independence in 1776). We are therefore only just starting to realise his importance. We don’t know exactly why Hollis decided to try to reform politics but he recorded the decision in his diary in 1754. His family were dissenters (Christians who did not agree with the Church of England), which may have encouraged him to question the status quo. He was also very inspired by the books he read.

David

31 October 2012, 22:48

Given his support for American independence, and seeing that the Thomas Hollis bequest is Houghton Library's oldest book fund, is Hollis more well known in the United States? Is there a particular event or time in his life that inspired his radicalism?

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