John Callcott Horsley, by Elliott & Fry. An albumen carte de visite from the 1870s, © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax14849).

John Callcott Horsley was born into a highly cultured family, with those closest to him displaying a range of musical or artistic gifts. William Mulready, a close family friend, was one of those who encouraged him to develop his own artistic talents. In 1832, he won a silver medal at the Royal Academy Schools for a "drawing from the antique" (see Valentine), and that indicated Horsley's particular bent for costume pictures in the historical genre.

In 1843, Horsley made a place for himself in cultural history, by designing the first commercially produced Christmas card for Henry Cole. In the golden age of illustration, Horsley was much in demand for illustrating books, contributing, for example, to the celebrated Moxon edition of Tennyson's work in 1857. However, Horsley also worked on a much grander scale, and contributed to the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, most notably with two frescoes. He painted murals of historical scenes for Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk, as well, in 1851.

After the tragic loss of his first wife and two of their children, in 1854 Horsley married Sir Francis Seymour Haden's sister Rosamund (Rose) Haden (1820–1912). The architect Gerald Horsley was one of their seven talented children.

In these middle years Horsley spent a good deal of time in the "artist's colony" at Cranbrook, in Kent: in 1861 he bought a house there. Helen Valentine relays an appreciative comment on one of the contemporary subjects that he painted at this time, but notes that his popularity faded in the 1880s. It is in connection with the "colony" that the art critic Lionel Lambourne mentions him, but he clearly prefers Horsley's earlier work, finding that it has "a direct charm which he lost in later elaborate costume pieces" (178), and not mentioning any of the "Cranbrook" ones at all.

Lambourne does, however, relay Horsley's later notoriety as the puritanical Royal Academician nicknamed "Clothes Horsely" for his objections to nude modelling as being "out of harmony" with "our Christian faith." Whistler's witty response was "Horsley soit qui mal y pense" (both qtd. in Lambourne 298). — Jacqueline Banerjee



Etching and Engraving


Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Valentine, Helen. "Horsley, John Callcott (1817–1903), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 9 April 2018.

Last modified 14 May 2018