Thomas Beach, Thomas Horner (1737–1804)

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All Rights Reserved)


Country House
Mells Manor
Thomas Horner (1737–1804)
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Overall height: 240 cm, Overall width: 145 cm
Thomas Beach (1737-1806)
Catalogue Number


Thomas Beach, the artist of the present portrait, was born in Milton Abbey, Dorset. Following a brief period as a pupil of Joshua Reynolds in London during the early 1760s, Beach established a portrait practice in Bath, drawing his patron base from the city and its diaspora. The mainstay of his art, in addition to visiting stage actors, including Mrs Siddons and John Henderson, was composed of local landowners: in this respect the portrait of Thomas Horner, Beach’s exact contemporary, is a typical product of his output. As the Horner portrait demonstrates, Beach was a highly proficient artist, combining in his male sitters an air of genteel sophistication with a dash of earthiness that evoked the bluff demeanour characteristic of the ruddy-faced English squirearchy. He could also apparently ‘be depended upon for a good likeness’.1

In 1759, just a year after he had assumed ownership of Mells, Thomas Horner married Elizabeth Paget, daughter of Thomas Paget, vicar of St Andrew’s, Mells, with whom he had two children, Thomas Strangways Horner and Elizabeth Anne, who became the second wife of Sir John Coxe Hippisley. Horner, whose earlier portrait with his infant daughter (MM52) indicates his affection for his family, also possessed an abiding sense of duty to his local community as an estate owner, as was noted in his obituary. ‘To the poorer classes, of his neighbourhood especially, he constituted the source of extended employment and opportune relief, few gentlemen living so much on their estates as Mr. Horner did; and of course his income circulated to the benefit of those around him. As a magistrate, he was ever conscientiously zealous and active in acquitting the duties of his station’.2 In 1802, Horner suffered a paralytic stroke, which rendered him speechless and immobile on his right side, although his mental faculties apparently remained unimpaired. He died at Mells early in 1804.

For reasons discussed further on in this entry, the present portrait can probably be dated to about 1778–80, when Horner was in his early forties. He stands nonchalantly on his estate at Mells, in the distance Mells Park House, which had been commissioned in 1724 from the architect Nathaniel Ireson, by Thomas Strangways Horner (1688–1741).3 On his death the house and estate passed to his brother, John Horner, and on his death in 1746 it was inherited by his son, Thomas Horner, aged nine. From 1758, when Thomas reached the age of twenty-one, he took a close interest in the estate, creating the structure of the park that still exists today. Improvements included the extensive planting of beech and fir trees and building of walls. Although many of his schemes remained unexecuted, his scrapbooks were crammed with ‘ideas for hot-houses, follies, grottos and temples, rustic cottages, hermitages and Turkish tents, lakes, plantations, and eyecatchers’. He also consulted the fashionable garden designer, Humphrey Repton, subscribing to his celebrated Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening of 1794.4

In Beach’s portrait, Horner’s crisp powdered wig, cross-legged stance, faithful hound, fashionable country attire and polished riding boots all combine to underpin his impeccable credentials as a well-to-do landed gentleman. His pose, employing a visual trope common in eighteenth-century fashionable male portraiture, is based on a celebrated classical statue of a resting satyr, emphasising his affinity with his rural setting. Horner’s right elbow is supported by the hollow of partially blasted oak tree, itself an accepted symbol of venerability and continuity. In his gloved hand he holds his hat, while in the other he presents a letter addressed to him at ‘Mells Park Froom Somerset’. The sender, ‘Phelips’, appears to be Thomas Horner’s uncle, Edward Phelips V (1725–1797) of Montacute, Somerset, the half-brother of Horner’s mother, Ann Phelips. 

Edward Phelips V was a prominent patron of Thomas Beach. An earlier portrait of Phelips by Beach of c.1765, still at Montacute (NT 597915), shows him holding in his hand a letter resembling closely the one in the Horner portrait, with the same ‘Free’ postage franking mark in red. Free franking, used by both Horner and Phelips, was at that time a privilege accorded to members of Parliament, members of the House of Lords and other office-holders. As well as displaying the ‘free frank’ mark, the covers of such letters were required the signature of the sender. The letter in the present portrait is signed ‘Free/ Phelips’, while the one held by Phelips in his portrait bears the signature of Gerard Napier, the husband of his half-sister Bridget, whose full sister, Ann Phelips, was the wife of John Horner and mother of Thomas.

The reason Horner holds the letter from Phelips almost certainly relates to the impending marriage of his daughter, Elizabeth Anne, to Phelips’s son, also Edward. According to correspondence at Mells, financial agreements relating to the marriage had been in place since 1778 (when Elizabeth Anne was eighteen years old) and the letter held by Horner presumably provided visual confirmation of the agreement and the anticipated union of the two families.5 Unfortunately, by December 1780 the marriage plans had been abandoned because the younger Edward Phelips had decided to break off the relationship. As Phelips senior confided to his diary: 

On the 20th of December I received a Most Extraordinary Letter from Mr Horner Concerning Edward to whom in my Answer I entirely referred him: he being of full age & I having had little or Nothing to do in the Affair between them; However in the Event it proved the Cause & Means of Entirely breaking of All Intimicacy [sic] & every kind of intercourse between the Familys of Mells Park & Montacute house.6

The present portrait may have been commissioned by Thomas Horner in anticipation of the marriage and presented to Phelips senior. Certainly, it was not intended to hang at Park House, Mells, but at the Phelips home, Montacute House, from where it was sold in 1929, along with the house and contents, by Gerald Almarus Phelips (1884–1940).7 The portrait of Thomas Horner was one of eight lots by Beach of Phelips family and relations offered at the Montacute auction (a number of which were unsold and remain at Montacute, now in the ownership of the National Trust), and was purchased directly at the sale by Katharine Asquith. Also included in the sale, but now untraced, was a portrait by the Swedish-born artist Michael Dahl of Thomas Horner’s mother, Ann Phelips, ‘in blue dress, seated on a terrace, holding a snuff-box in her right hand: red curtain and architectural background’.8 Although the marriage between Horner’s daughter and Phelips’s son had effectively scuppered plans to unite the two families more closely, it appears that in the aftermath Thomas Horner’s own portrait was still given house room at Montacute.

by Martin Postle


  1. Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005, p. 42.

  2. The Universal Magazine, n.s., vol. 1, February 1804, p. 199.

  3. For information on the construction and history of Mells Park House see the essay by Alice Blows in the present case study, ‘Mells Manor and the Houses of the Horners: An Architectural Overview’.

  4. ‘Mells Park’, Historic England, List Entry Number: 10001150, (accessed 17 April 2020).

  5. See Jonathan Musgrave, ‘The Window Inscriptions of Montacute’, Somerset & Dorset Notes & Queries, vol. 31, 1986, p. 424. I am grateful to Alice Blows for drawing this article to my attention and for discussing with me the putative dating of the Horner portrait.

  6. Diary of Edward Phelips, Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, DD/PH 224/114, quoted Musgrave, 1986, p. 424.

  7. ‘Property of Gerard Phelips, Esq., removed from Montacute House, Somerset’, sold for 180 guineas, Christie’s, London, Friday 29 November 1929 (25). In the catalogue it was described as ‘Thomas Horner, Esq., of Mells Park, Frome, Somerset; married Ann Phelips’.

  8. Christie’s, London, Friday 29 November 1929 (36), Michael Dahl, portrait of Ann Phelips, 47 x 39 inches, sold for 30 guineas.


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