Although known professionally as ‘Baker of Leamington,’ Thomas Baker was born in Harborne, Birmingham, the son of the headmaster of Harborne Free School. He studied in Birmingham under the artist Joseph Vincent Barber, (who had business connections with the Willes family in Leamington), and in 1827 exhibited at the Birmingham Society of Arts. In 1842 Baker helped found the Birmingham Society of artists.
Baker settled in Leamington Priors in 1833, living in a number of locations over a twenty-year period: Bath Cottage in Bath Place, Hamilton Terrace, 13 Church Street and 10 Regent Grove. For at least two decades, Baker had a housekeeper, Harriet Hewitt, and when he died suddenly of a stomach complaint, in August 1864, tongues began to wag. Less than a fortnight later Harriet Hewitt, owed several months wages and distraught by rumours that she had poisoned him, took her own life.
Not much is known about Baker’s personal life, other than the facts that he died intestate aged 55, with effects worth under £300, – and had five children, three boys and two girls, by Elizabeth Alice Smith, a Leamington lodging housekeeper. Baker and Elizabeth Smith appear never to have married and always lived separately. Baker was buried at Saint Peter’s Church, Harborne, close to lifelong friend and artist David Cox.
Baker’s landscapes are delicate, detailed and full of light. They often show sheep, cattle, and sometimes people. He painted scenes from Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Derbyshire, the Lake District, Wales and Ireland, and many of them show the influence of the Dutch landscape painters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Locally Baker sold through stationers and carvers and guilders such as William Whitehead, father of artists Frederick and Elizabeth. He also sold throughout Britain: in 1838 a scene “Near Snitterfield” fetched £20 (over £800 in today’s money) in an auction in Manchester. Detailed notebooks of his work were presented to Birmingham Art Gallery in 1908 by his son Edmund Smith Baker, also a painter and photographer. The notebooks list over 800 numbered oils. Leamington Art Gallery owns 50 paintings and drawings and Morley, in his History of Leamington Spa speaks of a ‘Baker craze’ which came too late to be useful to the artist. Morley’s book was written between 1887 and 1889. The record for a Baker painting at Sotheby’s a decade or more ago was £13,571 for “Leamington Spa and Warwick Castle in the distance”
Baker appears to have been a charming independent hard-working man, self-possessed, and inclined to live up to his income. Except when painting he had perhaps even less control of his life than many of his contemporaries. His addresses in the town show that from teaching and painting he had a comfortable income, and his effects after death, which included a violin, a rifle and copies of Pope, Scott and Shakespeare, demonstrate that at least to some extent he had contacts in the upper echelons of society. (Lord Leigh was a patron.) Baker’s relative poverty at the time of his death reflects perhaps changing contemporary tastes rather than his skill as an artist.
A comprehensive website about Thomas Baker has been produced by Robert Mulraine and it can be viewed HERE
A Blue Plaque to Thomas Baker was unveiled at 13 Church Street in October 2012
Robin Taylor, 2015