Lemuel Francis ABBOTT
1760 – 1802
Portrait of Dr Francis Robert Tomkins 1785 – 1789
Oil on canvas
Foundation painting of the Rockhampton City Art Collection. Gift of the Estate of Edward Cureton Tomkins, 1931 | 1931.001
A major research project commissioned by the Gallery and completed in 2009 was an investigation of the Gallery’s foundation painting (donated to the City of Rockhampton in 1931 from the estate of the sitter’s great-grandson, a Rockhampton resident, Edward Cureton Tomkins) the Portrait of Dr Francis Robert Tomkins (late 1780s), which had previously been attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Intensive research by a British historian, Emma Hicks, has led to a re-attribution of the picture to Lemuel Francis Abbott (c.1760-1802). Ms Hicks also referred the picture and her findings to leading 18th century British painting specialists (Alastair Laing, Brian Allen and Martin Postle), who concurred with her attribution.
The picture was apparently mentioned in the will of the sitter’s son: the last will and testament of Robert Burgoyne Tomkins, February 1837, leaves “my father’s picture” to his eldest surviving son, Henry Weston Tomkins, who died in Newcastle, New South Wales in 1885, leaving the painting to his second son, Edward Cureton Tomkins (1860-c.1931). It was donated in 1931 to the city of Rockhampton from Edward Cureton Tomkins’ estate.
The sitter, Dr Francis Robert Tomkins (d.1794), was an army surgeon and successful London doctor. Tomkins (otherwise Tomkyns, spellings being interchangeable in the 18th century) was apparently from a Pembrokeshire family (SW Wales, UK). Little is known of his early life, his education or his training, but his medical qualifications and those of his son were awarded in Scotland. He joined the Dragoon Guards in 1742 as an assistant and later passed as a regimental surgeon. Tomkins was a Doctor to (His) Majesty’s Hospital in 1761 and the following month was appointed Staff-Surgeon. In this capacity he went to Portugal with British expeditionary forces. From 1765 Tomkins seems to have spent the remainder of his career as a successful London based surgeon and, at least from 1772 when he was awarded his medical diploma, as a doctor as well. He lived in Oxenden Street and later in Park Place off St James’s, a very exclusive and fashionable area of London. He kept a carriage and made visits to Bath, popular as a spa resort during the Georgian era and his daughters made advantageous marriages.
Tomkins’ son in law, Alexander Cuthbert, and brother both sat for Lemuel Francis Abbott portraits, as did a number of other medical men of the period: Abbott’s paintings of doctors at the Royal College of Surgeons include the following: Henry Revell Reynolds, 1745-1811; Robert Adair 1711-1790; Sir William Watson, 1715-1787; Thomas Denman 1733-1815, physician; William Saunders 1743-1817; and William Woodville 1752-1805.
The Portrait of Dr Francis Robert Tomkins, presents an established, confident looking man well into late middle age, in powdered wig. It is a fine example of a generic portrait of the era; the canvas size is a standard ready-stretched bust size of the time. Abbott’s most admired portraits are all of men and were busts or half-lengths. As an artist he seemed particularly good at capturing an alert expression in his sitters, evident in his image of Tomkins. A chair comparable to the one Francis Tomkins sits in here appears also in Abbott’s portraits of the poet William Cowper, and the shipowner, Captain William Hammond.
The late 18th century saw a huge increase in portraits of this type, often attributed (as the Tomkins picture was for many years) to the leading artist of the age, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), president of the newly established Royal Academy of Arts in London, who ran a very successful studio producing both numerous portraits and establishing a market for them across mid-late 18th century society. Alongside Reynolds, many other artists of note were able to fill their sitters’ books with men and to a lesser extent women queuing up as subjects. Doctors, whose profession was becoming more organised and indeed recognised, were now frequently among those seeking a likeness from a portrait artist.
Lemuel Francis Abbott (c1760-1802) would only have been in his late 20s or early 30s when he painted Tomkins’ portrait. The son of a Leicestershire clergyman, Abbott was settled in London by 1784 and exhibiting at the Royal Academy. His practice in Bloomsbury seems to have been a flourishing one, with his most famous sitter being Horatio, Lord Nelson, who sat for him on several occasions. He also painted many other naval officers, colonial governors (possibly including Admiral Sir Arthur Philip) and diplomats, and indeed medical men. Tragically by 1798 Abbott had been certified insane, dying in 1802.