Saturday, 19 February 2005

Louise Rayner’s postcards from home

Louise Rayner, ChesterWatergate Row North
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by Christopher Proudlove

Loathe as I am to admit it, surfing the auction website eBay can be a fascinating way of spending the odd idle hour on a home computer.

One of my favourites is to key in, say, the name of the village where I was born, or, perhaps, the town where I went to school. Hit the search button and see what turns up.

You’d be surprised. I was the other day when an ancient picture postcard of my village came into view on the screen.

Instead of the bleaching and dyeing textile mill with its smoky chimney, there were rolling green fields, while the towering oak tree I used to climb as a lad was a mere sapling. Talk about feeling my age!

Similar thoughts occur when viewing the watercolours of 19th century Chester painted by Louise Rayner (1832-1929). Oh,how the old city has changed!

Horses pulling carts through the cobbled streets, market traders sitting outside the town hall selling their wares from wicker baskets under their arms, 'T. Rimmer's Boot Top Manufactory' in Watergate Street and Nooces dressmaking rooms above the Old Vaults public house in Bridge Street.

Louise Rayner’s painted records of the city that was later her home are a valuable legacy to later generations.

She was born in Markeaton Street, Derby, in 1832, the second daughter in a family of five girls and one boy.

However, after leaving Derby, the family lived in London, where Louise was largely bought up.

From there, she moved to Brighton and subsequently to 2 Ash Grove, off the Wrexham Road, in Chester. She boarded there with Robert Shearing (who owned a chemist's shop in Watergate Street) and his wife Mary Anne.

Both Louise’s parents were painters and they encouraged and tutored all six children, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Father, Samuel, was a watercolourist of some note, specialising in architectural and historical genre pictures.

He first exhibited in London in 1821 and was elected an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1845.

However, his career ended in disgrace in 1851 when he was convicted by the Queen's Bench for his involvement in a serious case of fraud.

Straight away he was shunned by his previously wide circle of artist friends and the final embarrassment came when the Board of the Watercolour Society expelled him.

He continued to exhibit elsewhere up to two years before his death in 1874, but without real commercial success.

Louise, on the other hand, was soon earning a good income from the sale of numerous paintings.

She had taken up drawing at the age of 15 during a long stay at Herne Bay, and consequently studied painting seriously, receiving tuition first from her father.

Later she studied under George Cattermole (1800-1868), Edmund John Nieman (1813-1876); David Roberts (1796-1864) and Frank Stone (1800-1859) and began exhibiting oil paintings in 1852, her style resembling closely that of her father.

However, she quickly changed to watercolours almost exclusively as a medium and her early paintings are considered to be her best.

Like her sisters, notably Margaret and Nancy, Louise was also greatly influenced by Roberts, who specialised in magnificent architectural paintings and all three girls produced a great many pictures of the interiors of old and historic buildings.

Most accomplished

Most accomplished in these was Margaret Rayner, whose subjects were generally church interiors, including a number of Chester Cathedral.

She was said to paint them “with truth and force beyond those of David Roberts, hence she is more pathetic”.

Louise, on the other hand, is best known for her delightful, almost photographic, pictures of street scenes, tucked away alleys and the façades of attractive old buildings.

She would often accompany her architect brother, Richard, himself a exhibitor of landscapes in London and Derby from 1861 to 1869, on business trips and sketch while he was meeting his clients.

As a result, Louise was widely travelled, both in this country and in northern France.

She chose to visit old cathedral cities and market towns in particular, and in addition to her quaint Chester street scenes, she is also known for her views of London, Hastings, Salisbury, Tewksbury, Warwick and Edinburgh.

Her paintings of Wrexham Parish Church, in North Wales and Shrewsbury are among her best.

For nearly 50 years she was a regular exhibitor at most of the major London exhibitions, including the Royal Academy, the Old and the New Watercolour Societies, the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street Gallery, the British Institution, the Society of Female Artists and the Dudley Gallery.

Outside London she was represented in exhibitions of the Birmingham Society of Artists and in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Today, Chester's Grosvenor Museum houses the largest public collection of Louise Rayner's watercolours – 23 in all - and is well worth visiting.

The Ludlow Museum in Shropshire and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead also have her work on show.

However, not all Rayners hang in museums and it is still possible to acquire signed originals for your own walls - if your pocket is deep enough.

No systematic survey of the artist's work has ever been undertaken and the number of her pictures in private ownership is impossible to assess.

But they do still turn up in dealers' shop windows and in auctioneers' catalogues.

Sadly, I can only afford the postcard reproductions!

Pictures show: Louise Rayner’s Chester watercolours of (left) Bridge Street, and Watergate Row, looking north



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