This article first appeared in the Art Journal of 1879, when Halswelle was, perhaps, at the height of his powers. Much was expected of him. But this was just the point when his focus turned (or, rather, returned) from history painting to landscape, particularly that of the Scottish Highlands or along the Thames — he spent several summers on a houseboat on the river. From this time, his smaller views and illustrations seem to have found more favour with the critics than his larger, more studied, canvases. He died suddenly of pneumonia in his late fifties. — Jacqueline Banerjee
N London Mr. Halswelle is known principally, if not entirely, as a figure painter, but he began his Art career as a painter of landscapes and marine subjects, which were exhibited in Edinburgh, where, in fact, he chiefly studied his art, leaving England for that purpose among others. He was born at Richmond, Surrey, in 1832, Living during his childhood on the banks of the Thames, and daily brought into contact with its beautiful scenery, he showed at an early age a great predilection for the study of Art, and most of the leisure hours of his boyhood were passed in attempting to sketch the scenery of the river and adjacent parts. His desire to become an artist met with some opposition at home, but even- tually he was articled to an architect. This, however, did not meet the youth's aspirations, and a few months' trial proved that the drawing of plans and elevations was not a congenial occupation; so, after some delay, he was placed under the guidance of a skilful draughtsman and engraver, and was also sent to study at the British Museum. During the few following years Mr. Halswelle was much engaged in sketching and drawing upon wood for the Illustrated London News. While connected with that paper he paid a visit to Scotland — this was about 1854 or 1855 — and when in Edinburgh he made the acquaintance of several of the leading publishers; among others, that of Mr. William Nelson, who gave him Robert Herrick's quaint but fanciful poems to illustrate. This commission, which was followed by others, compelled him to remain in Edinburgh some time; and, attracted by the picturesque beauty of the "Modern Athens," he was induced to make it his residence, taking advantage of the opportunity thus afforded him of pursuing his studies in the schools of the Royal Scottish Academy, with whose annual exhibitions his works were identified for ten years before they made their appearance in any of the London galleries. His first picture exhibited in Edinburgh, In Vino Veritas, was in 1857. It was followed in 1858 by a large picture, The Bridge of Sighs, which attracted considerable attention in that year's exhibition.
The works contributed by Mr. Halswelle to the Scottish Academy during several subsequent years consisted chiefly of a series of pictures illustrating the fisher life of Newhaven, and it was with some of these he made his début in London in 1867; but of this more will be said hereafter. It may be remarked here, however, that in the International Exhibition of 1862 a place of honour was given to one of the artist's drawings, entitled A Child's Dream. In 1866 Mr. Halswelle was elected an Associate of the Scottish Academy, and it will convey some idea of the versatility of his pencil to note the subjects of the pictures he sent to the exhibition of that Academy the year after his election: they were — Summer Moonlight; Jack Cade's Rabblement; Whistle, and I'll come to you, my Lad; A Message from the Sea; The Burgomaster; and Portrait of a Lady.
Roba di Roma (1868).
In 1868 the painter went to Rome, accompanied by a brother artist, and during that visit he produced his Roba di Roma which we have engraved: it was exhibited in the Royal Academy, London, in the following year. The principal actor [101/102] in the scene — one on the Piazza Navona, Rome — is a Jewish pedlar, who displays his wares on a stall in the open street : before it has stopped a group of priests, one of whom (a broad, burly ecclesiastic), holding an eyeglass, uses it to read a paper or document of some kind, and the pedlar, with forcible action, gesticulates while expatiating on the goodness or utility of what he has to sell, objects, apparently, of various kinds — garments, rosaries, crucifixes, &c. The word roba has a wide signification as applied to the stock in trade of a Roman pedlar. Beside the stout priest is another, a younger man, looking furtively at a pleasant-faced female passing the stall with a basket on her head, and accompanied by a little girl carrying a number of flasks or bottles; behind these is a man, wearing the cloak common to the lower classes in Rome, and lighting a pipe. Each of the two groups is effectively put together, and, combined as we see them, unite into a most attractive and forcible whole. The picture, when we saw it in the Academy, reminded us much of some of the late John Phillips's works, in broad portraiture of character, deep yet brilliant colour, and vigorous execution; it is a work which, once seen, is not likely to be forgotten. Mr. J.T. Gibson Craig is its fortunate owner. When exhibited at the Royal Institution, Manchester, in 1870, the Council awarded to the - artist the prize of fifty guineas for it as the best picture contributed to the exhibition.
In that same year (1870) Mr. Halswelle contributed to the Royal Academy a picture called A Street Scene in Rome, but which appeared to us to have a more appropriate title in A Scene at the Theatre of Marcellus, Rome: it is another of those works recalling Phillips to mind. Among the figures is a boy whom the Spanish Murillo might have painted, and a group of monks who would do right good service in a picture of Seville: it is a most successful work. Contadini in St. Peter's, Rome was the artist's solitary contribution to the Royal Academy in the following year, characterized by us at the time as "the most powerful work yet produced by the painter," who, however, seems to have been rather unfortunate in his choice of models, which were not of an order so refined as they should have been to afford unmixed satisfaction to the spectator. Judging from some poetical lines which accompanied the title of the picture in the catalogue, Mr. Halswelle seems to have been more impressed by the "majesty, power, glory, strength, and beauty" of the church, than judicious in the choice of those who are presumed to have been worshipping there at the time the painter sketched it. In the autumn of 1871 the painter was again in Rome, in search of subjects for his pencil. The first-fruit of this visit was The Elevation of the Host, a work of rare excellence, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872. The scene is the interior of one of the churches in Rome, wherein the admiration of the spectator is challenged by a group of peasants of both sexes kneeling in fervent adoration of the ceremonious act. Picturesque as is the costume of the Italian peasantry, one is apt sometimes to weary of it; but it is not here paraded beyond what is necessary to establish the nationality of the worshippers. There is a seriousness of purpose, even an elevation of motive, which, be our creed what it may, engages in the ceremony one's best feelings; and here is served one of the great ends of Art — the transmission of the loftiest impressions which the painted idea is capable of producing. In another room of the gallery was hung the artist's carefully painted sketch of the well-known church, St. Mark's, Venice.
In 1873 there appeared at the Academy Mr. Halswelle's Il Madonnajo, an Image-seller of the Kingdom of Naples, vigorous both in conception and in execution, yet defective in colour, especially so from the hand of one whose works are usually distinguished by that attractive quality — and, in most instances, really essential quality — of good Art. It cannot be said that colour is wanting, for there is abundance of it, but it is distracting from not being harmonious; hence the picture seems fragmentary. The figures are drawn with force and unquestionable truth, and the execution is of a kind well suited to the representation of dress and manners. The bold and free handling of the group in the corner where the image-seller has stationed himself is particularly worthy of notice; but the scheme of colour in one part of the composition is changed in another, and no attempt [102/03] has been made to bring the discordant elements into harmony. With this exception the picture is of great merit. It has since been purchased for the Town-hall, Bradford, Yorkshire.
In the following year Mr. Halswelle was represented at the Academy by two works, excellent in artistic qualities, but of a comparatively unpretentious character — A Roman Fruit-Girl and a Venetian view called Under the Lion of St. Mark. In 1875 he sent to the gallery the most important and inviting picture he had hitherto produced. It is a large work, and was almost universally considered worthy to rank among the great pictures of a year which witnessed the appearance of Mr. Millais's The Crown of Love; Mr. Long's Babylonian Marriage Market; Mr. Armitage's Julian the Apostate; Sir J. Gilbert's Don Quixote and Sancho; Mr. Goodall's Day of Palm-Offering/span>; Mr. Alma-Tadema's Sculpture Gallery; and other notable works. An extract from the artist's diary explains the subject: —
On leaving Arpino, we were fortunate in falling in with a marriage procession of contadini, who were "bringing home the bride." The bride and bridegroom, surrounded by their friends and relations, occupied the centre of the group, and were fine types of the physical beauty for which that district of the Abruzzi is celebrated. Some of the women carried on their heads baskets containing the roba of the newly married pair, and amongst them was a man supporting the area or meal-chest, an indispensable article of furniture in the household of a contadino. The procession was enlivened by the music of the Piferrari, who marched in front with their pipes and tambourines, and boys were scrambling on each side of the road for the confetti scattered from time to time by men in the rear.
The composition is arranged almost in strict accordance with the description, and it is painted with special brilliancy of colour, for which the subject gives warranty sufficient; for certainly the love of gay colours which prevails so much, at all times and on all occasions, among the lower classes of the continent, gives to the ceremony a picturesqueness rarely seen in our own country, even in the rural districts. The peasantry of Italy had long engaged the attention of Mr. Halswelle, and their brilliant dress, when lighted up by a bright southern sun, found many interpretations at his hands, but none so forcible as in Lo Sposalizio.
In the winter of 1874-5 he exhibited, at the gallery of Messrs. Agnew, a number of Venetian sketches made (to quote his own words) under the following circumstances: —
The present collection of pictures and sketches of Venice is the result of the accident of a damp studio. Early in the year 1873 I made arrangements for a long residence in Venice, and took the only studio to be found unlet, with the intention of painting a large figure subject, of which I had prepared the sketch during a summer's sojourn in Venice two years previously. My choice of a studio was unfortunate, on account of its extreme dampness ; so, finding after some trials that it would be impossible to work in it with safety, and not being idly disposed, I determined to employ my time in the gondola in endeavouring to delineate, under a summer aspect, some of those beautiful and unique views so familiar to all who have had the happiness of visiting this wonderful city of the sea. When I began my delightful work, it was with no idea of doing more than some desultory painting and sketching among the picturesque "bits," and with no plan or design of making any series of views to illustrate the principal objects of Venice; yet, now they are gathered together, they will be found to embrace most of the well-known points on the Grand Canal and Lagoon. Their fidelity to the places represented may be relied upon from the fact that all were drawn and painted on the spot, without any attempt "to make pictures," or to alter or vary any effect or form in nature. They have been painted con amore, simply as realistic and faithful delineations of every-day effects in Venice.
These sketches must be accepted for neither more nor less than what they profess to be; they show in the artist a genuine love of nature, as well as a gift for landscape painting that only needs cultivation and practice to produce a perfect result. Still, we are better pleased that Mr. Halswelle should persevere in the department he evidently prefers, and in which he seems to be steadily advancing towards distinguished success.
Non Angli, sed Angeli.
He exhibited nothing at the Academy in 1876, but in the next [103/04] year he sent two pictures, one of which, Rome, from the Sistine, showed qualities confirmatory of the remarks we have just made of the artist's powers in landscape, and the other fully justifying the remark that he does better to continue his practice as a painter of history or of figures. This picture had for its title Non Angli, sed Angeli,the exclamation attributed to Gregory the Great, who, on seeing some young English children exposed one day for sale in the streets of Rome, and inquiring of his attendants who they were, was told that the young captives were "Angli," or "Angles." "Call them not Angles," he said, "but Angels, for surely their faces fit them for such a dignity and companionship"; adding, it was lamentable that, having outsides so fair, there should not be God's grace within. The manner in which the subject is treated is seen in the engraving, where, however, the draughtsman has not, unfortunately, caught the beautiful expression the painter has given to the faces of the children, who are lying, almost naked and quite uncared for, in one of the streets of Rome, where they attract the attention, not alone of the Pope and his companions, but also of a Roman woman and a child, who regard the juvenile strangers with a degree of wonder mingled with admiration. The picture unquestionably marks a new starting-point in the career of the artist, for he here deals with the nude figure — the main point in the composition, and therefore that to which the spectator's notice is most obviously drawn, instead of being absorbed, as usual, by the brilliant colouring of varied costumes; yet the painter has found scope enough for the exercise of this special characteristic of his pencil in the dress of the woman and child, with their accompaniments. Last year Mr. Halswelle attempted a still higher flight in historical painting than even this last work; and indeed it was a bold essay, seeing that Maclise's version of the same subject, The Play Scene in Hamlet, is so widely and popularly known. But the more recent composition bears no resemblance to its prototype. The dramatis persona are arranged somewhat differently, and are thrown more into the background than those in Maclise's picture; the chamber wherein the drama is being acted is large, consequently the figures occupy a more extended space in the rear, leaving the foreground comparatively barren of interest, if we recollect rightly, for we are writing from memory, having mislaid our notes taken at the time: the impression it made on our mind when we saw it was that the picture manifested a most successful advance beyond the artist's previous productions, considering what demand the subject would necessarily make upon the mind and hand of any painter. The work is now in the possession of Mr. Andrew Kurtz, of Liverpool.
The engraving of The Shrine is taken from a picture which has never been exhibited; it is, in fact, from a painting little more than a finished sketch. The interior is that of a church in Venice, into which a devotee has entered and kneels in supplication before a figure of the Saviour. The subject is a simple one, but is very effectively treated, chiefly by the skilful management of the chiaroscuro.
Mr. Halswelle, who is in the very prime of manhood, has yet, we trust, a long and honourable career before him. From what he has already accomplished, it may confidently be predicted that he is on the high-road to what distinction the Royal Academy might confer on him; he has fairly earned it.
Dafforne, James. "British Artists — Keeley Halswelle, A.R.S.A." The Art Journal: New Series, Vol. 5 (1879). London: J. S. Virtue, 1879: 101-04. JSTOR Early English Content on the Internet Archive. Web. 9 July 2020.
Radford, Ernest, and Mark Pottle. "Halswelle, Keeley (1832–1891), book illustrator and painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 10 July 2020.
Created 5 January 2018