Thursday, 26 July 2007

Merseyside’s forgotten artists

Learning about antiques and fine art continues to fascinate me and I feel like I'm on a never-ending journey. Two things happened this week to set me off in a new direction. Both involve the work of local artists.

First, I heard I talk by a museum and art gallery curator about the life and work of the Herdman family of painters and second, an auction catalogue dropped through my letterbox with one of the most amusing front cover illustrations I've seen in a long time.

It showed a watercolour by Birkenhead artist Harry B. Neilson and it's illustrated here, so you can see for yourself. I know very little about either -- and neither do many other people!

The talk was by Colin Simpson, curator of the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, who had been invited by Chester auctioneers Byrne's to speak at a private view for potential buyers on the eve of their sale of a single-owner collection of paintings by Herdman and his son, also called William.

The Williamson has a large collection of the Herdmans’ work of its own, prompting one lady in the audience to recommend a visit, which I fully endorse.

But what intrigued me is how little we know about such a prolific artist. Colin Simpson admitted that more research was needed and even he went home having learnt something he was previously unaware of.

He told me later: “I’ve heard tonight from a man who told me that his sister was taught to paint by one of W.G. Herdman’s daughters. I was not previously aware that the Herdman girls were artists and I certainly didn’t know that one of them taught art.”

W. G. Herdman was prolific in more ways than one – he had 11 sons and five daughters – but until the other evening, it was believed that only William, William Patrick, John Innes and Stanley had become artists in their own right.

No other artist has done more to document Liverpool than William Gawin Herdman (1805-82). As a boy of 13 he started making notes about how the city and its buildings were changing around him and later, entirely self-taught, he produced dozens of unrivalled watercolour views of the city and surrounding districts at a time of unprecedented economic growth.

Mr Simpson said Herdman was known to take the Mersey ferry, walk as far as he could in half an hour or so and then sketch what he saw. Views of New Brighton and Eastham were favourites, as was one particular hostelry in Rock Ferry of which the Williamson has about 10 versions!

Herdman’s historical views dating from before his birth were done by talking to local historians or by copying the work of others. There is a sketch by Herdman of Woodside Ferry dated 1807. The artist was aged two at the time!

Herdman quickly built a successful career as a commercial artist, executing commissions and completing a series of Liverpool views which were used to illustrate a book he published himself titled "Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool". With it came wealth and he took a grand house at 41 Domingo Vale, Everton, an affluent area of the city.

He also taught art and in 1836, was elected a member of the Liverpool Academy. Run along similar lines to the Royal Academy, it held exhibitions of the work of local artists alongside that of leading artists of the day including Landseer, Maddox Brown, Holman Hunt and Millais.

Herdman was subsequently appointed secretary, but found himself at odds with the membership. He painted from real life, not the imaginary world of the Pre-Raphaelites (Colin Simpson described them as “the Damien Hirsts of their day”) and he objected when they were continually awarded the Academy’s annual prizes.

He resigned in 1857 and the following year, he founded the Liverpool Society of Fine Arts, but rivalry between the two resulted in the closure of both, the Society in 1862 and the Academy in 1865.

Today’s collectors need not be concerned by attributions. Watercolours signed in full or with the initials WGH are by Herdman senior. Those signed “William Herdman” are by his son, arguably the best artist among them, while those by Stanley are probably least good of them all.

Other artists copied Herdman’s work and his name was sullied by reproduction prints, some of them of poor quality printing. Original prints of Herdman’s watercolours made in his lifetime were much better.

Liverpool City Library has possibly the finest collection of Herdman watercolours and there are plans to mark the centenary of his birth with an exhibition there next year. Perhaps by then we’ll have learned a little more about one of Liverpool's most famous artists.

Picture shows: A view of Liverpool’s Hanover Street looking towards Canning Dock and the Seaman’s Home Herdman’s son, also named William. It sold for £2,530 (Photo: Byrne’s Auctioneers, Chester)

When Harry met tally-ho

In addition to an impressive selection of works by the Herdman family of artists, the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead also exhibits a group of enchanting watercolours by the intriguing Edwardian artist Harry B. Neilson. And if we don't know much about Herdman, we know even less about Harry.

My interest was aroused by a catalogue from Beeston, Tarporley auctioneers Wright Manley which contained these two charming examples of Neilson's work, painted in 1920 as book illustrations.

As examples of anthropomorphism -- animals dressed in humans' clothes and adopting human traits -- they are without equal. But what today's anti-hunt lobby would say about them is anybody's guess!

From a series entitled "A Day with the Reynardshire Hunt", each picture includes a lengthy caption, the subtle wit and role reversal of which adds immensely to their charm. "Going To The Meet" reads as follows: Old Sourgrapes, the huntsfox, having reported that men were plentiful in Chivvyboys Spinney, everybody who was anybody in Reynardshire turned out in the highest spirits anticipating a rattling day's run. The meet was at Gander's End, half a mile from Brush Hall where Lord and Lady De Mask were entertaining a large party. The De Masks' youngest son the Hon. Younge Cubbe, saw the beginning of the sport from the governess-cart.

The other, "In The First Flight" reads: The first find was, as expected, in Chivvyboys Spinney and the man gave the field a capital 20 minutes until the kill at Kilmanquick. Lady De Mask watched with evident pride the plucky riding of her the eldest son young, Lord Mountcanine. One or two unfortunate accidents were reported. Dr Rob Hencoop was thrown early, and spent most of the day hunting his mount while Mr Vulpy, K.C. exchanged a saddle for quickset hedge.

But who was Harry Neilson? According to a cutting from the Daily Telegraph, being sold with the watercolours, Neilson was born in Birkenhead. A renowned eccentric noted for his offbeat sense of humour, he illustrated many children's books including Mr McGee's Menagerie (1897) and also contributed to publications such as The Sketch. An ornithologist and local historian, he lived in Bidston Village and died in 1942.

Colin Simpson, curator of the Williamson, is quoted as saying: "(Neilson's) role reversal is a constant theme. It’s quirky and amusing and possesses a novelty value that sticks in people's minds, although no one seems to know anything about the artist."

I intend to learn more about him and would appreciate hearing from any reader who can help. Sadly, I couldn't afford the Wright Manley watercolours which had each been estimated at £500-800 in the sale on Tuesday this week. In the event, Going to the Meet sold for £2,600 and The First Flight fetched £1,600, much to the delight of the private collector who sold them.

Picture shows: Harry B. Neilson’s Going to the Meet – role reversal at its most wickedly witty (Photo: Wright Manley Auctioneers, Beetson)

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Anonymous steve said...

Hi Chris,
My names Steve, I live in East Yorkshire. I have an original water colour painting of Mr Foxs Hunt Breakfast. It was painted by Gladys M Botterill and is dated xmas 1897. My mothers name is Botterill and the painting has been passed down the family to myself. The picture by Neilsen first appeared in Dec 1897 in the Penny Pictorial and is supposed to represent members of the Blankney Hunt, Lincolnshire. Gladys Botterill lived in a small village near Louth in Lincolnshire in a very well off family, which is where the Blankney hunt operated. According to family folklore passed down from grandfather the picture was supposed to be caricatures of members of the Botterill family? Currently I have no clues to how Harry B was linked to the Blankney Hunt. I just thought you might be interested in the above info. Also, I am taking the painting to an auctioneers in Driffield next week to see what they think valuation wise.


25 November 2011 at 11:06  

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