A Classical Scene: Carthage
Research by Hilary Alcock
Acc No 51
Artist George Sheffield Junior
Artist dates 1839-1892
Medium oil on canvas
Size 182.9 x 144.7 cm (72 x 57 in)
Date painted 1866
Inscr: signed and dated 1866
Donor Alderman J H Dawson
Date donated 24 December 1945
George Sheffield was born on 1 January 1839 in Wigton, Cumbria, the son of a hatter and draper. He was named after his uncle, George Sheffield, a portrait painter of some repute, who had studied at the Royal Academy in his youth. At an early age George moved with his parents to Warrington. He attended the local art school where his tutors included Sir Samuel Luke Fildes RA, the renowned illustrator of first editions of works by Charles Dickens and William Thackeray.
However, he became restless and decided to follow a career as a sailor, making many voyages, both transatlantic and European, often visiting Holland and Belgium. These experiences had a lasting effect on him, providing inspiration for the marine art and seascapes at which he excelled. At one stage he worked collaboratively with another Cumbrian artist, Samuel Bough RSA (1822-1878), on a large marine painting.
In 1861, at the age of 32, George retired from the sea and became a professional artist, settling in North Wales in the Snowdonia village of Betws-y-Coed, where the first British artists' colony was becoming established (1844-1914). In the 1800s it was a hub of artistic activity led by David Cox and H Clarence White, both prominent Victorian artists.
George painted prolifically, working in a large variety of mediums - watercolours, oils, pastels, coloured chalks, charcoal, pen and ink and also in many different styles. He exhibited a range of landscapes and seascapes, many of which were monochrome, in Liverpool and Manchester. In 1869 he became an Associate Member of the Manchester Academy; two years later he was elected to full membership.
In 1873 he was invited to exhibit at the Royal Academy and during the next five years his work featured in several of their exhibitions:
1873 Lindow Common
1874 On the Meuse, Rotterdam and Winter
1876 Off Spurn Point
1878 View in the Island of Sark
Early in his career George was influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and when some of his work was exhibited in a Cambridge gallery it caught the eye of John Ruskin, a fellow Cumbrian, who commented admiringly about it. His numerous studies of bushes and flowers, all created with a fine and delicate use of pen and ink and washes, exemplified his close observation of nature. Apparently, he was never without a sketchbook and preferred working outdoors.
Some of his drawings were large scale and showed the influences of Constable and Turner. Very often these seascapes were set in peaceful contexts in which atmospheric effects of clouds, smoke and sunshine were created with subtle tones and a sublime delicacy but he could equally paint rough seas when required. Indeed his technical skill when painting water is there for all to admire.
In 1880 Sheffield moved to Harold Tower in Douglas on the Isle of Man, once the home of historical painter, Edward Henry Corbauld. He stayed there for almost four years during which time he mentored, amongst other artists, the Art Nouveau designer and painter, Archibald Knox. His work became more impressionistic, adopting a broad, more forceful style with large free brush strokes. The works sold well at auction houses both here and abroad.
Sheffield then relocated to Chapel Lane, Wilmslow, where he continued to work with great enthusiasm. Besides exhibiting at the Royal Academy, his work was shown at the Royal Society of British Artists, the Manchester City Art Gallery and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. In 1887 his work was chosen for inclusion in the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Old Trafford in Manchester.
In addition Sheffield was renowned for the rapidity of his work. For instance, at the Manchester Literary Club he was able to illustrate lectures by executing a series of powerful black and white drawings, each taking only three or four minutes. On another occasion, at the same venue, he produced an elaborate monochrome seascape in half an hour, much to the amazement of actors Sir Henry Irving and Barry Sullivan. Ford Maddox Brown described Sheffield's draughtsmanship as unrivalled and he was highly regarded by his contemporaries.
In 1892 George contracted pleurisy and died in October in Ancoats Hospital, Manchester, leaving a family of eight children, his wife having predeceased him. Since his death there have been a number of major exhibitions of his work:
Faculty of Arts, Princes Arcade, Piccadilly, London
Works by George Sheffield Junior, 11 March-23 April 1932
Faculty of Arts, Princes Arcade, Piccadilly, London
**Loan Collection of Works by George Sheffield Junior
21 December 1933-3 February 1934
Carlisle City Art Gallery, Cumberland Artists 1700-1900
Summer Exhibition, 1971
Warrington Museum & Art Gallery
'Inspired', 15 January 2013-11 October 2014
There are also examples of his work in major collections, among them Tate Britain, Manchester City Art Gallery and Tullie House, Carlisle.
** The two George Sheffield Junior major collectors and loaners were Robert Edmonson and Sir Arthur Crosfield, the Liberal MP for Warrington and a wealthy soap magnate who built Witanhurst, the second largest house in London, next to Buckingham Palace.
The painting was completed whilst Sheffield was living in North Wales. It is a very interesting image in many ways, not least because there is nothing resembling it in the many examples of his work which have been viewed during this research.
However, the neoclassical style was popular around this time. Turner, inspired by the great classical landscape painter, Claude Lorraine, produced large neoclassical paintings which George probably viewed. In 1815, for example, he painted The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, sometimes referred to as Dido Building Carthage, which now hands in the National Gallery.
One possibility might be that George was specially commissioned to paint this picture; the setting is supposedly the North African city of Carthage but bears no resemblance to that location. It is more similar to an English Lakeland setting with the addition of neoclassical structures and figures dressed to represent the period when Carthage was a major city in the Roman Empire.
However, the picture does demonstrate very effectively how George could paint with great attention to minute detail, although the composition feels somewhat unbalanced. This is somewhat surprising as the painter was known for his 'instinctive feeling for effective light and shade and balanced composition'. Melanie Gardener, Curator at the Tullie House Gallery, suggested that the painting might have been cut, probably by the artist himself, as the signature appears on the left hand side where the lack of parity seems to stem from.
Poem published in the Warrington Examiner, Saturday, 8 October 1932
George Sheffield's a wonderful man
A wonderful artist is he,
With his seeing eye and his cunning hand
He will make you a picture of sea or land
Of ship, or tower, or sea.
He's at home on the roaring main,
When the loud winds lash the deep,
He will paint you this, and then again,
He will show you the sea, one great smooth plain
As calm as a child at sleep.
It is now a country scene -
A river glowing and bright,
With clumps of trees and a church between,
It is now a tale of what has been
A castle stormed in the night
In colour, or black and white.
He has ever a marvellous touch
I've seen him lay soot on as black as night
And instantly turn it to clear moonlight
He once made a picture with slutch
He's a comet amongst its kind - a spurner of bolts and bars,
And whenever he leaves the world behind
You will find he had mounted the wings of the wind
To go painting among the stars
Hall, Marshall (1979)
The Artists of Cumbria, pub Marshall Hall
Johnson, J & Greutzner, A (1971)
The Dictionary of British Artists 1880=-1940
pub Antique Collectors Club
Lord, Peter (1998)
The Betws-y-Coed Artists Colony 1844-1914
pub National Library of Wales
Newton, Mill (1998)
Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition Old Trafford
pub Trafford Leisure Services
Ed. Signey, Lee (1897)
Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1990
Vol 52, George Sheffield by Nicolson, A
pub Elder Smith & Co
Stourton, James & Sebag-Montefiore, Charles
The British as Art Collectors from the Tudors to the Present
pub Scale Art & Heritage Publishers Ltd
Thompson, Susan W (2007)
Manchester's Victorian Art Scene and its Unrecognised Artists
pub Manchester Art Press
Wood, Christopher (12955)
pub Antique Collectors Club
Collectors Club, Grundy, C R (compiler)
Loan Collection of Work by George Sheffield lent by Sir Arthur H Crosfield & Robert Edmonson
11 March- 23 April 1932
Faculty of Arts, Piccadilly
Cumberland Artists 1709-1900
Summer Exhibition, Carlisle City Art Gallery
Articles and Journals
MOMUS, 26 August 1880
Manchester Evening News Obituary 3 October 1892
Manchester Guardian Obituary
4 October 1892
The Morning Post
14 December 1931
Artist of the Last Century: George Sheffield of Cumberland, Highly Praised by Ruskin
24 December 1931
The Connoisseur by C R Grundy
Ed. George Catchpole, The Orbit
George Sheffield Exhibition Catalogue
Spring 1932, Journal of the Faculty of Arts
The Warrington Examiner
8 October 1932
The Wigton Advertiser
22 October 1932
The Wigton and District Observer
23 December 1998
George Sheffield Junior by Leo Holden