|Thomas Hollis, 1720-1774, by Joseph Wilton, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London|
For Thomas Hollis, libertarian, writer, bibliophile and patron of the arts, it was less than sixty years.
The London-born philosopher, radical propagandist and philanthropist Thomas Hollis was politically progressive, devoting his life to lobbying for parliamentary reform, opposing corruption and promoting democracy. Hollis's 'Great Plan' to reform public life, begun in 1754, shaped political debate in Britain and created an identity for the London Opposition, the most significant political force outside government from the 1750s to the 1770s. This group was united by their suspicion of Court and commercial influence over political life and their admiration for a classical ideal of the independent, virtuous, selfless statesman.
Hollis's programme included the anonymous publication and distribution of thousands of volumes and prints promoting the concept of liberty to public institutions in Britain, America and Europe. His patronage was extensive and he wrote articles, designed prints and commissioned coins and medals to promote his political agenda. He promoted the work of sympathetic artists, such as Robert Edge Pine and Giovanni Cipriani, and gave advice to other artists including Joseph Nollekens. He was also heavily involved in the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, now known as the Royal Society of Arts. Hollis's substantial cultural achievements and patronage ensured that the Whig concept of liberty and public service continued to have an influence on British political thought and public life.
Hollis was educated at Adams Grammar School until the age of 10, and then in St. Albans until 15, before learning French, Dutch and accountancy in Amsterdam. After the death of his father in 1735, his guardian was a John Hollister. He was trained in this time in public service by John Ward of Gresham College, London. He took chambers with Lincoln's Inn from 1740 to 1748, though without ever reading law. By this time he was a man of considerable wealth having inherited from his father, grandfather and uncle.
In 1748–9 he toured Europe with Thomas Brand (later Brand Hollis) and again during 1750–53, largely on his own, meeting many leading French philosophers and several Italian painters. Back in England, he was an ardent member of the Society of Arts. He proposed Piranesi for membership of the Society of Antiquaries, gave numerous commissions to Cipriani, and, as one of Canaletto's best friends in England, commissioned six paintings from him. These paintings included Old Walton Bridge in which Hollis, his heir Thomas Brand and Hollis's manservant were depicted, also the interior of the rotunda at Ranelagh. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1757. He was well connected, knowing Francis Blackburne and Theophilus Lindsey, John Wilkes, several peers, and the elder William Pitt. He was a governor of Guy's and St Thomas's hospitals, and a guardian of the asylum and Magdalen Hospital.
Hollis's main contribution to public service was protecting and advancing English liberty by circulating appropriate books on government. From 1754, he reprinted and distributed literature from the 17th century. Including works such as Toland's Life of Milton, tracts by Marchmont Nedham, Henry Neville, and Philip Sidney, and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government; they were elegantly bound to give them greater effect and tooled with libertarian ornaments such as the liberty cap and owl. To start with the tracts were directed towards libraries throughout Britain and continental Europe; later he turned his generosity to America.
He continued his great-uncle Thomas's practice, as a great benefactor to American colleges, especially Harvard, sending donations and numerous books, often decorated with libertarian symbols. From 1755, his principal American correspondent was Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, and, after his death in 1766, Andrew Eliot. His other benefactions included substantial donations to Berne Library and to the University of Leiden Library.
Thomas Hollis died suddenly on January 1, 1774 and was buried, as he had wished, ten feet deep in a field at his Dorset farm, Urless, near Corscombe. The field was then ploughed over, also according to Hollis's instructions, leaving his grave unmarked.
As Hollis never married, his estate was left to longtime friend Thomas Brand on condition that Brand added the name of Hollis to his own name. He did, becoming Thomas Brand Hollis, and continued his friend's traditions of philanthropy and political engagement.