John William North, Victorian Artist (1842-1924)

An Article by Louise Hurrell which was previously published in the 2016 FoQ Newsletter.

Critical observations on the watercolours and oil paintings of J W North have been few since his death in relative isolation and poverty in quiet West Somerset after The Great War. Buried in the new cemetery at Nettlecombe, North remains unattributed for a remarkable piece of land art. A throwaway comment by a local publican dropped into an art obituary by his friend, the Bristol solicitor and Alpinist, Richard Tuckett, described North’s habit of planting snowdrops along the stream-side, now noted as Snowdrop Valley. North’s last home was a farmhouse at Stamborough on the Brendon Hills facing the Quantock range.

North’s credentials during his lifetime derived from watercolour and oil paintings exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, the Royal Academy (as an ARA in the 1880s), the Royal Watercolour Society, the Old Watercolour Society and the Royal West of England Academy.

In 1860, North visited the Quantock Hills with his friend Edward Whymper, to whose father, Josiah Whymper, he was apprenticed for seven years at the firm of wood- engravers in Vauxhall, London. Whymper was preparing for Alpine walking; ostensibly the pair were on a sketching trip in search of illustrative material to be matched with prose and poetry for publication. Making good use of both the new railway and outdoor- friendly paint tubes, picturing the West Country not only represented a distinct native context for the young artists; they paid homage to those former young Romantic ruralists, Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had published Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Captivated by the landscape, in 1868 North set up a second home at Halsway Manor, with the farm tenants, the Thornes. He attracted artist friends such as Edward G Dalziel, George J Pinwell, Frederick Walker, Sir Hubert von Herkomer and Robert Walker Macbeth to work with him. His painting The Old Bowling Green (1865) [above] held in the British Museum [left] described a celebration of all North held dear as a young man. His friend, George Pinwell, and new wife, Isabella, spent part of their honeymoon at Halsway. North depicted the young couple paying each other timeless sweet attention, while a child plays with skittles on the lawn.

Alluding to a pastoral English setting with the sheep sheltering in the porch, the old house stands as benign witness to centuries of church ownership, the wool trade and hospitable retreat, while: “…this dear old house …I cannot give you its jolly old crumbly, aged look. It nestles on a hill side that on the top is covered with heather, and from which you can see the sea.” These words, written by the artist Frederick Walker to his sister, Mary, in 1868, demonstrate a telling delight at his first visit to the Quantock Hills.

Beyond Walker’s hilltop on the Quantock Hills, the land drops down through the Somerset wetlands into Bridgwater Bay. North’s image [right] is a design full of artistic truth and reflects the popular poem for Jean Ingelow’s book. It describes a foot bridge, typical of the period, across the rhynes; with walkers making for the recognisable landmark of the church spire of St Mary’s Bridgwater.

North’s paintings, saturated as they are in the moist, mild climate of the Quantock Hills, are not easy to locate. Early paintings had titles such as The Quantocks (1869) and A Wheatfield by the Quantock Hills (1876). He used poetry of his own, inspiration from Shakespeare or adapted from other poets for titles such as: Now rosy May comes in with flowers (1870); When winter’s wasteful spite was almost spent (1892); The Isle of Avalon. The apple isle or fortunate men do it rightly call (1911).

W North "The Four Bridges" Jean Ingelow's Poems, 1867 engraved by Dalziel Brothers
W North “The Four Bridges” Jean Ingelow’s Poems, 1867 engraved by Dalziel Brothers

North combined the poetics of language and paint, to be dubbed ‘the Painter-Poet’ by the Slade Professor, von Herkomer (Oxford Lecture, 1892). His training in wood engraving had to be multi-purpose, adaptive and applicable to all kinds of texts, so it was in emotional and imaginative response that he sought to elevate the onlooker.