A Biography
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James Charles 1851-1906

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1851 - 1906
One Victorian Painter


The Victorian Age was characteristically one of clutter; in architecture, in interior design, fashion and personal trinkets. In each case, individual items were lost in the mass, no matter what their own merits were. Victorian painters seemed to suffer the same conditions, each being only one of a very large colony of very worthy, sound artists; enjoying a minor degree of success but never acquiring the same esteem as the French painters of the time, like Monet and Degas, or English painters of an earlier period; Constable, Turner or earlier still, Reynolds and Gainsborough.
James Charles was one of these many painters of the Victorian era who did not receive a just reward for a lifetime of painting.
Apart from being included in the Dictionary of Victorian Painters, and receiving a small acknowledgement by Graham Reynolds in two of his books about the Victorian painting scene, no other writer or art historian has ever dedicated a publication to the life and work of this man.
The 'Studio' and the 'Art Journal' between 1905 and 1909 paid Charles a degree of respect with small mentions, mainly in articles about the Royal Academy Exhibitions, however, on two occasions, after his death in 1906, lengthy articles were written praising his work and character, and airing the view that this particular painter should have received much greater fame than he had done.
Other than these writings, Charles' youngest daughter Jac Charles, has been the only source of biographical information. She compiled a short account of his life, and of his significant successes as a painter, a few years after his death, and later in 1960, in answer to a request from the Town Clerk of Warrington, wrote a resume of his family background and his character. Although since she was an old woman by that time, the account is coloured with sentiment.
The aim of this work is to introduce James Charles as a painter and as a man through some of his artistic achievements and through the opinion of some people who knew him. Also to set him against the background in which he worked and relate him to his better known contemporaries.
Portraiture & Genre
James Charles was born in Warrington in 1851. His family background was not one which made it necessary for him to fight to become an artist, against parental wishes: a factor which frequently adds a spirit to a painter's work, making a good artist into a great one.
Contrarily, the family had a history of people with an artistic nature: lovers of natural history, great readers, singers, carvers and wanderers, finally down to his father, Richard Charles who was a designer, draughtsman and cabinet maker.
Among his achievements were the designing of the chain-of-office of the Mayor of Caernarvon, and inventing asbestos, first brought out by Cromptons. James therefore, walked easily into an artistic career, supported by a sturdiness of spirit, inherited it would seem, by seafaring forefathers who came from France and settled finally in Wales.
The French temperament, gave him the combination of a love of beauty, and on the other hand a tendency towards depression, producing a complex and difficult character which was nearly always mis­understood although completely unaffected, carrying with it something of a child's simplicity.
His father left Warrington and moved to London to carry on his work, and James, at fourteen, joined him and worked in his design office during the day, leaving the evenings and early mornings for normal school work. Once schooling had finished he further developed his draughtsmanship by working for a lithographer for a while and then studying at Heatherley's School of Art in Newman Street, London. He finally entered the Royal Academy School in 1872 at the same time as Sir Luke Fildes.
At this time 'genre' painting, landmark of the later Victorian era, was in full swing. It was executed in three main parts. The sentimental, escapist subjects of everyday life in an idealized world, were very popular with the exhibition going public, the 'St. John's Wood Clique' lead by Philip Calderon, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were great exponents of this type of subject with paintings such as 'Broken Vows' by Calderon, 'May Day in Olden Times' by H. S. Marks and 'The Broken Tryst' by Orchardson. Historical subjects also found their way into this line of thought.
In stark contrast to the escapist trend of these painters came the short-lived school of social realists who made their presence felt in 1870 with works which would probably now be labelled 'shock paintings'. These artists gathered around the newly founded weekly newspaper 'The Graphic', and their first works were produced in the form of wood-engravings from their drawings. Public curiosity began to lean towards the seamier side of life and made the work of Frank Holl, Luke Fildes and Hubert Herkomer commercially successful and the later drawings of this period lacked the poignancy and impact of the early ones. But HoII's 'Committed for Trial', and Fildes' 'Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward', were not without sympathy and compassion. The third group, contemporary with the social realists, were the painters of what Ruskin called 'The Vulgar Society', the world of the rich and ostentatious, portrayed on a broader scale than ever before.
Tissot took the subject matter with 'Too Early', and Orchards on followed suit with a series of paintings concerning a 'Marriage of Convenience'.
Stepping into this environment, James Charles would have found little to delight him in the latter set, though genre subjects, together with his portraits, were more akin to his natural sensitivity and humour. In 1875 his first painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 'An Italian Youth in Armour' and it was sold on the first morning. Unfortunately there is no record of this painting, as it has remained in a private collection since it was sold and the writer has been unable to find any account of its completion date or subject matter.
This quiet success marked the pattern his career was to follow throughout his lifetime: never widely acclaimed but almost surreptitiously appreciated. During these early years at the Academy, Charles' work, needless to say was of an academic kind, which did not display any evidence of his later talent for landscape painting.
Portraiture filled a large quantity of his time, and in the 1876 and 77 summer exhibitions, five portraits were shown, including one of his father, and others of Victor Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire and the children of a Mr. T. Gregory. 'Study of an Old Man' was not exhibited and was probably carried out while working at the Royal Academy, but it demonstrates his ease with a brush in portraying what is real and also his feeling for his subject, since even in this working painting one can sense a certain sympathy with the patience of this old man, expressed by the downcast eyes and set expression on the face, adopted by many of this kind of person whose occupation it is to sit as a model for students of painting.

Undoubtedly, the early influence which played the largest part in his working life was the period around 1874 spent studying at the Academie Julien in Paris. He went during the growth of the Aesthetic movement in England, when the teachings of the theorists on the 'hidden soul' and 'pure sensation' were creating an atmosphere hostile to the subject pictures. The new critics, R. A. M. Stevenson and MacColl, had little time or patience for the academic school, and were less likely than their predecessors to read a story into every picture.
Whistler's revolutionary opinions helped to uphold the anti-subject picture movement and his painting 'The Ten O'clock Lecture' had even more effect. It was at this time that the so called 'wilder' young men went to be trained at Julien's or similar studios in Paris, and French example began to penetrate England. Quite early on in this period of change, James Charles, along with the 'wild young men'; F.W. Jackson and Wilson Steer being two of his contemporaries, came under the influence of the 'plein-air' technique begun by Bastien-Lepage. That in itself was enough to undermine the academicism of England.
Suddenly the grammar of painting was more important than the subject of the picture, and there was talk of 'values' and of pattern and light, faithfully painted in the open air. The immediate effect was not to banish subject content as radically as Whistler had tried to do, but to combine something of the social pre-occupations of Holl and Fildes with the 'plein-air' technique.

Cadogan Square, Chelsea, London c.1890s
Cadogan Square, near Halsey Street,
Chelsea, London c.1890s - enlarge

Charles was one of the first to tread these novel roads, though it was not the revolutionary aspect of French painting that caught his attention since it was far from his character to revolt against such backgrounds as the English watercolour school, but he looked for sincerity in his portrayal of Nature which he loved, and painting a landscape from memory in a studio, did not fulfil his aspirations.
However, the pleinairistes took their canvasses outdoors and painted on the spot to capture, not just the subject, but also the atmosphere at the time and the weather condition, and this would have seemed, to Charles, a more honest way of capturing the scene.
Returning to England, he had equipped himself with the vital new method of painting which began the change from portraiture to landscape.

In 1875 he married Ellen Agnes Williams and they lived in Halsey Street in Chelsea. From here and from subsequent houses around' London, he based his home, but spent a great deal of time away from London and the towns in general.
In 1908 T. Martin Wood, in an article about him two years after his death said: "He seemed to enter an assembly of jaded Londoners as an envoy from the courts of nature. The fresh Whitman-like qualities of mind which he revealed in conversation suggested that such a type of mind would find that to be indoors was to be in prison'.
In the following years, he painted with great enthusiasm, at Thorpacre near Loughborough, and subsequently at South Harting in Sussex and Petersfield in Hampshire. His pictures were mainly subject pictures of rustic genre, most of which are now in private collections and therefore not available for viewing. Among these are 'The Village Post Office', 'The Lost Cap' and 'Norwegian Peasant Girl' which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876. All were painted on the spot in the pleinairiste tradition although still retained the attraction of English genre paintings popular at the time.

South Harting c.1890s
South Harting in the 1890s - enlarge

'Our Poor' particularly shows that he was still influenced by the English genre, painted in the Chelsea workhouse and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878. It reflected a little of the feeling of the social realist group of a few years previous, being accompanied by a biblical quotation: "Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth". Psalms 21.9. However, it was not designed to shock the public as the others were, but merely to portray sympathetically the life of the poor people.
This painting is now in the Warrington Art Gallery, but is in a poor state of repair and could not be photographed.
Throughout the following years Charles continued to paint in this fashion and exhibited annually at the Royal Academy pictures which betray their subject matter by titles such as 'Her Children's Children', (1880) 'The Best of Friends', 'The Village Coquettes I, (1881), 'Darby and Joan' (1882) 'A Critical Audience (1885).
Among the subject pictures were portraits of his family and of prominent Bradford Citizens whom he met through Mr. John Maddocks, the art connoisseur and dealer who was impressed by the fine quality of Charles work and bought many of his canvasses.

In 1887, 'Christening Sunday' was exhibited, the painting which attracted the most attention of his work of this period. It concerns the inhabitants of a village attending an event which is important enough to them to bring them out in their best clothes. The event envelopes them all. The centre of attention at that moment is on the group in the centre comprising Mother, Father, Baby and some older relations, but another mother and child leaving the picture on the left, suggests that only a little while before, that pair and their entourage were holding all the attention.
The picture tells a story, as in all subject painting, but the importance, in this case, is not in what went on before or after, but in capturing the relationship between the mother and child, which was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that the' models were James Charles' wife and daughter.
The church in the background is painted with extraordinary ease and simplicity­, and yet with complete accuracy and realism in the golden, warm colour of Sussex stone. The whole composition has an atmosphere of warmth and relaxation produced by the amber and yellow range of the palette and the ease of the brushstroke. The painting style is almost rough in places. The sky, for instance has been worked over quite heavily with a stipple technique, and one can see dark areas around the edge of the canvas from the paint underneath the surface. Around the faces of the people, the paint is smoother and he does not pay very much attention to form in these areas. The faces in the background in fact are quite flat with only a brushstroke to indicate facial features.
Consider, by comparison, the work of a contemporary of James Charles: William Powell Frith who exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions every year alongside Charles.

Christening Sunday - South Harting
Christening Sunday - South Harting, Sussex
James Charles, 1887
© Manchester City Galleries

In particular consider Derby Day' that vast commissioned mass portrait painted in 1858. Despite the obvious difference in size between it and 'Christening Sunday', the relative size of the event to the present company is the same in each case. The painting style of 'Derby Day' however, is much more photographic and precise: brush strokes are virtually invisible. The colours, moreover, are exaggerated in their clarity although realistic in their hue, but do nothing to suggest or uphold the mood of the painting; it is left to the characters to provide the mood. Indeed, if their faces were covered they could be equally sad as happy.
The basic difference between the two painters is in their outlooks on and reasons for painting. It was Frith's ambition to paint pictures of ordinary life which would appeal to the public. He was, however, deterred for many years by what he considered the ugliness of modern dress. He could not, as Charles would, paint exactly what he saw, simply because it was real.
Difficulty was in finding sufficient subjects of the kind to Frith's suit him. There was an easy-going commercialism in his outlook and when he went to the Derby in 1856, he rightly judged that it would give him an opportunity of portraying a complete cross­ section of the community and would prove to be of great appeal to the public.

How different is that philosophy, from those of James Charles, who could not, out of honesty, paint specifically for exhibition; who had a certain carelessness about frames for his pictures, and a dislike of the interruption of the sending-in day.
In the same year as 'Christening Sunday' Charles painted a superb study of an old woman entitled, 'Will it Rain?', situated again in South Harting, Sussex. The model is reputedly Old Charlotte Walder who was a resident of the village.
She is standing outside her house, with an umbrella poised in both hands ready to be opened should it rain. She faces towards us but is not actually looking at anything. She appears more to be sniffing the air with a concentration which is most charming. In her window behind her, can be seen her floral curtains and the inevitable bowl of flowers. Around her, the hens are pecking the ground and strutting with heads high: evidence of the rural district in which she lives.
Charles treats her with great sympathy of paint handling. There is neither mockery of old age nor mock heroism. Again the brushwork is very loose on the folds of her clothing and heavily worked on the background. In fact, the first impression of many of Charles' paintings seems sketchy and uncaring.
However, closer inspection of the sensitivity around the facial expression of his characters shows quite the opposite. In subject matter, the painting is similar to 'No Walk Today' (1855) by Mrs. Sophie Anderson, another of Charles' exhibiting contemporaries. The little girl, in this case stands at the window looking outwards. She is alone and relates to nothing except a thought which the viewer can only guess at. But there is present in this painting a note of sentimentality, common in the genre paintings, especially designed to tug the heartstrings, but which James Charles manages to avoid by thinking, not of how the public will react or what they might want, but purely by becoming totally involved in the character as his model, and how to portray it faithfully on canvas.

Will it Rain, South Harting - The model is said to have been 'Old Charlotte Wallder' who lived opposite the church at South Harting
Will it rain? - South Harting, Sussex
JH Charles, 1887
Photo: ©Tate, London

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