Michael Faraday

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Michael Faraday

by Thomas Phillips
oil on canvas, 1841-1842
35 3/4 in. x 28 in. (908 mm x 711 mm)
Purchased, 1868
Primary Collection
NPG 269

On display in Room 16 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Thomas Phillips (1770-1845), Portrait painter. Artist or producer associated with 218 portraits, Sitter in 4 portraits.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 20
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • The British Portrait, 1660-1960, 1991, p. 26 number 19
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 20
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 21 Read entry

    Born the son of a blacksmith, and largely self-taught, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) became one of the greatest of all scientists. He received his scientific education working as assistant to Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution from 1813. It was there, on 29 August 1831, that he made his greatest discovery: electromagnetic induction. This breakthrough led to a series of experiments carried out over the following ten weeks that are now acknowledged as the basis of modern electrical technology. This portrait shows him with two essential pieces of laboratory equipment: on the left is a Cruikshank battery of the sort he used in his electrical experiments, while the flames on the right indicate a furnace, which was necessary for a range of laboratory work at this time.

  • Hackmann, W.D., Apples and Atoms: Portraits of Scientists from Newton to Rutherford, 1986, p. 50
  • Hart-Davis, Adam, Chain Reactions, 2000, p. 170
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 82 Read entry

    The inventor Faraday’s power source was often a battery of the ‘trough’ type seen here, developed by William Cruikshank in 1804. The elements of alternating copper and zinc plates, or electrodes (Faraday’s term), were secured to a wooden bar resting on the box filled with a dilute solution of ammonium chloride. The bar allowed the elements to be removed from the corrosive liquid when not in use.

  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 168
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 213
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 138 Read entry

    Michael Faraday was born the son of a blacksmith in what is now the Elephant and Castle district of London. He became, arguably, the greatest of all experimental scientists. Apprenticed to a bookbinder and bookseller, Faraday formed an early interest in science, and in March 1813 became assistant to Sir Humphry Davy, one of the most famous scientists in Europe and Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution. Davy’s influence was crucial, as was the Institution, where Faraday became Superintendent in 1821 and where he spent his entire working life. He introduced popular lecture series there for children, and it was in its laboratory in August 1831 that he made his most important discovery: electromagnetic induction. It was a discovery that became the basis of modern electrical technologies. Likewise, in chemistry, his establishment of the chemical formula of benzene and its derivatives formed the building blocks of the modern pharmaceutical industry.

    This portrait by Thomas Phillips (1770–1845) shows Faraday with two essential pieces of laboratory equipment of the period. On the left is a Cruikshank battery of the sort he used in his electrical experiments, while the flames on the right indicate a furnace.

Events of 1841back to top

Current affairs

Sir Robert Peel's second term as Prime Minister. Peel replaces the Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne after a Conservative general election victory. The English comic periodical Punch is first published, under the auspices of engraver Ebenezer Landells and writer Henry Mayhew, and quickly establishes itself as a radical commentary on the arts, politics and current affairs, notable for its heavily satirised cartoons.

Art and science

Thomas Carlyle publishes his set of lectures On Heroes and Hero Worship, in which he attempts to connect past heroic figures to significant figures form the present.
William Henry Fox Talbot invents the calotype process, in which photographs were developed from negatives. This allowed for multiple copies of images to be made, and was the basis of modern, pre-digital, photographic processing.


Signing of the Straits Convention, an international agreement between Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Turkey, denying access to non-Ottoman warships through the seas connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, a major concession by Russia. Whilst signalling a spirit of co-operation, the convention emphasises the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

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