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Thomas Frye

1710 - 1762

Mr. Thomas Wright by Thomas Frye

Mr. Thomas Wright   1737

  Original mezzotint.
Signed and dated in the plate.
Ref: Challoner-Smith 8 (Russell makes no amendments).
S & P 353 x 253 mm; I 329 x 251 mm
Thomas Frye’s earliest recorded mezzotint. Rare.

The earliest known printed work by Thomas Frye, engraved 23 years before his well-known series of portrait heads – only two other engravings are known to have been made by Thomas Frye prior to the year 1760. Very fine early impression with full tonal range, as issued on April 18th 1737.

Born in Dublin, Thomas Frye came to England at an early age and practised as a portrait painter before managing a china manufactory in Bow for fifteen years. Thomas Frye produced relatively few engravings, all of which are mezzotint portraits, and almost all of which date from the last two years of his life. Their significance lies in their dramatic approach to portraiture and in the fact that they are some of the few original mezzotint engravings of the period. At this time mezzotint was used almost exclusively as a reproductive process by engravers who would simply copy the designs of other painters. Thomas Frye was exceptional in using the mezzotint medium as a creative process, both designing and engraving his own works on the copper.

Thomas Frye is best known today for his two series of portrait heads, engraved in pure mezzotint, produced during the final years of his life between 1760 and 1762. This superb mezzotint portrait of Mr. Thomas Wright is a rare example of Frye’s earliest work as a mezzotint engraver and, like both series of portrait heads, it is an original work both designed and engraved by this talented painter-printmaker.

An impressive eighteenth-century example of the art of pure mezzotint on copper and one of the finest examples of original portraiture in the printed medium from this period in England, this early portrait is a particularly impressive display of Thomas Frye’s natural gifts in the demanding medium of mezzotint engraving. Here, he has achieved the most superb effect of modelling to the hands of his sitter, and has conveyed an extraordinarily lifelike three-dimensional quality to the image through his skilful use of the mezzotint medium. Thomas Frye was highly regarded in his own time as both an artist and a teacher of painting and engraving – one of his pupils was William Pether, the engraver of some of the most famous mezzotints after the works of Joseph Wright of Derby.

The subject of this mezzotint portrait, Thomas Wright (1711-1786) was an astronomer, mathematician, instrument maker, architect and garden designer. He is best known for his publication An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750), in which he discusses a theory concerning the Milky Way which was later taken up and elaborated by Immanuel Kant. Thomas Wright was born at Byers Green in County Durham. In 1730 he set up a school in Sunderland, where he taught mathematics and navigation. He later moved to London to work on a number of projects for his wealthy patrons, before retiring to County Durham and building a small observatory at Westerton.

On antique laid paper, trimmed on the platemark leaving the full title space and a thread margin around the image. A fine example of this outstanding original mezzotint in generally very good condition.

I would like to thank Nicholas Stogdon for his confirmation that no other state of this mezzotint has been discovered.