The first known professional artist in the South to explore the art of landscape for purely aesthetic purposes, Coram derived his initial style and approach by studying and copying picturesque English books and engravings.
Engraver, painter. Born in Bristol, England, Coram was the son of John Coram, a merchant. He immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769, where he joined his father and older brother, John, in the mercantile business. During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Coram served briefly in the Continental army as a private, although he apparently accepted British protection after the fall of Charleston in May 1780.
Coram was largely a self-taught artist, although he may have received some instruction from the painter Henry Benbridge. Coram advertised his skills as an engraver as early as 1778 and was designing paper money for South Carolina as early as 1779. By 1781 newspaper notices were identifying him as “Thomas Coram, engraver” and his residence was listed as 28 Queen Street, where he lived with his wife, Ann. The couple had no children. Few examples of Coram’s engravings survive, but his own bookplate, a seal for the Charleston Library Society, and several bills of credit created for the state of South Carolina evidence his skill. Three engraved views of the June 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island taken from original paintings by Coram, examples of which are not known, were published and exhibited in Charleston long after his death.
In 1784 Coram advertised the opening of a drawing school “for the purpose of instructing youth in that useful and pleasing art.” One of his most noted pupils was the artist Charles Fraser, who is known to have taken lessons from Coram in 1795. Their friendship may have begun as early as 1793, however, through a shared interest in the theater.
Coram’s ability and style as a figure painter are known only through a handful of objects. They include the small head-and-shoulder portrait of Mrs. Thomas Glover, inscribed and dated 1794, and an oversize panel painting of Christ blessing children, which hung in the Charleston Orphan House chapel. His sketchbooks, however, attest to his development as a landscape painter.
The first known professional artist in the South to explore the art of landscape for purely aesthetic purposes, Coram derived his initial style and approach by studying and copying picturesque English books and engravings. He relied heavily on the concepts put forth by the English art theorist William Gilpin, whose publications espoused the concept of “picturesque beauty.” In America, Gilpin’s volumes served as instruction books on how to paint landscape and were copied widely by both professional and amateur artists. Coram skillfully adapted Gilpin’s models to original views of Charleston and its environs.
Coram’s earliest known sketchbook, Sketches Taken from W. Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, dated 1791, consists of fifteen oils copied from Gilpin’s earliest illustrated volume. The next year Coram produced Sketchbook from Nature, which included views of Charleston and the St. James Goose Creek plantation of Charles Glover. Two circa 1800 views portray the house of Thomas Radcliffe and Mulberry Plantation. Coram’s sketchbooks and landscapes serve as an essential link between British and American concepts of the picturesque.
Coram died in Charleston on May 2, 1811. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Philip’s Church. The Charleston Orphan House was the beneficiary of the bulk of his estate, including his sizable library. The largest collection of Coram’s work is in the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston. See plate 9.
Batson, Whaley. “Thomas Coram: Charleston Artist.” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 1 (November 1975): 35–47.
Heisser, David C. R. “‘Warrior Queen of the Ocean’: The Story of Charleston and Its Seal.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 93 (July–October 1992): 167–95.
Kefalos, Roberta. “Poetry of Place: Landscapes of Thomas Coram and Charles Fraser.” American Art Review 10 (May–June 1998): 122–27.
Middleton, Margaret Simons. “Thomas Coram, Engraver and Painter.” Magazine Antiques 29 (June 1936): 242–44.
Obituary. Charleston Times, May 3, 1811.
Prime, Alfred Coxe. The Arts and Crafts in Philadelphia, Maryland and South Carolina, 1721–1785. 2 vols. 1929. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1969.