Thomas Webster, after Joseph Parkin Mayall photogravure, published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1884. NPG Ax27816. © National Portrait Gallery, London.



Thomas Webster, by all accounts as amiable and genial as his paintings might suggest, became very popular as a genre painter. His most characteristic subject was "the British schoolboy, whom he represented in every variety of class and character" ("Obituary").

The son of a member of George III's household, Webster was educated at St George's Chapel, Windsor, and the Chapel Royal at St James's in London. He was expected to become a chorister, but painting appealed to him more, and he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1820. There he won "the first medal in the school of painting" in 1825 ("Obituary"), and from then on exhibited regularly in the Royal Academy and elsewhere. The Smile and The Frown, which both illustrated lines from Goldsmith's "Deserted Village," appeared in 1841 and were among his best-loved works. Many more followed. He became a full Acamedician in 1846. Ten years after that he moved from London to Cranbook in Kent, where Lionel Lambourne describes him as the "leader of the Cranbrook colony ... whose works closely reflected the ordinary life of the area" (174). John Callcott Horsley also bought a house there a few years later, in 1861. Webster remarried after the death of his first wife, and lived in Cranbrook contentedly for the rest of his life, sharing with others in the circle an abiding interest in country life and the experiences of children in its context.

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Such was the charm of Webster's work at his best that Art-Journal commentaries on his work (such as those in 1849 and 1855) could not resist it. As the later one puts it, starting rather defensively,

If his Art is not what some call "High Art," (a term not satisfactorily defined), it is so agreeable, and contains so much of truth, that one is always inclined to make acquaintance with it: it shows the sunny side of nature, recalls the memories of our own boyish days or of some scene we may have chanced to witness during the pilgrimage of a life. [293]

Several decades further on, Richard and Samuel Redgrave have more to say about his skills, making a more measured judgement, prompted in part by his declining powers in later years.

Webster's method of painting was the same as that practised by Wilkie and Mulready, and by the artists of that day, who took Teniers and the Flemish school for their models. He painted on a white ground, and laid in his shadows in the first place with umber or some brown, he was careful to keep his shadows transparent and to preserve his ground, especially in the lights. When he had to make any alteration, he scraped down at once to the panel or canvas, so as to avoid in repainting any loss of the whiteness of his ground. But in his best days he painted with exceeding facility and was extremely expeditious with his work. He made, as before stated, a sketch of his subject, frequently in oil, and a careful drawing of his model, which he transferred to his canvas and painted in almost at once. Of course as he grew older, and suffered much from gout in his hands, his pictures grew more laboured. He did not excel as a colourist, and some of his drawing is a little wooden. As a rule in his works he avoids strong colours and any violent contrasts, this may be because he was a little doubtful of his own powers. He warmly advised keeping a good picture, if possible by some great master, in the studio while painting, both as a rest and a guide to the eye while at work. [302]

The point about avoiding strong colours and sharp contrast is interesting, and more likely to come from his deliberate blending of figures with background, than from lack of confidence. This effect is unfortunatley lost in the many popular engravings of his work. — Jacqueline Banerjee

Works

Bibliography

"British Artists, Their Style and Character, with Engraved illustrations: No. X, Thomas Webster, RA." Art-Journal (1855). Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. 293-296. Web. 27 November 2018.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. Pbk ed. London and New York: Phaidon, 2004. (Lambourne has an excellent chapter on "Childhood and Sentiment," pp. 169-89, in which Webster, Horsley and others are more prominently treated than usual).

"Obituary." Times. 24 September 1886: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 27 November 2018.

Redgrave, Richard and Samuel. A Century of Painters of the English School. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890. 2nd ed. (abridged) Internet Archive. Contributed by Dorothy H. Hoover Library, Ontario College of Art & Design.

"The Royal Academy. The Eighty-First Exhibition — 1849." Art-Journal (1849). Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. 165-76. Web. 27 November 2018.


Created 27 November 2018