John Taylor, Landscape Painter (Born 1735)

5th Great Grandfather – FFFMFFF1
Figure 1: John Taylor (c. 1775)

Ann Jane Taylor, Robert Nurse’s wife, and my great great grandmother was a descendent of John Taylor, the Landscape Painter, so he was my 5th great grandfather.  John was the only son of Abraham Taylor and Philadelphia Gordon - the daughter of Major General Patrick Gordon2, Deputy Governor and effective head of the Province of Pennsylvania from 1726 until his death in 1736. He was baptised 24 August 1735 at Christ Church, Philadeplphia.3

Although John Taylor was an artist of considerable repute during his lifetime4 - Benjamin Franklin called him the best Landscape Painter in England in a letter he wrote in 1783 complaining that all of America's best painters went to Europe5,6 - very little of his early life can be learned today. We do know that he didn't attend the Academy, of which his father was an eminent patron - at least he is not listed in the rolls. Instead, he was most likely tutored privately, probably in Philadelphia, but he may have been sent to school in England.

At any rate, he was still living with his parents when they returned to England in 1762. Soon after arriving in England he married Rebecca Luther in Clifton on 4th June 1763. Whether the family settled in Bath immediately on their return from the colonies, John and his father Abraham purchased one of the new houses in the Circus (number 22) on Christmas Eve, 1766, and the family moved in soon thereafter.7 Thomas Gainsborough, another much more famous painter of that age, also lived in the Circus - at Number 17.

Figure 2: Landscape with Large Tree (1780) from the Royal Collection

Rebecca Luther was the daughter of Richard Luther, esq. of Myles's in Essex, and she was the last survivor of that family. Her sister Charlotte had married Henry Fane esq. of Wormsley, Essex in 1748, becoming his third wife, and after having two sons, John and Francis, died in 1758. When her brother John, who had represented the county of Essex in parliament, died she became, with her sister's sons, co-heir of the Luther estates in Essex.

There is some confusion about John Taylor's life during the decade of the 1760's. This is no doubt due to the fact that there were at that time two other artists with the name John Taylor, a miniaturist and a John Taylor, actually "Old Taylor" who did Drawing at the Academy in St. Martin's Lane.

However, he apparently lived at least part of his life in Bath and moved fairly freely in Bath's high society. This is borne out by a number of published letters dating from that time.

Tobias Smollett, in his book Humphrey Clinker, writes through the letters from Bath of his creation, Squire Matthew Bramble:8

"In the course of coffeehouse conversation, I had often heard very extraordinary encomiums passed on the performances of Mr. T----, a gentleman residing in this place, who paints landscapes for his amusement. As I have no great confidence in the taste and judgment of coffeehouse connoisseurs, and never received much pleasure from this type of art, those general praises made no impression at all on my curiosity; but at the request of a particular friend, I went yesterday to see the pieces, which had been so warmly commended -- I must own I am no judge of painting, though very fond of pictures .........If I am not totally devoid of taste, however this gentleman of Bath is the best landscape-painter now living."

These letters, while supposedly those of the fictitious Squire Matthew Bramble, are based on Smollett's experiences in Bath during 1766. While John Taylor is identified by initial only, others were more explicit in identifying him. James Boswell, who was in Bath on April 30th, 1776 noted in his journal:9

"Pump Room, gay. Breakfasted at Gould's, called on Sharpe and the Sharplings. Then to John Taylor's to see his pictures. Then to William Hoare's."

and Mrs. Thrale in a letter to Dr. Johnson of April 28th, 1780 wrote:10

"This morning it was all connoisseurship; we went to see some pictures painted by the gentleman-artist, Mr. Taylor, of this place."

The actor David Garrick also recorded his appreciation of John Taylor's abilities in a poem entitled, "Upon seeing Mr. Taylor's pictures of Bath and hearing a Connoisseur swear that 'they were fairly painted for a gentleman' ":11

Tell me the meaning you who can,

Of "finely for a gentleman!"

Is genius, rarest gift of heaven,

To the hir'd artist only given?

Or. like the Catholic salvation,

Pal'd in for any class or station?

Is it bound 'prentice to the trade,

Which works, and as it works, is paid?

Is there no skill to build, invent,

Unless inspired by five per cent?

And shalt thou, Taylor, paint in vain,

Unless impell'd by hopes of gain?

Be wise, my friend, and take thy fee,

That Claud Loraine may yield to thee.

David Garrick, who first visited Bath in 1766 and returned occasionally in later years, appears to have been one of John Taylor's closest friends, until the actor's death on January 20th, 1779. 12

The American Revolution of 1776 and the ensuing Revolutionary War would probably have caused a period of relative hardship for the Taylor family. The bulk of John Taylor's estate, which he inherited from his father, was in investments in the American colonies. Exactly how much he was affected financially is difficult to assess, as the necessary documentation no longer exists. However, there are indications that he was concerned for his financial security.

In two letters to Benjamin Franklin in the early part of the decade, he expresses concern that land that he owned should not be forfeited to the newly independent government. He concludes one letter with the statement: "be assur'd good Sir not a thought ever enter'd my heart which could give a shadow to suspect my warmest attachment and sincerest good wishes to that country",13,14,15 the country he had left some twenty years earlier and to which, he saw it, various unavoidable circumstances had prevented his ever returning. He also put several of his paintings up for sale, no doubt in an effort to improve his financial position.

During the late 1780's John Taylor moved away from Bath, living at least for a short time in Hotwells, in the parish of Clifton, Bristol. Around 1790 the family appears to have moved to London, with the exception of his mother who stayed in Bath, where she died in 1793.

Figure 3: Duke Street, Bath

The family stayed in London until the turn of the century when they returned to Bath, where his name appears in the Bath directory. Their circumstances were not quite as good as when they previously lived in Bath, as they moved into 4 Duke Street, which while a decent townhouse, was nowhere near as "fancy" as the Circus.

Figure 4: The Family of John and Rebecca Taylor

John and Rebecca had seven children, three sons – John, Richard and Henry – and four daughters Harriott, Charlotte, Frances and Lucy.16,17,18,19 My grandfather's notes on the family tree indicate that Henry Taylor was the grandfather of Ann Jane Taylor, who married Robert Nurse, youngest son of Robert and Sally Nurse, and my great-great-grandfather.  I describe the case for this conclusion in an article on Henry.

Two of the girls died quite young, Lucy as an infant and Harriet, at the age of 25. When Harriett died in 1794, her father wrote "An Elegy On the Death of a ... Daughter". 20 copies were printed and bound. I have a reprint of the publication, which was signed by the author but also by John's grandaughter - Anne Fane Stallard, the daughter of his oldest son John.20

Apparently, two of John and Rebecca's sons became physicians. The eldest son, John practiced primarily in Dorsetshire, while Richard practiced in Bath.21 John inherited from his maternal grandfather, Richard Luther, the estate of Vicar's Hill, near Boldre in Hampshire, together with a half share in the Alderton Hall and Hinton Hall estates in Suffolk.22

John (the son) was also adopted by his maternal uncle, John Luther, but after a dispute with his uncle, John Luther having no children of his own bequeathed most of the Luther estates to the children of his other sister, Charlotte, i.e. Francis and John Fane.23

John Taylor died at his residence in Bath on November 8th, 1806, at the age of 72, and his death was recorded in the Bath Chronicle.

"On Saturday died at his house in this city John Taylor, esq. Upon subjects of science and literature few men were better informed, but his excellence as a landscape painter will long be known to the world, from the beautiful engravings taken from some of his celebrated pictures. His house in this city, some years since, was resorted to by all persons distinguished for talent and genius."

His wife Rebecca, died 15 years later in 1821, and both of them are buried at the parish of Newton St Loe just to the west of Bath.24

Bibliography and Notes


  1. When showing relationships F means Father, M means Mother. So FFM is my father’s father’s mother.

  2. Chronicles of Pennsylvania, vol II, Charles P. Keith, Philadelphia, 1917, p686.

  3. "Records of Christ Church, Philadelphia, Baptisms, 1709-1760," Charles R. Hildeburn, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XVII, (1893), p357.

  4. An Eighteenth-Century American Landscape Painter Rediscovered: John Taylor of Bath, A. S. Marks, The American Art Journal, Nov 1978, pp. 81ff.

  5. Benjamin Franklin wrote in a reply to the Dutch Painter Jan Ingenhousz, who had written to him regarding the opportunities for employment in the newly independent United States - "Our geniuses all go to Europe. In England at present, the best History Painter, West; the best Portrait Painter, Copley; and the best Landscape Painter, Taylor, at Bath are all American.”6

  6. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, A.H. Smyth, ed., IX, pp. 44ff.

  7. Major John André and No. 22, The Circus, Bath, The Survey of Bath and District, No. 24, October 2009, Dr. Sydney T. Chapman (https://archive.org/details/MajorJohnAndrAndNo.22TheCircusBath)

  8. The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, T. Smollett, Knapp, ed. pp. 75ff.

  9. Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle, Geoffrey Scott and Frederick A. Pottle, eds. (New York, 1929-36), XI, p. 267.

  10. Boswell's Life of Johnson, L. F. Powell, ed. (Oxford, 1934-50), III, p. 422.

  11. The Poetical Works of David Garrick (London, 1785), II, p516

  12. A number of letters between John Taylor and David Garrick have been published, and they demonstrate a deep friendship between the two men.

  13. The Franklin Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pa.

  14. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-31-02-0311.

  15. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-38-02-0290

  16. The Will of Rebecca Taylor, dated 29 August 1821; Consistory Court of Canterbury Wills, Public Record Office.

  17. The Will of Jane Luther, dated 9 February 1787; Consistory Court of Canterbury Wills, Public Record Office.

  18. The Parish Register of St. Swithen, Walcot, Bath. Transcribed and Indexed by FreeReg (www.freereg.org.uk).

  19. Personal Notes of William Richmond Nurse, 1882-1937.

  20. An Elegy on the Death of a most Dear and Affectionate Daughter, Miss Harriet Taylor, who died November 15, 1794, in the 25th Year of her Age, Bulmer and Co, London, 1805.

  21. Richard Taylor, M.D. lived for some time at 40 Green Park, Bath. He was interred in Clifton, 19/3/1860.

  22. The Will of Richard Luther, dated 27 January 1768; Consistory Court of Canterbury Wills, Public Record Office.

  23. Burke's Commoners of England and Wales, Vol 4., p7.

  24. Somerset, England, Church of England Burials, 1813-1914, Ancestry.com, Provo, UT, USA.

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