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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thomas Gambier Parry

Thomas Gambier Parry's angelic decoration high up in the lantern
of the Octagon Tower of England's Ely Cathedral
Artists seldom become wealthy. More often, if they have money, they've inherited it. This often causes them to fit into a peculiar class of artists, not beholden to clients or public acceptance of their work. Paul Cezanne fell into this group. The same could be said of Impressionist Frederick Bazille, Edouard Manet, and Gustave Caillebotte, to name just a few, all of whom were French. Across the channel in England we might include John Constable, Peter Tillemans, and Joshua Reynolds in such a group. However, a British artist who perhaps best fits this category is Thomas Gambier Parry (a name which should be hyphenated but isn't).

Highnan Court and gardens, ancestral home of the Gambier-Parry family.
Thomas Gambier Parry ca. 1850
The Gambier Parry family fortune derived from the artist's father and grandfather who had both been directors of British East India Company. Thomas was born in 1816 in the Surrey region of England. Both his parents died when Thomas was quite young, causing him to be raised by two aunts from his mother's family (the Gambiers). He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he apparently studied art, though there seems to be little or no mention of his art training in any biography I could find. However, in judging his work, I can see little evidence of his being self-taught. In any case, at the age of twenty-one, he purchased his own country manor house, Highnam Court (above) in Gloucestershire. He spent the rest of his life (he died in 1888) restoring it and creating an appropriately English garden setting for his estate and the nearby village.
Gambier Parry's Church of the Holy Innocents, 1849-51,
Highnan, Gloucestershire, England--tall, slender, and quick.
In 1839, Thomas Gambier Parry married Anna Maria Isabella Fynes-Clinton, the daughter of an English historian and writer. They had six children but only two survived childhood. In 1848, Isabella Gambier Parry died of tuberculosis shortly after childbirth. Wishing to properly memorialize his beloved wife (and later their deceased children), the wealthy landowner and artist hired architect Henry Woodyer and ordered the construction of a parish church for the nearby community of Highnam, which he called, The Church of the Holy Innocents. Never in the history of English churches of any size did such a Gothic structure go up so fast--a mere twenty-one months (followed shortly thereafter by a parish house and a school). Once the church was finish, Gambier Parry set about decorating the interior himself with frescoes.
Thomas Gambier Parry' highly decorated Gothic frescoes, Church of the Innocents.
The nave of the Church of the Holy
Innocents. Gambier Parry's fresco
(above) is just above the arch.
It is for these Frescoes which Thomas Gambier Parry is most well known as an artist. And while they are quite beautiful, it was not so much what he painted as how. In general, England tends to be too damp and humid for true frescoes to survive their usual centuries of carbonatated beauty. Therefore, perhaps forever marking himself as a better chemist than painter, Thomas Gambier Parry invented a new kind of Fresco painting, not too unlike what Leonardo da Vinci had unsuccessfully attempted during the Renaissance.
There was nothing simple about it. Gambier Parry combined with his pigments a spirit medium for use on specially prepared plaster or canvas ground. Originally it used beeswax, Spike lavender oil, lavender, turpentine, elemi resin and copal varnish. It was quite a complex ordeal both in preparing the wall surface and applying the paint. In 1862 Gambier Parry published his recipe. Once the technique of painting with such a noxious mixture became popular with other artists, the whole process was simplified as it became commercialized. Later, Gambier Parry painted six large sections of the vault of Ely Cathedral using his successful concoction.
The Strand block of London's Somerset House, which today houses the
Courtauld Institute of Art and Thomas Gambier Parry's former art
collection, was once the home of Britain's Royal Academy of Art. 
Quite apart from his limited portfolio of church decoration, and his novel paint chemistry, having great wealth has tended to overshadow Gambier Parry, the artist. Besides becoming a very generous philanthropist he was also a very astute expert on Medieval and Renaissance art history, all of which was reflected in his highly refined collection of such art. Today, his collection is part of the that of the Courtauld Institute of Art housed in the Strand block of London's massive Somerset House overlooking the Thames. The institute is the place to go for students wishing a degree in art history and also the place to go for anyone else simply wanting to see art history (mostly Italian) at its finest. Thomas Gambier Parry married a second time and fathered a second family of six children, all of whom survived into adulthood. Several of Thomas Gambier Parry's sons made notable contributions to the fine arts in the areas of music, painting, writing, and architecture. This later generation has also had the good sense to insert a proper British hyphen in between the family names.

Highnan's Church of the Holy Innocents makes a beautiful
central focus for the estate's English gardens.


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