My Daily Art Display today is not about a single painting but about a talented artistic family of English portrait painters. This was a veritable dynasty of artists of the highest quality. The head of the family was James Sharples who was born in Lancashire around 1751. Originally his family had intended that James should study for the Catholic priesthood and he was sent to France for his initial training. The theological path that his parents had wanted him to follow was not for James and he returned to England. Instead James followed his chosen profession, that of an artist. At the age of twenty-eight, whilst living in Cambridge, he had four of his pictures accepted for the 1779 Royal Academy Exhibition. Two years later he moved to Bath where he set himself up as a portrait painter and art teacher.
He and his first wife had a son, George. Little is known of him but it is thought he could have also been an artist as in the 1815 Royal Academy Exhibition there was a painting by a “G Sharples of London”. With his second wife James fathered a second son, Felix who eventually came to live with James and his third wife Ellen Wallace. Ellen Wallace, who was of French extraction, lived in Bath and came from a Quaker family. She was born in 1769 and was eighteen years younger than James. They had met whilst she was attending one of his art classes. James and Ellen Sharples married in 1787 and went on to have two children of their own, James Jnr. born in 1788 and Rolinda born in 1793, both of whom became artists.
Around 1794 James, his wife Ellen and the three children, James, Felix and Rolinda set off for America. It is thought that James believed that in America it would be possible to make a good living by painting portraits of the leading American figures of the time. The sea voyage did not go to plan as their ship, according to Ellen Sharples’ diaries, was captured by a French privateer and James and the family were taken to Brest where they were kept prisoners for seven months. The following year they were eventually released and continued on with their voyage to America, and eventually arrived in New York. Sharples started working in New York and Philadelphia, which was the then seat of government and a place full of eminent people, including local and national politicians. It is known that in the execution of his work Sharples made us of an instrument known as a physiognotrace. This was a device which was designed to trace a person’s profile in the form of a silhouette.
Slowly but surely, Sharples built up commissions for his portraiture. The whole family then embarked on a painting tour of New England picking up lucrative commissions which often entailed making reasonably priced copies of his original portraits of American political leaders, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams. Around 1797 when the family was living in Philadelphia, Ellen Sharples began to draw portraits professionally. At this time, there was a great demand for reasonably priced copies and Ellen’s career of copying her husband’s original portraits on commission flourished and she could command virtually the same price for her miniatures as her husband charged for his mini-portraits. It was not just the mother and father who had artistic talents as their three children under their parents’ tutelage soon became accomplished artists in their own right and were soon able to contribute work for the family business. Portraiture in America at that time was highly competitive not only because of home-grown American artists but more so from European painters who, like Sharples, had travelled to America in search of their fortune. This intense competition made it necessary for artists to travel and look for clients rather than wait at home for clients to come knocking upon their doors. James Sharples often had to drag his family from place to place in search of commissions.
James and Ellen Sharples soon built up reputations as talented portraitists who concentrated on small scale pastel portraits and whose work was in great demand and slowly but surely they became financially secure. James Sharples died of heart trouble in 1811, aged 60 and Ellen and her two children, James and Rolinda returned to England. Felix Sharples, who was at this time twenty-five years old, chose to stay in America, working as a portrait artist, where he died in 1830 aged 44.
Ellen, along with James and Rolinda settled down in Clifton, just outside Bristol and the three of them set up a family business producing small-scale pastel portraits for clients. Rolinda Sharples began to work in oils and she moved away from being a miniaturist and ventured into the highly competitive world of full-scale portraiture and history paintings depicting groups of people. Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1927 and was one of the first female artists to attempt multi-figure compositions, which formed part of the pictorial historical records of the time.
The painting above entitled The Stoppage of the Bank by Rolinda Sharples was completed in 1831. The background to this painting relates to the happenings in 1825 when England had just recovered from the Napoleonic Wars and the country’s economy started to boom. In the euphoria of this boom, even the most clear-headed of bankers made risky loans ( a familiar story ??). The bubble burst in April 1825 and the stock market crashed. By the autumn a number of country banks had failed causing panic. It was a financial catastrophe, which led to widespread ruin and misery for the unfortunate people who had all their capital invested in the failed banks. This is the setting, which Rolinda Sharples illustrates in her painting. The scene before us takes place in a fictional street, called Guinea Street but which had a great similarity to the real Corn Street in Bristol. On the right of the painting is a bank whose closure is causing shock and consternation to the people waiting outside attempting to get their money. Behind, we see the famous Dutch House which stood on the corner of Wine Street and High Street until destroyed in the Blitz. The church in the centre background is All Saints Church. Rolinda Sharples used some artistic licence when she placed the church in that position, one presumes it was for artistic effect.
Both Rolinda and her brother James predeceased their mother. Rolinda died of breast cancer in 1838, just forty-five years of age and James Jr. died of tuberculosis in 1839. Ellen Sharples, the last of the Sharples family, died in 1849 aged 80.