Philip James de Loutherbourg

Portrait of Philip James de Loutherbourg

Philip James de Loutherbourg was French painter. He completed most of his works in Britain and these are largely naval scenes although he also worked on stage sets for the London theatre. He also used the mechanical theatre called the “Eidophusikon”. He was born in Strasbourg, France on 31st October 1740 and died on 11th March 1812 in Chiswick, London aged 71.

Major Works

Attack of the Combined Armies on Valenciennes” (1793)  
“Lord Howe’s Action, or the Glorious First of June” (1795)
Great Fire of London” (1797)
“Coalbrookdale by Night” (1801)

Biography Timeline

Philip James de Loutherbourg was born on 31st October 1740 in Fulda Abbacy, Hesse, Germany or possibly in Strasbourg, France where his father was a miniature painter who had moved there from Poland. His father gave him painting lessons but wanted him to become a Lutheran Minister and he went to the University of Strasbourg to study.

1755: He is not happy learning theology as he wants to be a painter so he moves to Paris and studies with Charles Andre Van Loo and with Francesco Giuseppe Casanova.

1767: He is elected as a member of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture even though he is below the regulation age. He exhibits his first twelve pictures, including “Storm at SunsetNight”, and “Morning after Rain” and is praised by the Encyclopaedist Denis Diderot for his talent. He specialises in land and seascapes.

1771: He travels to London where he has an introduction to the actor-manager David Garrick and is employed by him at £500 per year to oversee the theatrical scene painting and costumes at the Drury Lane theatre. He becomes well known for his lighting effects with coloured lanterns and elaborate multilayered scenery. Many artists, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, are impressed by his artistic achievements.

1781: He is elected as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He begins to use Garrick’s Eidophusikon (“image of nature”) in Leicester Square, London which is a miniature mechanical theatre six feet by eight feet displaying natural phenomena by moving pictures. It was originally presented at his own home in March with seating for approximatly130 people and used oil lamps and coloured glass to light the stage. At Christmas he mounts a spectacle with it at a party in the Egyptian Hall at Fonthill Abbey for the novelist William Beckford and then goes on to produce other scenes such as “Satan arraying his troops on the banks of the Fiery Lake, and the rising of the Palace of Pandemonium” from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. The Eidophusikon soon closed, however, as the income did not cover the costs and he couldn’t keep up with the insatiable desire of the audience for new productions. He also helps produce Garrick’s “Christmas Tale” and a pantomime.

1785: He finishes working as a theatrical designer to spend more time on his painting.

1786: He goes on tours of England and Wales over the next ten years and visits the Bedlam Furnaces in Madeley Dale near town of Ironbridge in Shropshire which will be the scene of a famous later painting, “Coalbrookdale by Night”.

1789: He meets the magician Alessandro Cagliostro and becomes interested in the occult and alchemy and travels with him on the continent but leaves him before Cagliostro is condemned to death in Rome for attempting to set up a Masonic Lodge. He also takes up faith healing with his wife and a pamphlet is published entitled “A List of a few Cures performed by Mr and Mrs De Loutherbourg of Hammersmith Terrace without Medicine”.

1793: He paints the “Attack of the Combined Armies on Valenciennes”.

1794: He begins painting “Lord Howe’s Action, or the Glorious First of June” and other large-scale naval works for the Greenwich Naval Hospital Gallery. 

1795: “Lord Howe’s Action” is first exhibited and then hung in the Hospital Gallery with his other paintings. These can still be seen today in what is now the National Maritime Museum.

1800: He contributes illustrations to a Bible published by the British print seller Thomas Macklin.

1801: He paints “Coalbrookdale by Night”. 

1805: He publishes the book “English Scenery”.

Philip James de Loutherbourg died on 11th March 1812, in Chiswick, Middlesex, England. He was buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery, next to St Nicholas Church. (William Hogarth and James Abbott McNeill Whistler are buried nearby).


In 1773 he was hired by the theatre manager David Garrick to work as a scene designer for the Drury Lane Theatre in London and he would have been influenced by the work of other theatres in the city. He was particularly interested in creating optical illusions and creating atmosphere. He used thin, often transparent, gauzes and various lighting techniques to achieve his effects.  He made use of an Eidophusikon (model theatre) to demonstrate his ideas.

His later landscape paintings were to influence Caspar David Friedrich and his circle and J.M.W. Turner and other English artists were also great admirers of his works.

Further Information

Examples of the paintings of Loutherbourg.

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