Devis was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 12 February 1712, the eldest son of Anthony Devis and Ellen Rauthmell. 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 a view painting. His earliest dated portraits are from 1741, and by the following year he is recorded as working in London. In that year he married Elizabeth Faulkner; the couple had twenty-two children. In 1745, well established as a painter of small-scale portraits and conversation pieces, he settled on Great Queen Street in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Many of his early commissions came from Lancashire Jacobite families, and were obtained through his father's local connections. In 1752 he took on an apprentice, George Senhouse, but was obliged to discharge him after three years for idleness; he had at least three other students.
From 1761 Devis exhibited irregularly at the Free Society of Artists, of which he became president in 1768. In this decade, however, his reputation was eclipsed by that of Zoffany. Devis never exhibited at the Society of Artists or the Royal Academy of Arts and never competed for Associateship of the latter body.
In later life Devis was active more as a restorer; between 1777 and 1778 he was paid one thousand pounds for cleaning and repairing the Painted Hall at Greenwich. In 1783 he sold his collection of pictures and retired to Brighton, where he died on 25 July 1787.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 56-57.]
Paviére, Sydney H. The Devis Family of Painters. Leigh-on-Sea, 1950.
D'Oench, Ellen G. The Conversation Piece: Arthur Devis and His Contemporaries. Exh. cat. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 1980.
Hayes, John and Stephen V. Sartin. In Polite Society by Arthur Devis 1712-1787. Exh. cat. Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston; National Portrait Gallery, London. Preston, 1983: 9-36.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 56-57.