John Ernest Breun was the second son of John Needham Breun, Duc de Vitry. Born in 1862, J. E. Breun lived and was educated in London. He studied art very successfully at South Kensington and the Royal Academy schools. Painting in pastels and oils, from 1879 he exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists at Suffolk Street and the New Watercolour Society. Oldfield Thomas’ portrait may have been one of his last paintings as he appears to have stopped painting early, in 1904. He died in 1921.
Oldfield Thomas, as he was always known, was born in Millbrook, Bedfordshire and educated at Haileybury College in Hertford. Oldfield was his mother’s maiden name, his father was Vicar of Hillingdon, Middlesex. Oldfield Thomas spent some of his childhood in South Africa when his father was appointed to the Archdeaconate of Cape Town. It was here that Oldfield Thomas developed his love of natural history collecting insects on Table Mountain.
On his return to England in 1876, he found employment as a clerk in the Museum Secretary’s office at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. Two years later he transferred to the Zoological Department, serving a short time as Dr. Albert Gunther’s clerk. Later he was appointed Assistant in Charge of Mammals where he served until his retirement in 1923.
In 1891, Oldfield Thomas married an heiress, the daughter of Sir Andrew Clark, Bart.; an eminent physician. With his increasing scientific reputation and wealth, Oldfield Thomas was able to considerably expand the Museum mammal collection. He employed his own collectors across the world, collecting numerous mammal specimens. He subsequently described of many of them, amounting to over 2,000 new names during his lifetime. He became one of the foremost mammal experts of his time, writing over 1000 books, catalogues and papers.
In 1928 Oldfield Thomas’ beloved wife died and in 1929 he decided he could not go on without her: he ended his own life in June of that year.
In his will, amongst numerous bequests to relatives, Museum
staff and specialist societies, to the Museum itself he left
this portrait and a bequest to finance expeditions to collect
yet more mammals
The painting was bequeathed to the Museum by Thomas in 1929.
This painting has not been on public exhibition.
Thackray, J. C. A. (1995) A catalogue of portraits, paintings
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Anon. (1929-1930) Natural History Magazine, Vol. 2, no. 11, p. 111; Vol.2, no. 15, p.248.
Hill, J.E. (1990) Bulletin Britsih Museum (Natural History). Historical Series. Vol. 18, p.25.
Stearn, W.T. (1998) The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Natural History Museum: London. 414pp.
Wood, C. (1978) (2nd ed.) The Dictionary of Victorian
painters. Antique Collectors’ Club: Woodbridge.