This portrait of an unknown gentleman by Andrew Plimer dates to the close period of his career, the years of his greatest artistic success.

Like his elder brother, Nathaniel, Plimer had been trained by his father as a clockmaker. But the boys had other ideas about their future. Instead of following in their father’s footsteps, they decided to run away with a troupe of gypsies, spending the next two years travelling through Wales and the west of England before finally settling in London in 1781. During their years on the road, the brothers seem to have realised that they could put some of the skills that they had learnt working with the tiny internal mechanisms of clocks to use in another context, that of portrait miniatures. So both brothers went into domestic service for artists – Nathaniel for the enamellist Henry Bone and Andrew for the miniaturist, Richard Cosway.

Cosway was the most important and successful...

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This portrait of an unknown gentleman by Andrew Plimer dates to the close period of his career, the years of his greatest artistic success.

Like his elder brother, Nathaniel, Plimer had been trained by his father as a clockmaker. But the boys had other ideas about their future. Instead of following in their father’s footsteps, they decided to run away with a troupe of gypsies, spending the next two years travelling through Wales and the west of England before finally settling in London in 1781. During their years on the road, the brothers seem to have realised that they could put some of the skills that they had learnt working with the tiny internal mechanisms of clocks to use in another context, that of portrait miniatures. So both brothers went into domestic service for artists – Nathaniel for the enamellist Henry Bone and Andrew for the miniaturist, Richard Cosway.

Cosway was the most important and successful miniaturist then working in London. He was painter to King George IV and had a grand residence at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, where he lived next door to Thomas Gainsborough. Cosway was impressed by his young servant Plimer and gave him lessons in portrait painting. He also may have sponsored his lessons in draughtsmanship with the engraver John Hall of Soho.

By 1785, Plimer had reached a position from which he could establish his own practice. From the following year until 1810, and then again in 1819, he exhibited at the Royal Academy, both a mark of his prestige and a means of attracting new clients. These he had in great numbers up to and during the 1790s.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, however, Plimer had begun to struggle. Struggling to keep up a steady enough stream of London clients, he left the city, moving to Exeter towards the middle of the decade. Although he returned to London again in 1818, by the 1820s he had decided to travel still more widely, moving through Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Wales and Scotland. Clearly, the gypsy spirit of adventure had never quite left him.

At the end of his life, Plimer’s eyesight began to fail to the point that he was no longer able to work in miniature. He began instead to execute drawings on a larger format that demonstrate his continuing artistic talent, although he never rediscovered the form of the opening years of his career. Around 1830, Plimer was forced to abandon art entirely and take retirement, dying six years later, by now having settled in Brighton.

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500 Years of British Art