Thomas Phillips (1770-1845) was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, the elder son of Thomas Man Phillips (bap. 1745), mercer, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Thomas Brett, ironmonger. Thomas Phillips senior died when Phillips was a boy. His grandfather Samuel Phillips arranged for his education and Phillips attended grammar school in West Bromwich for eight years up to the age of 13. Phillips was left £700 when his maternal grandfather Thomas Brett died and out of this 40 guineas was paid for a seven-year apprenticeship to the glass engraver and japanner Francis Eginton, of Handsworth, near Birmingham. Eginton soon abandoned japanning and Phillips chief employment was to provide copies of old master paintings to be used in glass painting. Phillips read widely during his apprenticeship and formed a philosophical society. At the end of his apprenticeship, Eginton gave Phillips a letter of introduction to the engraver Valentine Green.
In 1790, Phillips moved to London, through Green he met the painter Benjamin West, who gave him permission to use his studio to make a copy of a 'Descent from the Cross' after Rubens which Green had commissioned from Phillips for Worcester Cathedral. Phillips would later spend two years working with West on an unfinished commission from George III. In 1791, Phillips enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools and exhibited for the first time at the academy a landscape work in 1792. He exhibited historical pictures in 1793 and 1794 but soon realised that if he wanted to make a living from art he should turn his attention to portraiture.
In 1795, Phillips was commissioned to paint Dr George Fordyce, the success of this portrait marked the start of Phillips's role as a portrait painter of eminent men of science. The late 1790s also saw Phillips gain the patronage of Lord Egremont, which developed into a long friendship. In 1802, Phillips departed for Paris where he undertook a commission from the duke of Northumberland to paint a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1804, his growing success saw him move to a substantial house at 8 George Street, Hanover Square, London which would remain his home for the rest of his life. A large studio and gallery were attached to the back of the house. In 1805, he was elected associate of the Royal Academy and Royal Academician in 1808. He also retained a connection with his hometown becoming a member of the Birmingham Academy of Arts and exhibited there until 1844. In 1809, he married Elizabeth Fraser (1782-1856), together they would have two sons and two daughters, his youngest son Henry Wyndham Phillips (1820-1868) was also a portrait painter.
The publisher John Murray commissioned Phillips to paint a series of portraits of contemporary poets whose works he published. The series was painted in kit-cat size with the intention they would be hung in the publisher's house at 50 Albemarle Street, a meeting place for many well-known writers of the age. Phillips had previously won acclaim for his portrait of William Blake (NPG 212) and in 1813 Murray commissioned Phillips to paint a half-length portrait of Byron, others in the series included Thomas Southey, Samuel Rogers, S. T. Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott. Phillips also undertook a series of portraits of explorers.
Phillips painted Byron in Albanian dress in a three quarter length portrait in 1813; it was exhibited at the 1814 Royal Academy exhibition where visitors were eager to see the portrait. Phillips also painted Byron's lover Lady Caroline Lamb in the costume of a page in 1814.
In 1825, Phillips was appointed professor of painting at the Royal Academy, resigning his professorship in 1832. He was actively involved in the business of the academy and served on its hanging committee. Over his career Phillips painted over 700 portraits, he is chiefly remembered for his portraits of 'the men of genius of his time'. Phillips died at his home in George Street on 20 April 1845; he was interred in Paddington Church, next to his brother Samuel (d. 1830).
This biographical description is largely based on Annette Peach, 'Phillips, Thomas (1770–1845)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [ http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22174 , accessed 22 Nov 2017]