Sophia and Olivia is an exceptional work by one of the most well-loved of Scottish painters. The Encyclopedia Americana memorably claimed that Faed '...[had] done for Scottish art what Robert Burns did for Scottish song. He has made it attract universal interest and command universal respect'.
Thomas was the second son of James Faed Sen. (1777-1843), and probably the most successful of this talented family. In 1878 all five Faed children exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy simulataneously; Thomas's older brothers, John and James, share with him an acknowledged place within art history.
Thomas was a protégé; undertaking his first painting at the age of twelve, and an outstanding student at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh: 'a more ardent worker at the Academy classes than he hardly existed', recalled his brother James. His early exhibits determined the themes that were to characterise his art even subsequent to his move to London in 1872: rural life and literary genre subjects of a romantic cast. Faed engaged with a cultural phenomenon; the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's novels, coupled with Queen Victoria's own love of Scotland, created a mythologised ideal of Highland life in the nationial consciousness.
Faed's own motives were not to falsify however; his depictions of family life often locate sentiment within intrinsically tender gestures. His pictures have an integrity born out of the artist's own sympathy and understanding of Highland culture, and whilst undoubtedly attractive, they simultaneously promote issues of social awareness. The Mitherless Bairn (1855, no. 141; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), Faed's Academy exhibit of that year, was hailed as 'the picture of the season'; The Last of the Clan (Royal Academy, 1865, no. 150; Glasgow Art Gallery) became the most iconic and incendiary representation of emigration during the 19th century.
Sophie and Olivia is atypical: part pastoral-idyll, part sophisticated costume piece. The subject derives from The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), the novel by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) which enjoyed a cultish prominence during the 18th century and beyond. Sophia and Olivia are the daughters of the Vicar of Wakefield, whose bankruptcy sets initiates a chain of dramatic events, including the disappearance and supposed death of his two beautiful daughters as they fall prey to duplicitous Squire Thornhill. The plot resolves itself with a series of rescues and revelations; and Sophia marries Sir William Thornhill - Squire Thornhill's wealthy uncle, whose vigilant attendance upon the beleaguered family has been facilitated by his disguise as a poor layman.