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Portrait of John Palmer

Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727 - 1788

Made in England, Europe

c. 1775

Oil on canvas

30 x 25 1/8 inches (76.2 x 63.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 377, European Art 1500-1850, third floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The William L. Elkins Collection, 1924

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Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    John Palmer (1742-1818) is remembered in the history of the English stage as the manager of the Bath Theatre in Orchard Street, which, under him, attracted the greatest stars of the eighteenth-century stage. Among the performers who first appeared there were John Henderson (1747-1785), Mrs. Siddons (1755-1831), and Mrs. Abington (1737-1815). Palmer persuaded King George III to grant letters patent to his theater, making it the Theatre Royal, Bath--the first provincial theater to be so honored, and a distinction it shared only with Covent Garden and Drury Lane.1 But this was only the first phase in his remarkable career. In his work for the theater, traveling up and down the country in search of actors, Palmer hit upon a simple but brilliant idea for improving communications between English cities. Through his invention he revolutionized the English mails.

    Before Palmer, the mail was carried in a one-horse diligence, or "machine." If this arrived at all (robbery of the mails was common) it was slow, taking two days to complete the journey between London and Bath. By suggesting that the mail be carried in a coach drawn by two horses, which were to be changed every six miles, he proposed to increase the speed of the mails to eight or nine miles an hour, thus cutting the London/Bath route to sixteen hours. Palmer's coaches were to carry no passengers outside the coach and to be protected by shotgun-carrying guards whose presence would dampen any attempt to interfere with their progress. The coach was to leave London punctually at 8:00 in the evening--not between 12:00 and 3:00 A.M. as before--and was not permitted to wait for government letters when these happened to be late.2

    In October 1782, Pitt's government agreed to try Palmer's plan, and on Monday, August 2, 1784, the first mail coach left London for Bath. Within a few years, London was united to York, Chester, Glasgow, and Liverpool by an efficient mail system, and by 1788, 320 towns that formerly had received the post three times a week had it daily--an improvement that, if not quite akin to the invention of the telephone, was of vast importance for every aspect of English life, as it allowed the provinces to keep up with political and commercial developments in the capital. So awesome was the reputation of Palmer's improved mail coaches, that, as an old man Lord Chancellor Campbell (1779-1861) recalled that in his youth travelers were warned to make their wills before departure as "instances were offered...of passengers who had died suddenly of apoplexy from rapidity of motion."3

    Palmer well knew the value of his invention. As a result of its success he was appointed comptroller general of the Post Office, in which capacity he proceeded to reorganize that department of the government. By oral agreement he was to have received for life 2 1/2 percent of the increased revenue of the Post Office, and on this commitment the government reneged. Not surprisingly, Palmer created a furor, and found himself dismissed from office. Eventually, in 1808, he won his claim for recompense, but by this time he had distinguished himself in yet another career. He was twice elected mayor of Bath (in 1796 and 1809) and was returned as Member of Parliament for that city four times (in 1801, 1802, 1806, and 1807). He died in Brighton in 1818.4

    Palmer himself is a fascinating figure. Born into an old Bath family, he was educated for the church at Marlborough Grammar School but instead entered the countinghouse of his father's brewery, before devoting himself to the theatrical side of the family business. A hot-headed enthusiast, a man of great enterprise, perseverance, and physical endurance, he was a close friend of Gainsborough. The Philadelphia portrait shows him about age thirty-three, while he was still living and working in Bath, and before he became involved in the reform of the mails. Gainsborough's portrait suggests an intelligent and thoughtful man, showing Palmer looking up from a book held in his right hand. With his left hand propped at his cheek, he turns to his right, an expression of keen intelligence on his face. He is dressed in a green coat against a red background.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 125-127.

    1. Belville S. Penley, The Bath Stage (London, 1892), pp. 33-37; R. E. Peach, Historic Houses in Bath and Their Associations (London and Bath, 1884), pp. 115-19.
    2. Herbert Joyce, The History of the Post Office, from Its Establishment Down to 1836 (London, 1893), pp. 208-80.
    3. Jerom Murch, Biographical Sketches of Bath Celebrities Ancient and Modern (London and Bath, 1893), p. 112.
    4. Ibid., pp. 113-14.

    George Scharf, annotated sales catalogue, Christie's, July 18, 1874, p. 3, lot 56, National Portrait Gallery Library, London (contains a pencil drawing of the portrait); Catalogue of Paintings in the Private Collection of W. L. Elkins. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1887-1900, vol. 2, p. 61, repro.; Jerom Murch, Biographical Sketches of Bath Celebrities Ancient and Modern (London and Bath, 1893), p. 116; Mrs. Arthur Bell [N. D'Anvers], Thomas Gainsborough: A Record of His Life and Works (London, 1897), repro. between pp. 104-5; William Roberts. Memorials of Christie's: A Record of Art Sales from 1766 to 1896. 2 vols. London, 1897, vol. 2, p. 256; G[eorge] A[ therton] A[ itkin], Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. "Palmer, John"; Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough and His Place in English Art. London and New York, 1898, p. 200; Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough and His Place in English Art. Rev. ed. London, 1904, p. 275 (mistakenly cited as John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia); Elkins, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Catalogue of Paintings in the Elkins Gallery. Philadelphia, 1921. no. 18; Ellis K. Waterhouse. "Preliminary Check List of Portraits by Thomas Gainsborough." The Walpole Society, 1948-1950, vol. 33 (1953) p. 82; Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958. p. 84, no. 533.

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