Thomas Baker by Octavius Oakley (1800 - 1867)

Reproduced by kind permission of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Thomas Baker was born on 8th October 1809 at the Free school in

Harborne, Birmingham. He was the third child of Jane Freeth and Thomas Baker who was headmaster of the school. He lived in Harborne until the age of 27 studying art under the Birmingham artist Joseph Vincent Barber at his academy in Great Charles Street in Birmingham where one of his fellow pupils was Thomas Creswick           (1811-1869)

Joseph Barber was to greatly influence Baker's work and life. Apparently their style of painting was very similar and it was probably Barber who introduced Thomas to the Birmingham Society of Arts, who had their first exhibition in 1827. The society had been established in 1821 as a school art and to organise exhibitions of work by Birmingham artists, including David Cox (1783-1859) and Thomas Creswick.

However following a disagreement with the society's patrons in 1842, all the artists                                                                                                                                                     

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left the society and a number of them, including Thomas Baker founded the Birmingham Society of Artists to mount annual exhibitions.

Barber probably also introduced Baker to Warwickshire and encouraged him to move to Leamington where he would spend the next thirty years of his life.

Paintings of 'Light and sweetness'

At the time of Thomas Baker's birth, landscape paintings had a much lower status than history painting. This began to change during his lifetime, books on the landscape painters Richard Wilson and J.M.W.Turner were published and the number of Landscape painters increased significantly.

Thomas Baker followed the early 19th century trend of copying the old masters to produce a rather idyllic view of the countryside populated by small groups of contented farm workers, cattle or sheep.

Almost all of Baker's landscapes are shown under the blue skies of spring or summer, again giving the illusion of the countryside as a perpetually warm pleasant environment where people are not included, there are signs that it is a landscape controlled by man not nature. Roads and paths wind their way through cultivated fields to distant houses and domestic animals graze by farm buildings

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Thomas Baker found that the landscape around Leamington Spa conformed perfectly with the oil masters vision of landscape and from the 1830's onwards almost all his pictures are of landscapes around his home town. Among his favourite places were Stoneleigh Park, Offchurch, and Old Milverton.

He tended to divide his compositions in half, the top part for the sky and the bottom for the land. This he often bridged by the solid mass of a gnarled Warwickshire oak tree. The viewer's eye is led into the painting by a river or track running into the landscape from the foreground. To the landscape he added domestic animals or people to provide a focus point of interest. The eye is drawn straight to these figure by painting their clothes white or red,a visual trick used by the artists John Constable and David Cox.

Baker travelled outside Warwickshire to paint views of popular landscapes of the time in Wales, Derbyshire, Worcester, The Lake District and Ireland. These all tend to follow the same compositions and subject matter as his Warwickshire paintings. 

 

As well as oil paintings,Baker produced watercolours and drawings. His watercolours vary from thinly painted pictures using broad brushstrokes to detailed and tightly painted works. However his oil paintings are not so variable He painted on both canvas and wooden panels and he always used layers of thinned oil paint to produce very smooth textured paintings in which almost every leaf on the trees can be seen. Baker kept a series of diaries listing  901 of his oil paintings from 1829 onwards. These give us details of each picture including the oils he used and where and when he painted and then sold or exhibited them.

Thomas Baker seems to have been acutely aware of the market for paintings. He produced paintings of recognisable scenes in the idealised style of the popular old master paintings. He may also have included figures in some paintings because they fetched higher prices. His diaries also record copies he was commissioned to make of earlier paintings he had sold.

His paintings were sold at exhibitions throughout Britain and Ireland, such as those organised by the British Institute and the Royal Academy. He also continued to exhibit at the Birmingham Society of Artists. This later became the Royal Society of Artists, which still exists and is based in New Street, Birmingham.

Locally his pictures were sold in the shops of stationers and frame carvers and guilders such as the shop of William Whitehead of Willes Road, Leamington. Here William framed pictures and sold artists' materials and paintings and Thomas would also exchange pictures for prints and framing.

Thomas Baker signed his paintings: T.BAKER  and often inscribed verso the subject together with the diary number. The number can sometimes be found on the inside of the stretcher.

Buyers of his work.

In many cases the diaries  give the names of who bought his painting and how much was paid.  For example over 46 paintings were acquired by Mr. Edwin Parkes, a Carver and Guilder of  Birmingham.  Another purchaser was Mr. James White, Pawn Broker also from Birmingham who besides buying paintings would on occasions exchange items for them. Diary entry No 105 was exchanged for a 'watch' and No 150 for a 'gun' value £3 (Thomas Baker was an extremely keen country sportsman). Further examples of Thomas's readiness to exchange his work are given in several other diary entries . 

No 777   On the River Mawddach,      North Wales 

No 737 Farmyard at Whitnash

(copyright Leamington Museum & Art Gallery)

Detail No 165 showing Thomas Baker's signature

No 138 A lane near Snitterfield

(copyright Leamington Museum & Art Gallery)

No 860 Saggy's Barn, Oldham's Farm    (copyright Leamington Museum & Art Gallery)

No 897 Stratford on Avon  July 1864

(copyright Leamington Museum & Art Gallery)