Tag Archives: Joshua Kirby

More Kirby Live!

I am giving a talk at the upcoming conference of the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies annual conference at Yale University on October 4. A substantial number of Thomas Gainsborough’s early portrait sitters in Suffolk were people known to Kirby from his earlier work. I explain who they were and how he knew them. Here’s the abstract:

Gainsborough’s Suffolk Sitters: The Kirby Connection

Joshua Kirby (1716-1774), a painter known for his book on perspective, was a long-standing, intimate friend of Thomas Gainsborough.  When the young Gainsborough returned to Suffolk from London in need of portrait commissions, Kirby had already developed an extensive network of connections, centered at Ipswich, as evidenced by the subscriber list to his 1748 publication of the Twelve Prints and accompanying Historical Account.  Kirby’s strengths were in local gentry, Ipswich and East Suffolk politicians, lawyers, and especially the clergy.  These overlapping groups provided the bulk of Gainsborough’s portrait commissions during his decade in Suffolk, before his removal to Bath and then London enabled higher prices and richer patrons.  Both John Hayes and John Bensusan-Butt have called for investigation of the social circles of those Gainsborough painted in the 1750s. Social network theory provides tools for analyzing such social relationships.

Social network analysis emphasizes the importance of nodes of high degree (individuals with many connections, in this context), especially those acting as bridges.  I argue that Kirby performs this role for Gainsborough, providing connections to several key Suffolk cliques (subgroups with many internal ties).

A Brief Biography

Joshua Kirby was born in 1716 at Parham in Suffolk, the second or third son of John Kirby and Alice Brown. The Kirby family lived at Wickham Market where his father kept a mill. John Kirby is now remembered for his Suffolk Traveller, a book detailing the roads and places of Suffolk, with accompanying large map. The book was published in 1736, and a few years later Kirby’s drawings of Scole Inn appeared. By now in his early twenties, Joshua had moved to Ipswich and obtained work at house-painting. In 1739, he married Sarah Bull. They had four children, of whom two died in infancy. Surviving were a son William, and a daughter Sarah.

Joshua’s brothers, John, Stephen and William all received legal training. John was Under Treasurer at Middle Temple, Stephen died in 1741 while working with his brother, and William married into the local landowning family of Meadowes and spent his career administering his wife’s estates. I know very little about his sisters, none of whom seem to have married.

Kirby’s next project was a series of engravings of local castles, abbeys, and monuments, each dedicated to a local patron, and the set of Twelve Prints accompanied by a brief Historical Account of the locations was published in 1748.

It was around this time that his great friendship with Thomas Gainsborough began, and many of Kirby’s Suffolk subscribers to his Twelve Prints sat to Gainsborough for portraits in the 1750s. It is not clear to me whether Kirby met William Hogarth through Gainsborough or through engravers, but Hogarth became a great promoter of Kirby. After the Twelve Prints, Kirby set to work on writing a volume on perspective painting. The project took several years, with much encouragement from Hogarth, eventually being published as Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy in 1754. This was Kirby’s big break. He gave a series of lectures on perspective to the St. Martin’s Lane Academy that were so well received he was immediately elected a member (many of the members of the Academy had subscribed to the book, with Hogarth taking 6 copies). He moved to London, gave another series of lectures on perspective from his house and rushed out a second edition of the book. Among the many new subscribers to the second edition were Thomas Sandby, Draughtsman to his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and John Shackleton, Principal Painter to his Majesty. Also subscribing was the Earl of Bute, who had charge of the education of the Prince of Wales, and soon appointed Kirby as tutor on perspective to the prince.

After five years as a tutor, and with the accession of his pupil as George III, Kirby, along with his son, was appointed Clerk of the Works at Kew and Richmond, a post he retained for the rest of his life. Kirby was elected to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in 1767 and in 1768, during a period of furious factionalism was elected President of the Incorporated Society of Artists. Despite strong networking, Kirby was not really a political operator and he was unable to prevent the formation of the rival Royal Academy and fading of the Incorporated Society. He resigned in 1770, and in 1771 his son William died. Kirby’s health deteriorated and he died in 1774.

Kirby has not been well-served by biographers, and the most extensive description of his life is the article, “Joshua Kirby (1716—1774): a Biographical sketch” by Felicity Owen in the Gainsborough’s House Review of 1995.

Kirby Live!

I am giving a talk at the American Mathematical Society meeting at Boston College, the weekend of April 5-6.

My talk is on Perspective, Painting, Publishing, and Patronage: Joshua Kirby and Brook Taylor. It will be aimed at historians of mathematics and focus on a comparison of the content and discourse between Brook Taylor’s Linear Perspective and Joshua Kirby’s Method of Perspective.


Related Posts

Method of Perspective

Who was Brook Taylor?

Brook Taylor’s Linear Perspective

More on Brook Taylor’s “Linear Perspective”

More on Brook Taylor’s “Linear Perspective”

Brook Taylor’s book, Linear Perspective (1715) is short, only 40 pages, but dense. For later comparison with Kirby’s exposition, I want to bring out a few more features of Taylor’s text.

Taylor divides his book into five sections:

Section I: Containing an Explanation of those things that are necessary to be understood in order to the Practice of Perspective.

    This section contains his 10 definitions, along with several ‘Corollaries’, and the first four propositions.

Section II: Propositions relating to the General Practice of Perspective.

    The longest section, this one includes Propositions 5-18, with a set of examples between Propositions 16 and 17.

Section III: Of finding the Shadows of given Figures

    A short section with three propositions on shadows.

Section IV: Of finding the Representations of the Reflections of Figures on polish’d Planes.

    Taylor dispenses with reflections in three quick propositions.

Section V: Of the Inverse Practice of Perspective and of the manner of Examining Pictures already drawn.

    The mathematician comes to the fore with the study of inverse problems. The first proposition is, “Having given the Representation of a Line divided into two Parts in a given Proportion; to find its Vanishing Point.” He then tackles similar problems for triangles, parallelograms, trapezia, and “right-angled Parallelepipedons”.


For a flavor of Taylor’s style and terminology, here are the first few definitions, along with the figure they reference.

DEF. I. The Center of the Picture is that Point where a Line from the Spectator’s Eye cuts it (or its Plane continued beyond the Frame, if need be) at Right Angles.

If the Plane CD be the Picture, and O the Spectator’s Eye, then a Perpendicular let fall on the Picture from O, will cut it in its Center P.

DEF. II. The Distance of the Picture, or principal Distance, is the Distance between the Center of the Picture and the Spectator’s Eye

    In the same Figure PO is the Distance of the Picture.

DEF. III. The Intersection of an Original Line is that Point where it cuts the Picture.

    If IK be an Original Line cutting the Picture in C, then is C the Intersection of the Line IK.

DEF. IV. The intersection of an Original Plane, is that Line wherein it cuts the Picture.

    AB is an Original Plane cutting the Picture in the Line CQ, which therefore is its Intersection.

DEF. V. The Vanishing Point of an Original Line, is that Point where a Line passing thro’ the Spectator’s Eye, parallel to the Original Line, cuts the Picture.

    Such is the Point V, the Line OV being parallel to the Original Line IK.

COROL. I. Hence it is plain, that Original Lines, which are parallel to each other, have the same Vanishing Point. For one Line passing thro’ the Spectator’s Eye, parallel to them all, produces the Vanishing Point of ’em all, by this Definition.

COROL. 2. Those Lines that are parallel to the Picture have no Vanishing Points. Because the Lines which should produce the Vanishing Points, are in this Case also parallel to the Picture, and therefore can never cut it.

COROL. 3. The Lines that generate the Vanishing Points of two Original Lines, make the same Angle at the Spectator’s Eye, as the Original Lines do with each other.

DEF. VI. The Vanishing Line of an Original Plane, is that Line wherein the Picture is cut by a Plane passing thro’ the Spectator’s Eye parallel to the Original Plane.

    Such is the Line VS, the Plane EF, being parallel to the Original Plane AB.

COROL. I. Hence Original Planes, that are parallel, have the same Vanishing Line. For one Plane passing thro’ the Spectator’s Eye, parallel to them all, produces that Vanishing Line.

COROL. 2. All the Vanishing Points of Lines in parallel Planes, are in the Vanishing Line of those Planes. For the Lines that produce those Vanishing Points, (by Def. 5.) are all in the Plane that produces that Vanishing Line, (by this Def.)

COROL. 3. The Planes which produce the Vanishing Lines of two Original Planes, being parallel to the Original Planes, and passing both thro’ the Spectator’s Eye, (by this Def.) have their common Intersection passing thro’ the Spectator’s Eye, parallel to the Intersection of the Original Planes, and are inclined to each other in the same Angle as the Original Planes are. And hence,

COROL. 4. The Vanishing Point of the common Intersection of two Planes, is the Intersection of the Vanishing Lines of those Planes.

COROL. 5. The Vanishing Line, and Intersection of the same Original Plane, are parallel to each other. Because they are generated by parallel Planes. (By this Def. and Def. 4.)

I think this is all admirably clear, and shows how he treats lines and planes in a similar fashion. It also shows how his concepts of vanishing point and vanishing line are central to the way he is going to proceed.

Related Posts

Brook Taylor’s Linear Perspective

Who was Brook Taylor?

Method of Perspective

Related Works

Andersen, K., 1992, Brook Taylor’s Work on Linear Perspective: A Study of Taylor’s Role in the History of Perspective Geometry. Including Facsimiles of Taylor’s Two Books on Perspective. New York: Springer.

Andersen, K., 2006. The Geometry of an Art. The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge. New York: Springer.

Brook Taylor’s Linear Perspective

Joshua Kirby claimed in his Method of Perspective that he was making Brook Taylor’s work easier to understand for gentlemen and practitioners. Brook Taylor’s Linear Perspective was published in 1715, with a revised edition in 1719. His work is austere, rigorous and mathematically challenging. Perhaps as a result, it went largely unread, and, even after it was popularized by Kirby, Highmore, and others, it seems to have been more appreciated than read. In recent scholarship, Kirsti Andersen has studied Taylor’s work most deeply.

When Brook Taylor wrote Linear Perspective, few in Britain had gone before him, and certainly not attempting a coherent theoretical approach; in this respect Britain was far behind the Continent. The inadequacy of his predecessors caused Taylor to sweep away the old vocabulary and replace it with his own set of terms and concepts, including linear perspective. As he wrote in his Preface,

In this Treatise I have endeavour’d to render the Art of Perspective more general, and more easy, than has yet been done. In order to do this, I find it necessary to lay aside the common Terms of Art, which have hitherto been used, such as Horizontal Line, Points of Distance, &c. and to use new ones of my own; such as seem to be more significant of the Things they express, and more agreeable to the general Notion I have formed to my self of this Subject.

He succeeded in his aim of rendering the theory of perspective `more general’, but perhaps not `more easy’ to mere mortals. Like many mathematicians, his definition of `easy’ did not match that of the general populace. His constructions are simple, they use few ideas and few construction lines, but they require a great deal of mathematical maturity and do not lend themselves easily to actual practice.

The first clue to his generality lies in his getting rid of the horizon line. Taylor inhabited a Euclidean geometrical world, not a Cartesian one. To him,

Perspective is the Art of drawing on a Plane the Appearances of any Figures, by the Rules of Geometry.

Definition I. The Center of the Picture is that Point where a Line from the Spectator’s Eye cuts it …at Right Angles.

Taylor has three ingredients: a spectator, a picture plane, and the original plane of the objects to be represented. He sees no reason why the picture plane should be perpendicular to the ground plane, and hence, he has no need of horizons and horizontals. Here’s his illustration, showing the ‘leaning plane’.

I just love his approach, but then I don’t have to use it to paint. He introduces the terms vanishing point and vanishing line, and treats the one and two-dimensional cases as on equal footing in a manner which is wonderful to behold. Many of Taylor’s propositions take various pieces as given (in the Euclidean sense) and require finding the remaining points. The proofs unfold in a Euclidean manner, and there are practically no examples. He also, as you would expect, leans heavily on ratio theory. Here is Theorem 2:

Any Line in the Representation of a Figure parallel to the Picture, is to its Original Line, as the Principal Distance is to the Distance between the Spectator’s Eye, and the Plane of the Original Figure.

And here is Proposition 10:

Having given the Center and Distance of the Picture, and the Vanishing Line of a Plane, and the Vanishing Point of the Intersection of that Plane, with another Plane perpendicular to it; to find the Vanishing Line of that other Plane.

He covers the whole theory of perspective in 40 pages.

Related Posts

Who was Brook Taylor?

Method of Perspective

Related Works

Andersen, K., 1992, Brook Taylor’s Work on Linear Perspective: A Study of Taylor’s Role in the History of Perspective Geometry. Including Facsimiles of Taylor’s Two Books on Perspective. New York: Springer.

Andersen, K., 2006. The Geometry of an Art. The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge. New York: Springer.