Herbert, James Dowling (1762/3–1837), painter, was born James Herbert Dowling in Dublin, son of James Dowling (d. 1786), ironmonger, of 53 South Great George's St., Dublin; his mother's name is not known. While involved in the theatre, he adopted ‘Herbert’ as a stage surname. He was originally intended for the priesthood but instead entered his father's business, where he kept accounts. Having shown an early interest in drawing, he began his studies (1779) at the Dublin Society schools, where one of his fellow pupils was Martin Archer Shee (qv). Subsequently, he became a pupil of Robert Home (1752–1834), the leading portraitist in Dublin at the time. Originally from London, Home had been taught by the artist Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) and later spent some time in Rome. He settled in Dublin in 1779. By the early 1780s Herbert was in a position to leave the family business and devote himself to art full-time. His name was made by a sojourn painting portraits at Kells, Co. Meath, where he was patronised by Walter Keating, agent to the earl of Bective, and members of the local gentry. It was also around this time that he became involved in the theatre, both as an actor and as a designer of stage sets. It would seem this activity, which was perhaps his real love, was also a useful way of making professional contacts and social introductions that furthered his portrait practice. Indeed, a feature of Herbert's career was his quickness to perceive business opportunities. He continued to develop his reputation as an artist with tours around Kilkenny, Cork, and Limerick. His progress was interrupted for a time (c.1786) when he returned to assist his mother in running the family business after the death of his father.
In the early 1790s he had resumed painting, assisting the American artist Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). By this time his previous master, Robert Home, had been eclipsed as the leading portrait painter in Dublin by Stuart, who had arrived in the city in 1787. Stuart enjoyed a lavish lifestyle which precipitated his departure for America in 1793 to escape his mounting debts. As a result, Herbert was responsible for finishing a number of his portraits, though his abilities fell some way short of Stuart's outstanding talent. By the end of the decade he was of sufficient standing to be able to attract fashionable patronage during a stay in Bath. His small whole-length portraits, done in watercolour and chalk, were of a type that became increasingly popular at the end of the eighteenth century and may be compared with the portraits of Adam Buck (qv). However, though Herbert's portrait of Lady Cloncurry (NGI) shows a similar concern to Buck with the style of neoclassicism, his handling is much less expert.
On returning to Dublin he painted portraits of many leading United Irishmen, including Arthur O'Connor (qv), Thomas Addis Emmet (qv), and W. J. MacNevin (qv), as well as a scene of the arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (qv). The upheavals of the period immediately after the 1798 rebellion reduced the demand for art, prompting Herbert once more to take to the stage in order to provide for a growing family. From this time he pursued a dual career as an artist and actor. His success in both fields may be gauged by a laudatory article in the Hibernian Magazine (Feb. 1799). Further contemporary comment may be found in a commentary on paintings he exhibited at the parliament house, Dublin (July 1801). The anonymous writer felt Herbert was ‘a painter of some ability which is the more remarkable as he is also a player of the first rank in our theatre, employments either of which one would imagine would require undivided attention’ (RIA, MS 24K 14–15, i, 253–4). Among these paintings was a portrait of his friend Thomas Moore (qv), the first publicly exhibited likeness of the poet.
An attempt to make his name on the London stage met with failure. His theatrical ambition was satirised by the critic John Wilson Croker (qv) in his Familiar epistles to Frederick E. Jones esq. on the present state of the Irish stage (1804). Ever aware of market forces in the Irish art world, Herbert opened a picture-dealing business in 1811. He held a number of significant sales at his Exchequer St. premises, which was also an early venue for the public display of art in the city. His surviving sale catalogues are important documents in the study of art collecting in Dublin in this period. Details for this later part of his life are less well known. He published his memoir, Irish varieties for the last fifty years in London in 1836. He died in April 1837 at his lodgings at Queen St. on the island of Jersey, where he had been successfully performing at the Theatre Royal. The sale of his own art collection took place in Dublin in the same year.