THOMAS WEBSTER, Hon. Retired R.A.

T. WEBSTER, R.A.
T. WEBSTER, R.A.

The portrait of Thomas Webster stands out from the others in Artists at Home as it is the only one that shows an artist outdoors. The photogravure, after an original photograph taken by Joseph Parkin Mayall (1839–1922), was issued in March 1884.

Rather than inside his studio or sitting room, Webster appears in the doorway of his ivy-covered brick house in the village of Cranbrook, in Kent. He sits placidly in a wooden chair, surrounded by the plants in his garden, flanked by the tall, white-framed windows of the entryway. Jeremy Maas has pointed out that “a figure can be seen reading a newspaper in the window to the left”:[1] perhaps Mrs. Webster or a fellow artist makes an appearance in the image as well. The presence of the figure adds a communal feeling to the portrait: even when Webster is being photographed, a friend or family member is nearby.

The composition is straightforward, with Webster at the center, framed by the doorway. Yet the question remains, Why were his fellow artists photographed within their studios in their own homes, surrounded by lavish furnishings and examples of their art, while Webster—in F. G. Stephens’s mind, one of the most remarkable artists of the group, “the Doyen of the three artistic professions at large in England”[2]—is pictured without a single work of art in sight? There is no way to know whether this decision was made by the artist himself or by the photographer; either way, this extraordinary portrait seems to represent Webster’s decision to leave London in 1857 and retreat to the more rural setting of Cranbrook. He moved there following the English genre painter Frederick Daniel Hardy (1827–1911), Webster's mentee, who would occupy the basement of Webster’s home in the High Street.[3]

T. WEBSTER, R.A.

Seated at the front and center of the composition, Webster faces the photographer head on, legs crossed, eyes focused straight ahead. His resolute posture may indicate that the choice to remain outside was his own, a means of maintaining the privacy of his home and studio. Another, more practical, reason may have been that there was insufficient light inside the house for Mayall’s camera. Regardless, while the other images in Artists at Home assert the sitters' high artistic tastes, with extravagant studios filled with beautiful objects, the only indication here that Webster is, in fact, an artist, is his velvet jacket, the conventional garb of the artist. Also interesting to note is the book Webster holds. Most of the other artists photographed for Artists at Home hold mahlsticks or paintbrushes as symbols of their art; Webster’s book identifies him as an intellectual, as much as an artist.

Webster’s portrait may be meant to present him as the “father” of the Artists at Home set—the doyen, as Stephens says—looking down benevolently from his comfortable seat. During his time in Kent, Webster was the leading figure in the Cranbrook Colony, a group of artists who shared an interest in scenes of rural life and childhood. The photograph represents this side of Webster, a man more interested in the simple joys of children's play than the bustling life of a sophisticated London studio. The photograph contributes to our understanding of Webster as an artist who found inspiration outside the studio and outside London, in the landscape and the rural life around him in the village he made his home.

Hilleary Gramling

 

 [1] Jeremy Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1984), 56.

[2] F. G. Stephens, “Mr. Thomas Webster. Hon. Retired R.A.,” Artists at Home (London: S. Low, 1884), 9.

[3] “Cranbrook Colony,” 2013, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.cranbrookmuseum.org/cranbrook-colony.html.

THOMAS WEBSTER, Hon. Retired R.A.