My featured artist today is the Irish-born painter Francis Danby who was one of twins born in the small village of Killinick, just south of the county town of Wexford, on November 16th 1793. His father was James Danby, a small-time farmer, whose family had lived in the area since the 1730’s. James Danby had first married Susanna Harvey in 1762. She was the daughter of a Wexford vicar and the couple had two children, John Henry and James. His second marriage took place in 1781 when he married the Dubliner, Margaret Watson, who gave her husband three children, twins Thomas, who died young, and Francis as well as a daughter, Frances Olivia.
In 1798, at the age of five, Francis and his family suffered the emotions and terrors associated with the Wexford Rebellion which has gone down in Irish history as one of the most bloody, the most bitterest and yet the most successful insurrections. It began in May 1798 and lasted a month. It was the Society of United Irishmen’s Rising against the British domination of Ireland. The leaders of the rebellion maintained that the rebellion was purely political and not an issue of religion but some of the bloody massacres which occurred did indicate sectarian tensions as motives. There was also the factor that grain prices had collapsed in 1797 and 1798, and also new taxes were being levied by the British government on the malt industry which caused tremendous hardship in many regions, but especially Wexford. The rebels fought for a reform of legislature and the redistribution of political power.
As a protestant and feeling unsafe in the small village of Killinick, James moved his family to the city of Wexford in 1799. He wrote to a friend:
“…My family like many others were destroyed by political and party feeling, many of them lost their lives on both sides of the unhappy question…”
Francis Danby’s father’s fear for his and his family’s lives is borne out with the wording of the preface to his will which he made the following year:
“…Having lately escaped assassination and being convinced of the savage disposition of the majority of people, I am more than ever reminded of the uncertainty of life…”
In late 1799, the family were once again on the move. This time they travelled to Dublin, the home town of Francis’ mother. In 1807 James Danby died and through the vagaries of the inheritance laws, whatever money he had was left to the children of his first wife and Francis Danby received nought. Francis finished his schooling in 1811 and decided he wanted to become a professional artist. His mother considered his request and agreed to his ideas, since there seemed little hope in her son moving towards any other meaningful professions.
Francis Danby enrolled at the drawing schools of the Dublin Society and it was here he met and became great friends with two aspiring landscape painters, George Petrie and James Arthur O’Connor. In 1813, at the age of nineteen, Francis had his first painting, entitled Landscape – Evening, exhibited at the Society of Artists of Ireland and it was sold for fifteen guineas and with that princely sum Francis travelled to London in June 1813, along with Petrie and O’Connor, to see what the England capital had to offer young artists. Francis, like his two travelling companions, headed for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and he wrote about it and how it inspired him:
“…the wonders of which I was so struck that they increased my ambition, and from my twentieth year I have been an English Artist…”
It is thought that Francis Danby never returned to Ireland and he never declared any love for his birthplace. The journey of the three friends ended after two weeks when Petrie was summoned home from London by his father. Francis Danby and O’Connor had not managed to make any money whilst in London and decided that they too must return to Ireland. They knew a captain of a sailing packet who would give them free passage from the port of Bristol back to Ireland, so all three, who had very little money, set off to walk the hundred and twenty miles to the seaport.
They arrived and Petrie left them and returned to Ireland. Danby and O’Connor managed to sell two watercolour paintings of the Wicklow Mountains to a Bristol bookseller, John Mintorn and later they completed four drawings of the Avon Gorge which again they sold to Mintorn. They had now accumulated some money but it was not enough to buy two tickets on the boat to Ireland. Danby, knowing that his friend O’Connor, had four young orphaned sisters at home in Ireland, gave him the ticket.
Francis Danby was now the only one of the three Irish travellers left in Bristol and was lodging at a baker’s shop on Redcliffe Hill, close to the River Avon. Danby was approached by his landlord, named Fry, who lived in Winscombe, Somerset, asking him to travel down from Bristol, stay with his son and paint some family portraits and this he did and it was during his stay at the home of the landlord’s son that he came across a young woman, Hannah Hardedge, who was one of the servants. Francis Danby was immediately attracted to this young woman and soon they were married. Danby described the lead up to the nuptials in a letter:
“…I was invited down to Somersetshire to paint some portraits amongst the farmers and drank cider. I took a great fancy to one of their servants, a little red-faced bare-footed wench, my Irish brogue I suppose was against me. I could not succeed however in any way but by promising to marry her. She, on the word of a young gentleman who was confoundedly out at the elbows, willingly consented to come with me to Bristol…”
“Out at the elbow” was a seventeenth century phrase meaning poverty stricken. The girl’s condition for going back to Bristol with Danby was on the understanding they would be married. The couple were married on July 4th 1814 at Winscombe parish church. In the parish register it was noted that Hannah was illiterate and she marked her name with a simple cross. Danby was twenty years old. The couple remained in Somerset at the home of her family and Danby rarely returned to Bristol. The first child the couple had was Francis James, who records show was baptised on August 13th 1815, followed eighteen months later by his brother, James, who was baptised on April 27th 1817. According to the Bristol Index, Francis Danby and his family left Somerset in 1817 and moved back to Bristol, staying at 21 Paul Street, Kingsdown. In 1818, Danby and Henriette had a third child, another son, John. A year later, in 1819 the family moved to 9 Kingsdown Parade.
Francis Danby had concentrated on watercolour painting but in January 1820, he had his first oil painting shown in London at the British Institution. It was entitled The Upas or Poison Tree in the Island of Java. It was a large work measuring 169 x 235cms and he had started work on it in 1819. The subject of the painting, the Upas Tree, comes from the poem The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin. Part of the poem (lines 237-8 of canto III) describe the plant and its deadly properties:
“…There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country for 12 or 14 miles round… With the juice of it the most poisonous arrows are prepared; and, to gain this, the condemned criminals are sent to the tree… to get the juice…and are pardoned if they bring back a certain quantity of poison. But…not one in four are said to return. Not only animals of all kinds… but all kinds of vegetables also are destroyed by the effluvia of the noxious tree…the face of the earth is quite barren and rocky intermixed only with the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described or painters have delineated…”
The fable about the tree and its deadly properties was based on the poisonous anchar tree. The tale was further embellished in an article which appeared in the London Magazine in December 1873, six years prior to Erasmus Darwin’s poem.
This submission to the British Institution was Danby’s entry to the London art scene. Sir Richard Redgrave, an English landscape artist, genre painter and administrator, was full of praise for Danby’s painting, saying:
“…a wonderful first attempt……..and to succeed in such a subject required a poetical mind, joined to powers of the highest order: no mere landscape painting, no mere imitation of Nature, would suffice to picture to us the gloomy horrors of this land of fear…”
In 1821 Danby’s fourth son, Thomas, was born and this was also the year that Danby had his first painting accepted by the Royal Academy for their annual exhibition and it became one of his best-known works. It was entitled Disappointed Love. The depiction is of the dark recesses of the River Frome near Stapleton, a north-eastern suburb of Bristol. Stapleton was a favourite destination for Bristol-based artists, such as George Carmichael, Edward Rippingille and Edward Bird and all three had completed works depicting a girl seated alone in a wooded landscape. However it is considered that Danby’s work was far better than theirs.
The painting depicts a heartbroken young woman who has just been jilted. Her hands cover her face as she sits weeping on the bank of a lily pond surrounded by dark and murky woodland. The occasional small white flowers, dotted around, struggle to lift the dark green and browns of the undergrowth. This gloomy undergrowth mirrors the depressed mind of the young girl. Her long dark tresses hang down over her white dress. Beside her, we see her discarded bonnet, her scarlet shawl , a miniature portrait of her lover and other letters which she has not yet destroyed. Her sad figure dressed in white is reflected in the water and it almost seems that the water is drawing her to it so that she can end her life and her misery, in an Ophelia-like fashion. Floating on the surface of the pond are pieces of a letter which she has torn up and discarded. Eric Adams wrote a biography in 1973 on Francis Danby entitled Francis Danby: varieties of poetic landscape and he believes the model for the painting was a model at the Bristol Artists newly founded Life Academy. There was a lot of criticism of the painting, not so much for the poetical nature of the work but for its technical faults, in particular the lack of proportion of the plants in the foreground.
When the painting was put forward to the Royal Academy jurists to see if it should be allowed in to the 1821 Exhibition it was not wholly loved. An account of one of the jurist’s comments on seeing Danby’s painting was reported some twelve years later as:
“…An unknown artist about ten years ago sent a very badly painted picture for the exhibition. The committee laughed but were struck by “something” in it and gave it admission. The subject was this. It was a queer-coloured landscape and a strange doldrum figure of a girl was seated on a bank, leaning over a dingy duck-weed pool. Over the stagnant smeary green, lay scattered the fragments of a letter she had torn to pieces, and she seemed considering whether to plump herself in upon it. Now in this case, the Academicians judged by the same feelings that influence the public. There was more “touching” invention in that than in the nine-tenth of the best pictures exhibited there the last we do not know how many years. The artist is now eminent…”
It is a beautiful painting, full of pathos, and one cannot but feel sympathy for the young girl. It was for this reason that I was surprised to read an anecdote about this painting and the depiction of the girl. Apparently the Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, was being shown the painting by its owner, the wealthy Yorkshire cloth manufacturer, John Sheepshanks and commented that although he was impressed by the deep gloom of the scene, it was a shame that the girl was so ugly. Sheepshanks replied:
“..Yes, one feels that the sooner she drowns herself the better…”
With that unfeeling comment I will close the first part of my blog on Francis Danby !