Henry Tilson was a well-connected pupil of Lely who studied in Rome and specialised in pastel portraiture. The connections that enabled Tilson's brother Christopher to become Clerk of the Treasury in 1685 must also have benefited Tilson's career as a painter. However, his early death by suicide, following his rejection by a female patron, has obscured his success as one of the leading portrait painters in post-Lely London. When he died in 1695, he was 'possessed of a very considerable personal estate consisting of Bonds Bills Debts Notes and Memorandums of mony oweing to him great sums of Reddy money gold and silver plate jewells and diamond rings and other rings medalls of gold silver pictures drawings paintings all sorts of rich household stuffe and utensills of household and ornaments belonging to his house'.
Tilson was a close friend of Michael Dahl, and in 1684 the pair travelled to France and on to Rome the following year. Dahl's portrait of Tilson is inscribed 'Memoria per mio caro amico Enrico Tilson, fatto Roma, 1686.' Buckeridge stated that Tilson spent six or seven years in Italy 'and during that time copied with wonderful care and exactness a great number of pictures of the best masters' which helped him 'become not a little famous' when he returned to London. He 'had a particular genius for crayons, in which he performed admirably well, after the pictures of Corregio, Titian, and the Caracci, while he was at Rome.' Tilson must also have travelled to Venice because, once he was back in London in 1693, he gave William Gandy an account of the studio practices of the Venetian painter Sebastiano Bombelli. Tilson's knowledge of pastel portraiture must have been grounded in his time in Lely's studio, but his greater use of colour was doubtless informed by the months he spent in Paris.
Tilson's sitter, Giuseppe Borri, was a controversial alchemist and religious propagandist who was confined to prison in Castello San Angelo under the protection of Queen Christina of Sweden. Dahl had gained access to Queen Christina following his conversion to Catholicism on arrival in Rome, and Tilson doubtless benefited from Dahl's connection in order to gain access to Borri. Tilson was also in contact with the Earl of Castlemaine's embassy to Rome in 1686-7, for in 1687 he painted the Hon Thomas Arundell, who accompanied Castlemaine. Tilson's portrait of Borri is housed in an early frame and extensively inscribed on the backborard: ‘Il Ritratto / di Ca[va]lliere Borri / [S?]et = 2[6?] = 167 / ...o Henry Tilson di [Londra] / fecit / In Roma / in Castello St Angelo / No2’, but it gives no clue as to the history of the drawing. At least one version of Tilson’s portrait of Borri is recorded in a seventeenth-century English collection: a 1695 inventory of the paintings at King's Weston contains an entry describing: 'no. 11 Signior Bori a famous Italien Chymist done Coppy by / Mr. Henry Tilson when at Rome in 1686.' The inventory lists three pictures purchased from Tilson’s father: ’12. Signior Bernino a famous Italian sculpture done in Creons by Mr Tilson’ and ’13. Michael Angello. Done likewise in Creons by Mr. Tilson.’ Although the specific identification of this picture as a ‘Coppy’ suggests that it was a repetition of the present drawing.
- London, National Archives C 9/454/110.
- Edward Hailstone, Portraits of Yorkshire Worthies, London, 1869, vol 1, no.45.
- Bainbrigg Buckeridge, The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters…, London, 1706, p.426.
- London, British Library, Add Mss, 22950, pp.31-2.
- Italian Art in Britain, exh. cat. London, (Royal Academy of Arts), 1960, no.14
- New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Phillipps MS 14941, ‘A list of pictures at Kingsweston, taken July 1695’.