The artist Arthur Devis was born in Preston in 1712, the eldest son of Anthony Devis (carpenter and bookseller) also a town councillor and Ellen Rauthmell. He is best known nowadays for his ‘conversation pieces’ – portraits of local landed gentry and their families. His style has an unmistakably naïve quality and his figures are thought to be ‘doll-like’ in their appearance. This is probably because Devis rarely painted from life, but preferred small wooden ‘lay-figures’ or models, and tended to only include the sitter during the final stage to achieve a good likeness.Advertisement
Perhaps through the influence of the Liverpool portrait painter Hamlet Winstanley he became the pupil in London of the sporting and topographical painter Peter Tillemans. After the latter’s retirement in 1733 he returned to Preston, and his earliest dated work, of 1735, is view painting of Houghton Towers from Duxon Hill, Lancaster. It wasn’t until 1737 that he moved onto painting portraits, gaining a considerable reputation along the way.
His earliest dated portraits are from 1741, the following year he is recorded as working in London. In that year he married Elizabeth Faulkner; and apparently the couple had twenty-two children, one of which Arthur William Devis, born in London, but was registered as a Guild merchant by his father, who produced many elegant and subtle paintings.
By1745 he well established as a portrait painter of small-scale, he established a studio on Great Queen Street in Lincoln’s Inn Fields as his base. Many of his early commissions came from Lancashire Jacobite families, and were obtained through his father’s local connections.
He continued to receive commissions for portraits until around 1758, by the 1760’s onwards though his success diminished due to his style being said to be old fashioned. From 1761 – 1780 he exhibited his work at the ‘Free Society of Artists’ becoming the president in 1768. He was never exhibited at the ‘Society of Artists’ or ‘Royal Academy of Arts’.
In the later part of his life Arthur made his living from restoration of paintings, one of those commissions from Sir James Thornhill was between 1777 and 1778 when he was paid one thousand pounds for cleaning and repairing the Painted Hall of the Royal Hospital for Seaman at Greenwich.
By 1783 Arthur had sold all of his paintings and retired to Brighton with his wife Elizabeth, by the time of his death on 25 July 1787, Arthur was virtually unknown, forgotten and working obscurity. He is buried in St. Mary Paddington churchyard, London.
A substantial collection of Devis family paintings can be seen at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston.
The ‘Notable People of Preston’ series is written by Gillian A. Lawson, the archivist of the Preston Historical Society.