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Jacob Bell and the Artists

Jacob Bell, founder of the Pharmaceutical Society, was a significant figure in the Victorian art world. This online exhibition explores his life, his career in pharmacy, and his friendship with artists from Henry Perronet Briggs to Sir Edwin Landseer. 

Family and Early Life

Jacob was born in 1810, the fourth of eight children. His parents came from long-established Quaker families, and his father, John, had married the eldest daughter of fellow Quaker Frederick Smith, the London chemist and druggist he had apprenticed with.

From an early age Jacob displayed an interest in art, sketching and doodling on any spare paper he could find. He received lessons in oil painting from his cousin, Henry Perronet Briggs and attended early morning classes at Henry Sass’s drawing school, a private art school in Bloomsbury. Rebellious from a young age, Jacob was punished by Sass after he mocked a set exercise to draw a large plaster ball, an experience which drove him to pay more attention to his scientific studies. 

A Career in Pharmacy

Jacob left school in 1827 and was apprenticed in his father’s successful business as a chemist and druggist at 338 Oxford Street. Initially kept on the strict regime of his fellow apprentices, he eventually gained a little freedom to attend chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution, and on physics at King’s College. Jacob became sole proprietor of the family business in 1849 continuing his father’s success and was known for being particularly strict about the accuracy of prescriptions, unadulterated materials, and following standards such as the London Pharmacopoeia.

Another pharmacist, Thomas Hyde Hills, joined Bell’s pharmacy business in 1837. Hills formed a close friendship with Jacob Bell and moved into his house in 1837, where he stayed until Bell’s death in 1859.  

“Jacob was at the heart of the Pharmaceutical Society for the rest of his life and became the first editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal. In 1850, he was elected as MP for St Albans, so he could represent the interests of pharmacy within government. ”

Jacob was keen to promote the interests of chemists and druggists – perhaps influenced by his father, who had campaigned against the 1815 Apothecaries Act. In 1841, he brought together leading members of the profession to discuss creating a new organisation. On April 15 1841, at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand in London William Allen proposed the formation of the Pharmaceutical Society, which was seconded by Jacob’s father, John.

Jacob was at the heart of the Pharmaceutical Society for the rest of his life and became the first editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal. In 1850, he was elected as MP for St Albans, so he could represent the interests of pharmacy within government.

Thomas Hyde Hills was the first associate member of the Pharmaceutical Society. He was later elected to the Society’s Council in 1860, became Vice-President (1863-68), Treasurer (1868-1873), and President (1873-1876). Like his friend Bell, Hills moved in artistic circles, and became friends with the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, who painted his portrait in 1873 – it still hangs in the RPS London offices today.

An Interest in the Arts

As a significant figure in London’s artistic circles, Jacob was excited to act as a patron, adviser, and friend to a network of artists, helping them with business matters and encouraging them with commissions. Jacob also moved in wider musical and theatrical circles, often hosting parties whose guests included Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank.

William Ince, a founder member of the Pharmaceutical Society, described Jacob’s house in 1891, saying: “The drawing room…was a gallery of art. The walls were hung, or rather hidden, by a collection of modern paintings.” and his art collection included 156 paintings, eight sculptures and a number of miscellaneous prints.

In addition to encouraging new artworks, Jacob also advised artists on how to make sure they benefited fully from the reproduction and rights of their works, with a little help from his friend, M.P. and lawyer, Thomas Noon Talfourd, who helped  bring into law the 1842 Copyright Act.

Henry Perronet Briggs (1792-1844)

Jacob also had family connections in the art world through his cousin, Henry Perronet Briggs, the historical and portrait painter. Although Briggs had been born near Durham, he moved to London in 1811 to train in the Royal Academy. From 1814 until his death, he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution and was elected as a Royal Academician in 1832.

Briggs gave Jacob lessons in oil painting when he was a child, and they continued to work together as adults. Jacob bought Briggs’ Othello relating his adventures to Desdemona and commissioned other works including an 1833 portrait of Jacob’s father, the membership certificate of the Pharmaceutical Society and a portrait of William Allen, the Society’s first President, which can be seen in the RPS Museum today. When Briggs died in 1844, Jacob was his executor and was also given guardianship of Briggs’ two children.

William Powell Frith (1819-1909)

As teenagers, Jacob and William Powell Frith both attended an art school run by Henry Sass, where they became close friends.

Frith began his career as a portrait painter, using members of his family as models. He first exhibited at the British Institution in 1838, and during the 1840s he established himself with his entertaining historical and literary subjects.

Jacob had a passion for horses, and, although his Quaker upbringing prevented him from betting, he offered Frith £1,500 to produce a full-scale painting of Derby Day after seeing a preliminary sketch. The dealer, Ernest Gambart, aware of the lucrative subject matter, paid Frith the same amount to secure copyright and exhibition rights before the artist had even started painting.

In addition to commissioning the painting from Frith, Bell supplied the artist with attractive models, and in his autobiography, Frith remarked that he had found Bell “very useful to me in procuring models. Few people had a more extensive acquaintance, especially among the female sex …”                                   

Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)

Jacob met Landseer when he was already an established painter. Their friendship seems to have been based upon a mutual love of animals, in particular horses and dogs – two of Landseer’s favourite subjects. Unworldly in business matters, Landseer came to rely on Jacob as his manager. Jacob and his brother, James, acted as Landseer’s business agent and adviser, until Jacob’s death in 1859, taking care of his business correspondence and securing the best prices for his pictures.

Jacobs’s efficient management of Landseer’s affairs contributed greatly towards the artist’s prosperity, although he perhaps took on more than he had initially bargained for. As Landseer’s business manager, Jacob became involved in the rebuilding of the artist’s house, helping him to enlarge the estate by purchasing large tracts of land.

Landseer became severely depressed in 1840, after his proposal to the recently widowed Duchess of Bedford was refused. Landseer asked his friend to accompany him on a Continental tour through Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, and Jacob encouraged Landseer to do as little as possible. In the end it was Jacob who ended up cutting the trip short after falling ill and, after two months of travelling, they returned home via Paris.

Landseer was often at Jacob’s house in Langham Place, and bought a country house in Wandsworth, next to Jacob’s Clock House. Joseph Ince, a member of the Pharmaceutical Society’s Journal committee recalled attending a meeting at Langham Place: “The business of the committee was interrupted by outside visitors who had no connections with pharmacy whatsoever; chiefly by Sir Edwin Landseer, who rippled over with droll remark and conversation.”

Just two weeks before his death at the age of 49 Jacob sat for a portrait by Landseer, which was completed in only two hours. The portrait was presented to Thomas Hyde Hills with the inscription ‘Given to his very worthy successor T. H. Hills by his friend the author’. The portrait was bequeathed by Hill to the Pharmaceutical Society in 1891 and is still on display in the RPS Museum.

Jacob’ s health declined through the 1840s and 1850s, no doubt hastened by his hard work. By the end of his life he was unable to speak and became emaciated because he could barely eat. Although he continued to write and take part in meetings, he died on 12 June 1859 at the age of 49.


This online exhibition would not have been possible without the contribution of Heather Birchall.  Many thanks also to Lois Oliver.