JAMES HENRY CHARLES
Returning to England after the summer of 1890 in France he moved with his ever-increasing family to Bosham on the south side of the Downs.
Here he began a period which enveloped some of his most sensitive and charming work. 'Signing the 'Marriage Register' was painted at Colnor House and portrayed a family group in the vestry of Bosham Church. This work epitomises all that is best in subject painting. It is not dated, but it was completed by 1895.
In this one more than any other, the fine quality of his brush work is evident, together with obvious feelings of sincere affection for every character in the composition. Each one is touched by the moment of finality in the marriage of two people; all are quiet; the older ones thoughtful, perhaps of themselves in the same position many years ago; perhaps of silent words of advice and warning. The younger members of the group are touched by the romantic occasion, while the little girl seems only interested in watching the bride write her name. She herself is calm and serene and her sailor husband is quietly proud.
The finer points of the paint treatment are exceptionally delicate. Take for instance the bride's veil with its silk trim; the lace collars on the two women on the left of the group and the flowers in their hair, painted with almost the intricate accuracy of the Pre-Raphaelites. It was unusual for him to paint with such minuteness when most other of his subject and landscape paintings were worked with a prominent brushstroke. This has more of the multiple portrait quality and is in fact very fitting, that an occasion in which every detail is planned to the last flower in the table decoration, should be reflected in the refinement of handling.
Those of the characters which were not played by his family, were played by people living in the village of Bosham. The minister for instance, was the village blacksmith, Alfred Hickman, the bridegroom was Harry Moore the sailor; the old man in smock, Farmer Jerkins. His wife and two of his daughters are there too, the little girl being Marian Charles who was also featured as the baby in 'Christening Sunday'.
This close knowledge of his models enhanced the sincerity with which he carried out his works and underlines the involvement with his work as a whole and its complete lack of commercialism.
Signing the Marriage register, Bosham
© Bradford Museums and Galleries
There are a number of studies for the figure of the bride sitting at the table in a sketchbook of about this time and also of the head of his young daughter. They are not always in the same context but inclining in the same attitude. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1895, the only one of his works represented in that year.
The non-commercialism of his work; his unwillingness to paint with finished polish specifically for exhibition together with the growing size of his family, which eventually grew to five sons and seven daughters, began to take its toll and these years were financially difficult.
In 1891 he was honoured by being elected an Associate of the Societe National des Beaux Arts in Paris, which came as a welcome mark of encouragement in these uncertain years. With this society he exhibited intermittently for five years between 1897 and 1905 with eleven paintings of the rustic genre type.
In order to support his family, he would spend the winter months in Bradford, Yorkshire, where he painted portraits purely for financial aid. He had quite a large clientele there found mainly through John Maddocks, the art connoisseur whom he had met in 1879, and with whom he had remained good friends throughout his lifetime. His portrait of Maddocks was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 along with another portrait of the Mayor of Oldham.
The winter over, he would return to Bosham and work in the surrounding villages painting landscapes and rustic life, and following this in 1896 he moved to Ashling, Sussex and worked in the same way. The landscapes of this time are without equal anywhere for their strength and vitality, whether peaceful or stormy in mood. The brush-strokes became even more pronounced and remind one more and more of the French Impressionist painters. 'A Cornfield near Wooler' is an excellent example of that liveliness of spirit and complete love of Nature which characterized him as a person.
A great deal is lost of this painting by reproduction in black and white and the difference between the haystacks and the women gathering the sheaths is almost indiscernible, but the brightness and gaiety of the sunshine on the corn, and the busy sky is not lost. Charles was at home in such surroundings. 'Spring Blossom' exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1905 is similar in handling, but very peaceful in mood. There is no lively activity but the little girl is wandering placidly through the orchard with her basket, completely at ease with her surroundings. The watercolours too are handled in a lively manner and show Charles' ease in mastering media and technique, for despite the delicacy of the watercolour medium, these landscapes have a distinct intensity about them; freely executed in exaggeratedly naturalistic colours: yellows, browns with often a purple hue to intensify the earth colour, and blue and ochre in the sky.
In the manner of the plein-airist, he would generally paint landscapes on the spot, but faced with a beautiful landscape scene without his paints, he would nevertheless draw a quick sketch of the scene in outline with very detailed notes on colour, so that he would not miss a single image of beauty.
His sketchbook is full of these landscape notes, as well as some very detailed studies of small rustic figures, horses, sheep, dogs, numerous cattle and portraits, all in astonishing detail considering size, and outstanding mastery of the pencil and occasionally pen and ink.
Of all the countless factors of nature which engrossed him, cattle engaged him the most. There are many studies of cattle, in sketched or more finished form and of course included in paintings.
He studied them thoroughly at every angle, like the academics studied the human form. The result was, again this total knowledge of his model which could only result in a sympathetic and qualified rendering in all his cattle paintings.
T. Martin Wood, in 1908, wrote very highly of James Charles' landscapes and cattle. His art discovers to us the ideal, and not less ideal because the boy on the banks of the stream wears corduroys; not any less ideal because he is there instead of classic nymphs. One would not wish to lay stress upon his landscape at the expense of giving some reader not acquainted with his work a false impression as to its extent and completeness.
His genius has assumed this shape, landscape. We have hardly yet had in England a better painter of cattle pieces, yet his interests were so wide, his loyalty to his own artistic nature so great that he could not limit himself merely to the lucrative business which he might have driven with the dealers in the role of 'A Cattle Painter'. 'Landscape with Cattle and Trees' in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and 'Resting' (circa 1900) are two excellent examples of cattle painting.
Meadow Scene with Cattle and Trees
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
His sheep unfortunately were neither so inspired nor inspiring. Although tackled in exactly the same way, with individual studies from all angles, on their own, they never managed to look anything more than fat and puddingy. A landscape called 'The Dusty Road', has at the centre of the composition a herd of sheep being driven by a farmer, assisted by a sheep dog. Since they are massed together, their shapelessness is concealed, and besides the very nature of the 'Dusty Road' demands a painterly treatment which gives a haze over everything.
The summers of 1902 and 1904 he spent at Montreuil-sur-Mer on the picturesque coast of France. In her second account of her father's work, Jac Charles reflected that the industrial revolution had begun to take effect in the countryside of Britain, and machines were taking all his models away, so he took up his paints elsewhere, having no affinity with anything so far from nature as machinery.
Here the dreaded cogwheel had not spun its path and he painted happily 'At Montreuil' which has a certain flatness about it; lacking the luscious quality of his English landscapes although nonetheless charming and delicate. The thin light falling on the tall trunks of the trees is somewhat reminiscent of 'A Spring Landscape' by Sisley, painted, a few years earlier.
The Montreuil visits were the last trouble free trips abroad he had, since he began to suffer from neuritis in his right arm and gout in the eye. In 1905, he went to Capri in Italy during the November, and although he painted many beautiful landscapes of typical scenes of the surrounding districts, his close relations noticed a certain weariness in his work.
Certainly the seascape 'Capri' is very heavy in quality, with the result of being almost menacing. Gone is the light confident brush-stroke which spells out joy of the artist in the presence of nature. In one letter to his wife, he complained that it was quite impossible to paint the wonderful colours and light, that the pigment seemed dull and dead.
When he returned to England in the spring of 1906, he was dissatisfied with his work, and in August of the same year he was taken ill and during an operation for appendicitis, died without hope or wish for recovery, at the age of fifty-four.