Stephens on Redgrave


F. G. Stephens, "Rirchard Redgrave, Hon. Retired R.A." Artists at Home, 1884


R. Redgrave, Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer, 1836

Stephens begins his biographical sketch by wishing Richard Redgrave a happy birthday: the artist had just turned eighty at the time of publication. He then launches into an outline of Redgrave’s biography, starting with the artist’s early years, when he worked in his father’s firm, and his artistic self-education. Stephens discusses the time Redgrave spent living independently, supporting himself by teaching drawing during the day and taking classes at night at the Royal Academy. His description of this stage of Redgrave’s life speaks to his admiration for Redgrave’s tenacity and work ethic. Stephens calls attention to Redgrave’s Christian sensibility, saying that Redgrave “never worked on Sundays; these days being, as he told us, ‘always sacred to me’” (p. 35). From this quote, we may infer that Stephens had met Redgrave personally. While this description of Redgrave’s industriousness is complimentary, Stephens also points out that Redgrave’s early work was neither successful nor popular, a fact he could have easily glossed over.

Stephens presents a lengthy list of Redgrave’s lesser-known works before mentioning Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdignag Farmer (1836), the painting that truly launched his career and, as a result of engravings made after it, his popular reputation. Stephens then goes on to describe Redgrave’s sympathetic portrayals of genteel poverty, often involving moral themes, and his election to the Royal Academy. To Stephens, these paintings were “designed to serve as moral lessons” (p. 36), and are the “objects he has pursued earnestly and constantly, the very titles given here indicate the prevailing goodness and high moral tone of the subjects chosen by him” (p. 37). The emphasis Stephens places on the titles of the works shows that he expects viewers to glean the artist’s intentions from them.

By enduring the “drudgery of private teaching” (p. 37) in his youth, Redgrave became qualified for the next phase of his career as an arts administrator, civil servant, and historian. With his brother Samuel, Redgrave wrote one of the standard texts on English painting, A Century of Painters of the English School (1866), which Stephens praises as “the most comprehensive and valuable work of the kind” (p. 38). Stephens, too, was an art historian, but his narrative of British art history differs from Redgrave’s, as Stephens emphasizes the importance of Romanticism, while the Redgraves emphasize the development of genre painting;[1] nevertheless, because we all stand on the backs of our predecessors, Stephens’s praise of Redgrave’s book was undoubtedly genuine.

The prime of Redgrave’s artistic career had passed well before the publication of Artists at Home. In his biographical sketch, Stephen’s emphasizes Redgrave’s age by pointing out that Redgrave is one of the oldest living members of the Academy. Redgrave, Samuel Cousins and Thomas Webster “are the survivors of this body as it existed in 1841”(p. 37). Stephens also emphasizes Redgrave's impending blindness. When he discusses Glade where the Pixies Hide, the painting Redgrave had exhibited at the Royal Academy the previous year, Stephens adds: “It must have been painted long before his sight, which is now almost entirely gone, began to fail” (p. 36). Redgrave had been actively working as an arts administrator only three years before the publication of Artists at Home, so Stephens’s emphasis on his civil service reflects what would have been freshest in the minds of the public.

The biography reads almost as a eulogy for Redgrave’s public life, memorializing his career as an active participant in the art world. While Redgrave went on to live for five more years, he passed them quietly in retirement with his family. Stephens expresses his admiration and esteem for this venerable artist, whose accomplishments he has not forgotten.

Karuna Srikureja

[1] Dianne S. MacLeod, “F. G. Stephens: Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian,” The Burlington Magazine 128, no. 999 (June 1986): 389–403+405–6.


Upon Redgrave's death at the end of 1888, Stephens effectively reprinted his text from Artists at Home, adding a few details and concluding, "Although he survived nearly all of his contemporaries, a later generation did not fail to esteem him highly." [F. G. Stephens], "Mr. Richard Rdgrave, R.A.," The Athenaeum no. 3191 (December 22, 1888): 854–55.