About this artwork

Mary Fairfax was the daughter of a naval officer and born in Jedburgh. As was customary for young ladies, she received very little formal education. Yet she taught herself algebra in secret and, as a young wife and mother, she continued to study mathematics. Widowhood at twenty-seven gave her the independence to develop her intellectual interests and her second husband, William Somerville, proved more supportive than her first. Somerville’s particular contribution to nineteenth-century science lay in her powers of analysis and explication rather than original research. She translated Laplace’s ‘The Mechanism of the Heavens’ into English and wrote a bestselling book on physics. After her death, Somerville College in Oxford was named in her honour.

Thomas Phillips

Thomas Phillips

The English portrait painter Thomas Phillips is best known for his portrayals of ‘men of genius’. After his apprenticeship with a Birmingham glass engraver, Phillips moved to London in 1790 where he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. Despite his initial preference for history painting, he soon realised that portraiture could earn him a living. Throughout his long career Phillips painted more than 700 portraits. His sitters, many of whom were scientists and writers, included Brunel, Faraday, Byron and four presidents of the Royal Society. In 1808 Phillips was elected a member of the Royal Academy and in 1824 he became its professor of painting, an office which he held until 1832. His ‘Lectures on the History and Principles of Painting’ were published in 1833.