Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary, Devon, on 21 October 1772, the son of John Coleridge, vicar of the town and master of the grammar school. Between 1791 and 1794, he read classics at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he absorbed political and theological ideas, then considered radical. He left Cambridge without a degree and joined his friend, Robert Southey, in a soon abandoned plan to found a Utopian society in Pennsylvania. Coleridge's first volume of poems, Poems in Various Subjects was published in 1796 and the following year he began what was to be a lifelong friendship with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. The two men published a joint volume of poetry in 1798 Lyrical Ballads, that became a landmark in English Romantic poetry. Coleridge's principal contribution to this volume was the celebrated epic 'The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner' which includes the famous passages on the albatross suggested by Wordsworth. Tormented by rheumatic pains, Coleridge took opium to relieve his sufferings, such an 'anodyne' apparently induced a dream that inspired him to write 'Kubla Khan'. He travelled extensively in Europe, often with the Wordsworths, and continued to publish poems and essays until his last years; he died in in Highgate in 25 July 1834.
Coleridge is known to have sat for at least twenty portraits, however, he often refers to his features with wry deprecation, as in a letter to to John Thelwall in 1796, 'Tis a mere carcass of a face: fat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression (S.T. Coleridge, Collected Letters, 1, pp. 259-60). Dorothy Wordsworth, in a letter written later that year, expresses a view more commonly held amongst his friends, 'I first thought him very plain ... But if you hear him speak for five minutes, you think no more of them [his features]. His eye is large and full, not dark but grey; but it speaks ever emotion of his animated mind; it has more of the 'poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling' than I ever witnessed.' (W. & D. Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt, Letters - The Early Years 1878-1805, Oxford, 1967, p. 189). Thomas Phillips was considered by Coleridge to be 'the best Portrait painter existing', his commissions included the only studio portrait of William Blake and the famous series of portraits of Byron in Albanian costume.
The present portrait was commissioned by Coleridge's nephew, William Hart Coleridge, Bishop of Barbados, and although Coleridge felt too ill to sit to him in the summer of 1818, the portrait had been started by early next year and was completed by 1821. While the portrait was in progress, Coleridge wrote to Phillips suggesting that he would prefer being shown holding a silver snuff-box than in a handkerchief (as in the Washington Allston portrait of Coleridge of 1814, National Portrait Gallery, no. 184). His daughter, Sara Coleridge evidently prefered Allston's idealized portrayal of her father although Coleridge himself appears to have liked the Phillips portrait, writing to him in 1821,
'it is not ... within the power of scope of medical skill to throw as much Life ... as you have thrown into my crumbly Face.' (D. Piper, op. cit., p. 249). Phillips completed a replica of the picture in 1835 (John Murray Collection), which was the subject of a lithograph and engraving by Louis Hague and a further lithograph by E. Finden for the second edition of Table Talk.