Cranbrook

The Old Studio, Cranbrook

The Old Studios, Cranbrook, 1896

The Old House

The Old House by Philip Eustace Stretton (British, fl. 1884–1919), a view of the High Street, Cranbrook, where Thomas Webster lived.

In 1827, Thomas Webster moved into a first-floor bedroom at 5 Howland Street, London, for which he paid an annual rent of £60 (a little over $5,000 in contemporary American currency). It was only the beginning of his life as a portrait painter, and he furnished the room to “the best of [his] means at the time.”[1] In 1829, Webster moved to Lower Belgrave Street, at a time when Eaton Square was still open fields. This iproved to be the period when Webster struggled the most financially, but after becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1840, his struggles disappeared. “I received more commissions than I could execute,” he later recalled: “My prices advanced, and I have been able by economy to realize what renders me independent in my old age.”[2]

Thomas Webster spent most of his later career in Cranbrook, a small town in the Weald of Kent, roughly halfway between Maidstone and Hastings and about thirty-eight miles southeast of central London. In the 1850s, exploration of the counties south of London started to become popular.[3] A number of former “Redleaf regulars,” visitors to the Kentish home of the collector William Wells (1819–1848), which had become “a kind of sanctuary for art and home for artists,”[4] agreed that nearby Cranbrook (“that paradise of the artist”) should become their summer rendezvous point.[5] From 1854, the artists John C. Horsley (1817–1903), Frederick Daniel Hardy (1827–1911), and Hardy’s mentor (and distant relative), Thomas Webster, invested in old houses in and near the village. Webster and Hardy rented studios in an old, timber-framed house in the High Street (now a Grade II listed residence called “The Old Studio”), with Hardy occupying the basement; Webster’s home, Webster House, was just a few doors away, also in the High.[6] Joined later by several others, the settlement came to be known as the Cranbrook Colony, with Webster as its leader.[7] Loosely united in their desire to paint “characterful contemporary scenes, particularly proverbial domestic situations,” the artists, according to Giles Walkley, did manage "to represent the age quite truthfully.”[8] Painting rural life and rustic buildings, the scenes depicted by members of the Cranbrook Colony “inspired a strand of nostalgia in artistic decoration.”[9] Joining Webster and Hardy, all six of the Cranbrook Colony painters had studios in the Old Studio.[10]

As Christopher Wood observes in Victorian Painting, Webster “had already made a name for himself with pictures of boys at school, or at play, but once in Cranbrook, he turned more to scenes of village and cottage life. His pictures are generally small, highly finished, painted on panel, and follow the tradition popularized by [David] Wilkie in the early nineteenth century. Like Wilkie’s, Webster’s pictures hark back to the Dutch seventeenth-century traditions of genre painting.”[11] As Webster’s friend Lady Elizabeth Eastlake observed, he found “his heroes and heroines at his very gate—his roses on his own porch—his foregrounds his garden—his backgrounds the grove behind his house—his interiors the nearest cottage hearth, and his wardrobe or ‘properties,’ the homely garments of village lads and maidens, faded by sun and air, wind and weather, into those tones which his soul loveth.”[12] This statement defines Webster’s life in Cranbrook and suggests why he never returned to London; it also explains some of the choices made for the portrait photograph published in Artists at Home. Unlike his contemporaries, Webster did not regard his studio as a significant part of his artistic life. He painted directly from the ordinary world around him rather than inventing scenes with costumes and studio props.

Webster’s interest in the life around him also attracted the artists who worked with him in Cranbrook. Webster was joined there by other genre painters including Frederick Hardy’s brother, George Hardy (1822–1909), and George Bernard O’Neill (1828–1917), with frequent visits from George Henry Boughton (1833–1905) and Augustus Mulready (1844–1904). Becoming active not only as artists but also as philanthropists in the local community, the group became integral to the landscape of the town.[13] Webster himself was much beloved in Cranbrook. According to Elizabeth Eastlake, “No sooner was his venerable figure seen, whether walking, or in his well-known donkey-chair, than little boys—and little girls too—started up like flowers in his path—he with a kind nod or word for all—and then began the chase as to who should open his gate for him.”[14] Webster captured this affectionate humor in his art.

Thomas Webster Memorial

Thomas Webster Memorial, St. Dunstan's Church, Cranbrook, by Hamo Thornycroft, c. 1886

Webster continued to be integral to the group’s success until his death in September 1886. The sculptor Hamo Thornycroft produced a memorial to Webster that remains today in St. Dunstan’s Church in Cranbrook.[15] Commissioned by Webster’s wife, a figure about whom little is known, the memorial was completed in 1890 and described in The American Architect and Building News:

The tablet is of white marble, with a dove marble margin, and is about 9 feet by 6 inches in length, by 4 feet in height. The figure of the deceased painter is represented in a recumbent position with the hands on the breast clasping a Bible and paint brushes. An angel kneels at the head holding a palm branch, and another at the feet with a wreath of immortelles. The angels are represented by winged boys, typical of the characters the deceased artist was so fond of portraying.[16]

The memorial serves as a reminder of Webster’s life and a testament to the love he had for his wife, his art, and his life in Cranbrook.

Hilleary Gramling

[1] E. E. [Lady Elizabeth Eastlake], "Thomas Webster, R.A.," Murray's Magazine: A Home and Colonial Periodical for the General Reader 2, no. 8 (August 1887): 222-31, ProQuest: https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/docview/3912705?accountid=10747.

[2] Ibid., 227–28.

[3] Giles Walkley, Artists’ Houses in London 1764-1914 (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1994), 162.

[4] “Redleaf,” Historic England, 2016, accessed November 13, 2016, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000409; “William Wells, Esq.” (obituary), The Gentleman’s Magazine 183–84 (January 1848): 47.

[5] E. E., “Thomas Webster,” 230; Walkley, Artists’ Houses, 162.

[6] “Cranbrook Colony,” 2013, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.cranbrookmuseum.org/cranbrook-colony.html; Michael Jacobs and Malcolm Warner, The Phaidon Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1980), SE11. In 2016, the property was for sale by the realtors Lambert & Foster for £715,000: http://www.lambertandfoster.co.uk/property/00000574, accessed November 28, 2016.

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

[8] Walkley, Artists’ Houses, 162.

[9] Charlotte Gere, Artistic Circles: Design & Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), 76.

[10] The Weald, s.v. “Thomas Webster, R.A.”

[11] Christopher Wood, “The Cranbrook Colony,” in Victorian Painting, edited by Annie Lee (London: Bulfinch Press of Little, Brown and Company Inc., 1999), 313.

[12] E. E., “Thomas Webster,” 223.

[13] “Cranbrook Colony.”

[14] E.E., “Thomas Webster,” 230.

[15] The Cranbrook Museum, accessed November 12, 2016, http://www.cranbrookmuseum.org/cranbrook-colony.html.

[16] “Memorial to Thomas Webster, R.A.,” The American Architect and Building News 29 (July–September 1890): 32.

 

Thomas Webster Memorial

Thomas Webster Memorial by Hamo Thornycroft, c. 1886, detail

MEMORIAL TO THOMAS WEBSTER, R.A.--A memorial has lately been erected in St. Dunstan's Church, Cranbrook, by Mrs. Webster to the memory of her husband, the wel-known Royal Academician. The memorial is the work of Mr. Hamo Thornycroft, R.A., and is placed in the southwest aisle on the west wall. The tablet is of white marble, with a dove marble margin, and is about 9 feet 6 inches in length, by 4 feet in height. The figure of the deceased painter is represented in a recumbent position with the hands on the breast clasping a Bible and paint brushes. An angel kneels at the head holding a palm branch, and another at the feet with a wreath of immortelles. The angels are represented by winged boys, typical of the characters the deceased artist was so fond of portrying.

--From The Building News, London, reprinted in The American Architect and Building News 29 (July–September 1890): 32.