Jacob Thompson was born in Langton Street in Penrith, the eldest son of the Quaker factory owner Merrick Thompson whose father had built Factory Yard in Friargate. Merrick's successful and prosperous weaving business collapsed when Jacob was six years old, leaving the family financially ruined. A sickly child, he was cared for by his devoted nurse Hannah Hewitson. Hannah bought him his first box of colours and helped to secure him a place in the Free Grammar School in the town.
Jacob's early enthusiasm for drawing met with no encouragement from his traditional Quaker parents who considered 'Art' a vanity. After leaving school he was sent to work for a local grocer, Joseph Drewry. He disliked the employment intensely and his parents finally relented, apprenticing him to a 'coach, house, sign and ornamental painter and gilder' though he left after two years and started out in business on his own, painting signboards and furniture.
Animal, coach and sign painter
He soon acquired a reputation as an artist, receiving commissions for portraits of horses, dogs and cattle and exhibiting at the Carlisle Academy of Art. Even at this stage in his career his true interest was in landscape painting, finding inspiration on his many fishing trips along the banks of the Rivers Lowther and Eamont. It was during one of his evening rambles along the Eamont that he first met William Wordsworth's friend Thomas Wilkinson of Yanwath, the writer and anti-slavery campaigner. Wilkinson gave him his first job painting name boards for a couple of carts and helped spread the word of Jacob's skill.
Patronage and training
Later, as he was painting by the River Lowther, Jacob met the man who determined much of the rest of his career: William, Earl of Lonsdale, of nearby Lowther Castle. Lord Lonsdale was tremendously influential, becoming Jacob's patron and helping to secure him a place at the Royal Academy Schools in London.
Portrait painter in London
From 1831 Jacob began exhibiting at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution the following year. He devoted the next ten years to portraiture and to painting views of country mansions for the nobility and aristocracy or making copies of their pictures. With a studio in Hanover Square his career flourished and he received commissions for well over two hundred portraits. Though the portraits and the copies consolidated his professional reputation, he thought of them as 'pot-boilers' done for daily bread. Jacob felt that there was 'a far higher and nobler aim in art' and yearned to produce pictures in which his imagination could have free scope.
Marriage and return to Penrith
In August 1834 Jacob married Ann Parker Bidder and the couple left London to live for a short while in Luton and then at Rose Cottage in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where his first and only child was born. In 1841 the family returned to Cumbria, settling at the Hermitage in Hackthorpe near Penrith, a cottage on the estate of his patron and friend Lord Lonsdale. Here he spent the remainder of his life though he travelled away on painting trips most years, often to Scotland.
Landscape and narrative paintings
At the Hermitage, having achieved a measure of financial security, he was able to concentrate on painting the type of work which suited his taste and by which he is best remembered, large-scale landscapes with figures such as The Highland Ferry Boat or The Rush Bearers. Often his paintings 'told a story' or 'pointed a moral'. His biographer Llewellynn Jewitt noted that they were 'remarkable for ... richness, beauty, and Pre-Raphaelite truthfulness to nature'. By the end of his career he could charge large sums of money for his paintings, many of which were reproduced as engravings and enjoyed substantial sales.
A later marriage and final years
Jacob's wife Ann died in 1844 and after remaining a widow for some years he married, in 1850, Elizabeth Varty, daughter of Jonathan Varty of Stagstones, Penrith. Jacob Thompson died at the Hermitage in December 1879 and was buried in Lowther Churchyard. A gentle, modest and unassuming man he once wrote to a friend:I sometimes wish I was nearer London that I might see more of the Art-World ... but when I begin to think of the short days, the dense fogs, the dirty streets, the bickerings, the jealousies, and the utter worthlessness of that society which too often sacrifices comfort for outward appearances ... I sit down feeling thankful that I am far, far away from such scenes.
Museum admission and opening hours:
The museum is open all year and admission is free. The museum's opening hours are the same as Penrith Tourist Information Centre.
Loan, donate or bequeath to Penrith and Eden Museum
The Museum the curators will only be to happy to receive any objects you wish to loan, donate or bequeath to the museum.
Penrith and Eden Museum curators are available to answer questions concerning the museum and its collections:
Contact: The Curators
Telephone: 01768 865105
Address: Penrith and Eden Museum, Robinson School, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 7PT