Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frye, Thomas

FRYE, THOMAS (1710–1762), painter, mezzotint engraver, and china manufacturer, was born near Dublin in 1710, and came to England early in life, in company with Stoppelaer, a brother artist. He at first practised as a portrait painter with some success, and in 1734 painted a full-length portrait of Frederick, prince of Wales, for the hall of the Saddlers' Company in Cheapside, engraved by himself in mezzotint, and published in 1741. A portrait by him of Leveridge, the actor, was engraved in mezzotint by Pether, who was Frye's pupil in the art. Through Mr. Ellis, whose portrait he painted, Frye obtained an introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and became a familiar friend. In 1744 an American brought to London, and offered to the china manufactory, which seems to have been already in existence at Bow, some samples of an earth suitable for making china like that imported by the oriental merchants. It may have been through Frye, who was then residing at West Ham close by, that he obtained this introduction; at all events, on 6 Dec. 1744 a patent was taken out by ‘Edward Heylin in the parish of Bow, in the county of Middlesex, merchant, and Thomas Frye of the parish of West Ham, in the county of Essex, painter,’ for ‘a new method of manufacturing a certain mineral whereby a ware might be made of the same nature or kind, and equal, if not exceeding in goodness and beauty, china or porcelain ware imported from abroad. The material is an earth, the produce of the Cherokee nation in America, called by the natives unaker.’ A second patent was taken out on 17 Nov. 1749 by Frye alone, whose epitaph (published at length in Gent. Mag. 1764, xxxiii. 638) grandiloquently styles him ‘the Inventor and first Manufacturer of Porcelain in England.’ Frye became the manager of the china manufactory, which he constructed on the model of that at Canton in China, and called ‘New Canton,’ and brought Bow china into some repute. Pieces of this china are sometimes marked with his initials. After spending fifteen years in this profession, his health became seriously impaired by living among the furnaces, and he was forced to relinquish an active share in the business, which rapidly declined in later years. He retired into Wales to restore his health, and resumed his former profession as a portrait and miniature painter. After twelve months he returned to London, and settled in Hatton Garden. He now engraved and published the series of lifesize portrait heads in mezzotint, by which he is best known to the world at large. These are works of great power, and their artistic merit has been generally admitted. It is stated that Frye used to frequent the theatre in order to make drawings of royalty and other people of quality, and that the king and queen, George III and Charlotte, used to pose themselves in order to give him special facilities for his object. It is also stated that the ladies whose portraits he thus drew declined to have their names affixed to the engravings, as they did not know in what company they might appear. Many of this series, eighteen in number, are unidentified, some being of his own family; among those identified, besides the king and queen and his own portrait, are Garrick, the Duchess of Northumberland, the Gunning sisters, Elizabeth countess of Berkeley, Miss Pond, the actress, and Miss Stothouse. Complete sets are scarce; one was formed by Mr. Charles and Lady Charlotte Schreiber at Langham House, Portland Place, and there are fine examples in the print room at the British Museum. Frye was very corpulent and subject to gout; adopting an over-spare diet, he fell into a consumption, and died on 2 April 1762, in his fifty-second year. He left a son, who turned out badly, and two daughters, who assisted him in painting the china at Bow; one, Catherine, married a painter of Worcester china of the name of Willcox, and with her husband was employed by Wedgwood in a similar capacity at his works at Etruria up to her death in 1776.

Frye's epitaph quoted above also states that ‘no one was more happy in delineating the human countenance. He had the correctness of Vandyck, and the colouring of Rubens. In miniature painting he equalled, if not excelled, the famous Cooper.’ A portrait by Frye of Jeremy Bentham, painted in 1761, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Chaloner Smith's British Mezzotinto Portraits; Chaffers's Marks and Monograms on Pottery and Porcelain, 7th edit. 1886; Gent. Mag. cited above.]

L. C.