Webster the artist

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T. Webster, A Village Choir, 1847


Thomas Webster, Late at School, 1834

Born on March 20, 1800, in Ranelagh Street, Pimlico, London, Thomas Webster was the son of a member of George III’s household. Though Webster was initially educated as a chorister at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, London, he preferred art to music and began his studies at the Royal Academy Schools in 1821, winning a gold medal in 1825. Over the course of a successful career he exhibited eighty-three works at the Royal Academy between 1823 and 1879, thirty-nine at the British Institution (1824–44), and eight at the Society of British Artists (1825–34). He was ultimately elected an ARA in 1840 and an RA in 1846. Webster also contributed illustrations to the Etching Club's Deserted Village (1841), Songs of Shakespeare (1843), and Etch'd Thoughts (1844). His popular genre paintings reached a wide general public in the form of steel-engravings.[1]

His early work consisted of portraits, but Webster received acclaim for a scene of playful children, Rebels Shooting a Prisoner (1827), and the following year continued the narrative in Rebels Defeated (1828). Such popular depictions of children became his specialty. Besides this subject matter, his works are characterized by skillful composition, detail, and keen observation. Popular literature often served as an inspiration for his work. For example, lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village accompanied two of Webster’s paintings, The Frown and The Joke. Other works reference Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, and William Wordsworth. A small painting illustrating a school scene in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby--The Interior Economy of Dotheboys Hall--earned Webster the nickname “Do-The-Boys” in 1848.[2] With reference to the boys in Webster's Football (1839), the Art Union observed in 1839 that their “spirit of rivalry” would be brought to bear on “more important purposes in after life.”[3]

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T. Webster, Ring O' Roses, 1850

Webster was influenced by William Mulready, whose paintings of plucky boys became models for Webster’s works. Mulready lived near Webster’s home on The Mall, Kensington Gravel Pits, in what was then the suburban area of Kensington and Bayswater. This semirural neighborhood provided the perfect setting for their genre paintings, and both artists sought inspiration from Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century works. Webster’s paintings especially appealed to middle-class collectors (including Elhanan Bicknell, John Chapman, Joseph Gillott, John Sheepshanks, Robert Vernon, and William Wells), who appreciated art with “nationalistic fervor.”[4]

In 1857 Webster moved to the village of Cranbrook, Kent, and became the informal leader of the Cranbrook Colony, a group of younger artists who shared his interest in scenes of rural life and childhood. Although in later years he sent fewer paintings to London exhibitions (he became an Honorary Retired RA in 1876), the subject matter and style of his art remained virtually unchanged. During his later life in Cranbrook, Webster continued to paint scenes of childhood and also played a philanthropic role in the town. Throughout his time there he lived at Webster House (shown in J. P. Mayall’s photogravure) in the High Street. Many of his works, such as Dame School, Village Choir, and Cranbrook Football Field can be attributed directly to Cranbrook landscapes.[5]

Webster’s first wife, Betsy Millner (b. 1797), died on January 27, 1859; his second wife, Ellen Summerfield, whom he married in 1860, survived him. There were no children from either marriage.[6] Thomas Webster died on September 23, 1886, at Cranbrook, and a memorial to him by the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft (another artist represented in Mayall’s Artists at Home) was erected in St. Dunstan's Church in Cranbrook.

One of the most avid collectors of the Cranbrook Colony’s work was the Wolverhampton tin-toy manufacturer Sidney Cartwright. He bequeathed his collection to the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which holds one of the largest collections of Cranbrook Colony paintings.[7] The largest collection of Webster’s own works is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hilleary Gramling


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Webster, Thomas (1800–1886),” by Kathryn Moore Heleniak, online ed., http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28947 (accessed November 8, 2016)

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Royal Academy, The Seventy-First Exhibition, 1839,” The Art Union 1 (December1839): 69-70.

[4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Webster.”

[5] “The Cranbrook Colony,” Kent Life, October 20, 2010 http://community.archant.net/life/kent/blogs/gbl/ken/b/rachael_hales_blog_on_kents_historical_people_and_places/archive/2010/10/20/the-cranbrook-colony.aspx (accessed November 16, 2016).

[6] The Weald, s.v. “Thomas Webster, R.A.,” accessed November 28, 2015, http://www.theweald.org/N10.asp?NId=3887.

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


T. Webster, The Frown, 1842