Thomas Hearne was born at Marshfield, Gloucestershire, on 22 September 1744, the only son of William Hearne and his wife, Prudence. His father died when he was about five years old, and he then moved with his mother to Brinkworth, near Malmesbury, in Wiltshire. In his teens, he was sent to London to become apprenticed to an uncle, who was a pastry cook in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. It has been suggested (Fenwick 2004, page 160) that he was ‘probably encouraged ... to pursue his artistic inclinations’ by his next door neighbour, the draughtsman and engraver, John Miller (who had been born Johann Müller in Nuremberg in about 1715).
Gaining premiums from the Society of Arts for a still life drawing in 1763 and an equestrian subject in 1764, Hearne became apprenticed to the engraver, William Woollett, in 1765. During the years of his apprenticeship, he exhibited watercolours at the Free Society of Artists and the Society of Artists, in a style influenced by Paul Sandby, and decided to become an artist rather than an engraver. Woollett introduced him to his friend, the Rev Charles Davy, and, for six weeks of the spring of 1771, they stayed with Davy at his home in Enstead, Suffolk. There they were joined by the 18-year-old Sir George Beaumont, to whom Davy was the tutor. Beaumont developed a passion for drawing at this time, and would become one of Hearne’s most important patrons.
Later in 1771, Hearne was appointed draughtsman to Sir Ralph Payne, the new Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands, a group of sugar colonies in the Caribbean. He stayed for three and a half years in the Leewards, recording the terrain, the towns and the inhabitants in order to celebrate Payne’s successful stewardship. Hearne’s achievement has been described as ‘an almost unique record of colonial life of the period’ (Fenwick 2004, page 160). In 1775, Hearne and Payne returned to England, and Hearne spent a year and a half preparing the work that he had produced for engraving.
Though never going abroad again, Hearne travelled widely in Britain. From 1777, he worked with the engraver, William Byrne, providing 84 drawings for Antiquities of Great-Britain, a record of the nation’s historic monuments that was completed in 1807. The series has been considered to have 'set a new standard in the pictorial recording of mediaeval architecture' (Conner 1996, page 279), and it led to Hearne being elected a member of the Society of Antiquaries in 1793. Byrne also issued Rural Sports (1780), a smaller set of Hearne’s designs, and literary titles, including Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1780) and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1781-88), with Hearne’s illustrations. Fifteen of Hearne’s drawings would be engraved for Britannia Depicta, one of Byrne’s later projects, issued between 1806 and 1818.
Many of Hearne’s travels were made in the company of Sir George Beaumont. These included a visit to the Lake District in 1777, on which they were joined by the painter and diarist, Joseph Farington (whose writings are an important source of information on Hearne). In the following year, he and Farington joined Beaumont and his new wife, Margaret, on a tour to Scotland. Then, in 1794, he and Beaumont journeyed along the Wye valley.
By 1782, Hearne had met the collector and writer, Richard Payne Knight. In that year, he took on the task of executing a number of watercolours of Sicily, which he worked up from sketches by Jakob Philipp Hackert and Charles Gore that they had made in the company of Knight during a tour of 1777. Between 1784 and 1786, he made visits to Knight’s estate at Downton Castle, Herefordshire, in order to record the newly landscaped grounds. A decade later, he would provide illustrations to Knight's The Landscape: A Didactic Poem (1794), which propounded the principles of picturesque landscape gardening.
Between 1785 and 1793, Hearne exhibited work at the Royal Academy; he stopped because he did not like the way that watercolours were hung, and would only show there once more, in 1806. However, his work also became known through the ‘academy’ of the physician, Dr Thomas Monro, which was held at 8 Adelphi Terrace, Monro’s home from 1794. Monro made available fine examples of master watercolourists, for such younger artists as Thomas Girtin and J M W Turner to copy, and especially those of Hearne, so becoming his leading patron from this time. In turn, Hearne became a good friend of Monro and his family, often visiting Adelphi Terrace, and staying at his country houses, at Fetcham, Surrey, and, after 1805, Bushey, Hertfordshire.
While generally maintaining a 'precise and judicious manner of tinted drawings until his death' (Conner 1996, page 279), Hearne did become a little freer in handling in some later works. In old age, he was supported by generous friends, including Sir George Beaumont, who, for instance, had him to stay at his ancestral seat of Coleorton hall, in Leicestershire, in 1808. Having remained a bachelor, Hearne died at his home of more than 30 years, at 5 Macclesfield Street, Soho, London, on 13 April 1817. Monro paid for his funeral, and had his body interred in the churchyard of St James’s, Bushey. He lies beside Monro and their mutual friend, the artist, Henry Edridge.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and Leeds Art Gallery; and the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh).
Further reading Patrick Conner, ‘Hearne, Thomas (b Marshfield, Avon, 22 Sept 1744; d London, 13 April 1817)’, Jane Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol. 14, page 279; Simon Fenwick, ‘Hearne, Thomas (1744-1817)’, h C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol. 26, pages 160-161; David Morris, Thomas Hearne and His Landscape, London: Reaktion Books, 1989; David Morris and Barbara Milner, Thomas Hearne 1744-1817: Watercolours and Drawings, A Catalogue of a Touring Exhibition, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, 1985