Thomas Barker was born in Trosnant, Pontypool, in 1769, the eldest of the four sons of Benjamin Barker, a spendthrift who took to painting horses and who settled in Bath as a stable hand about 1783, and Anne, about whom nothing is known. Thomas' youthful talent for drawing figures and sketching landscape attracted the notice of the predatory Charles Spackman, a wealthy coach builder and property developer, who had Thomas educated at Shepton Mallet Grammar School and took him into his own home. At Spackman's Thomas copied and imitated landscapes of the Italian and Flemish schools as well as those of Gainsborough, who had lived in Bath from 1759 to 1774. Barker was entirely self-taught. Spackman arranged an exhibition for his protégé in Bath in 1790; this proved profitable to them both. Subsequently Spackman sent Barker to Rome for three years, where he studied assiduously, learning the art of fresco painting. A second exhibition, including work sent back from Rome for Spackman to sell, was held in Bath in 1793.
Returning to England in 1793 to find Spackman on the verge of bankruptcy, Barker established himself in London, showing at the Royal Academy of Arts scenes based on his Italian sketchbooks. Achieving only a moderate success, he resolved to be a provincial painter and resettled in Bath in 1800. In 1803 he married Priscilla Jones, with whom he had eight children. Two of them, Thomas Jones and John Joseph were to become accomplished painters. Barker built a fine house on Sion Hill with an art gallery where he held frequent exhibitions of his work, and he also gathered a fine art collection.
Barker specialized in rustic genre paintings, fancy pictures, studies of local characters, and landscapes; he executed few portraits. Such figure subjects as the Woodman (a variant on Gainsborough's theme) were so popular that they were widely copied on pottery, china, and fabrics.
He exhibited chiefly at the British Institution, was well patronized by local collectors, and amassed a considerable fortune. However, he managed his own affairs badly, and at the end of his life, as the prosperity of Bath declined, he fell on hard times. He died at Bath on 11 December 1847.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 6.]
[Harrington, Sir Edward]. A Schizzo on the Genius of Man. Bath, 1793.
Shum, Frederick. "Reminiscences of the Late Thomas Barker." Bath Chronicle, April 17, 1862.
Hayes, John. Barker of Bath. Exh. cat. Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 1962.
Hayes, John. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough. 2 vols. London and New York, 1982: 1:273-279.
Bishop, Philippa. The Barkers of Bath. Exh. cat. Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 1986.
Dorment, Richard. "Barker of Bath." In British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia and London, 1986: 9-12.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 6-8.