“….that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her..”
William Wordsworth:Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798
So wrote Thomas Read Wilkinson, quoting Wordsworth within a Memoriam to William Hull, written a few days after his death in 1880. Many know that the Poet of Rydal was William Wordsworth, who lived from 1813 until his death in 1850 in Rydal Mount in the beautiful Lake District village of Grasmere.
Few know that there was also an ‘Artist of Rydal’, who lived the last 10 years of his life in a house at the foot of Wordsworth’s home, as close as he could be to the memory of the man whose nature poetry he worshipped and tried, throughout his life, to emulate in visual form. That man was William Hull, who was born 200 years ago on this day, 6th May, 1820.
While the poems of the poet laureate, William Wordsworth, are rightly remembered and still enjoyed by many, the paintings of William Hull remain largely undiscovered and his life unknown. Perhaps my keen interest in William evolved from more than my knowledge of his paintings. Perhaps I have been fortunate enough to see deeply into his work as a result of my understanding of his life, for when that it understood, his paintings allow an absorption that his friend, John Ruskin, might have discerned or that a buyer of his work, such as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, might well have perceived.
A good example is Harvest Scene (shown above), believed to have been one of the three paintings of William’s exhibited at the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester. Prince Albert is understood to have bought this and one other, prompting his friend Thomas Letherbrow to note in his Memorial to William, published in The Portfolio in 1886: “It may seem strange ….. though he was appreciated by so good a judge as Prince Albert (who during his visit to Manchester in 1857, manifested his approval of our artist’s work by purchasing a couple of specimens) he should be so little known.”
This was written 134 years ago, so little wonder, if he was “so little known” then, that he should be almost forgotten now. Yet, once a sufficient number of his pictures are seen and then those images are wrapped within the tales of his life, his compassion, the deepest of struggles that never diminished his congeniality, it is hard not to be infected with a desire to see more of his work and to see more within each one.
Who Was William Hull?
My knowledge of the forgotten “Artist of Rydal” came from research into a book that I have recently published: All the People. That is a story (written in the form of a novel) centred on his father, James Hull, as he took his wife and children from a farming life in Bedfordshire into the harshness of a Manchester riddled with poverty and disease in the 1830s. James was a missionary for the United Brethren, the Moravians, and the story is about his mission of restoring a semblance of life for the people of Little Ireland in Manchester in the early nineteenth century and those, like Hugh Hornby Birley, a mill owner who led the Yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, and who constantly fought against James and all those that threatened the established order
William was James’s fourth child and one of two brothers that, from an early age, were fascinated by the natural world around them and determined to build that excitement into visual art. The brother, Edward Hull, became an engraver and a well-respected newspaper illustrator for the The Illustrated London News as well as a renowned book illustrator.
William’s future had, his father prayed, been decided when he was sent to Ockbrook, a Moravian school, where it was assumed he would follow its teachings into a church calling. Unfortunately for James, one of the teachers there was Alexander Crossart Hasse, whose family ran a printers in Bradford. Alexander was an artist and, discovering William’s ability, provided patient instruction. Therefore, some years later, when William was a teacher at a Moravian school at Gracehill in Ballymena, Ireland, he decided to leave the church to pursue a life in the arts. His father, somewhat distressed, found him a job in a printers, Blacklock and Bradshaw in Manchester. It was a business that was fast becoming known for its railway guides but it did not appeal to William, who found alternative employ with M. Janvrin, a merchant from Jersey. He took William throughout Europe as a tutor for his two sons. It was a journey that lasted several years and afforded ample time for William wrap himself inside the landscapes of Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, absorbing, learning and painting.
As much for an ability to inquire into the natural world is William’s recording of a time that has long passed. His hundreds of paintings show the, mainly, English landscape of the 19th Century in stark contrast to the present. An example is the drawing of Torside Bridge on the River Etherow in Derbyshire, painted in 1852 which stands in marked contrast to today’s roadway by the Torside Resevoir, although that was built around the same time).
William shirked the use of harsh, prime colours as can be seen here. John Ruskin criticised this absence, but William painted what his heart and skills extolled. As Thomas Letherbrow wrote in 1886: “so familiar with Nature, that she seemed often to take the pencil from his hand and make her own record; his doctrine being that you must first know a scene thoroughly, and, next, that you must love it with your whole heart, before you can paint it worthily.”
For anyone interested to read more (and see more of William’s work), I have written a longer note on William, composed as an autobiography, as if in his own words. I will set about publishing that in some form. I also have a number of his paintings and drawings.
His life in brief includes his marriage to Mary Newling in 1847 after a stroke in his thirties that left him deaf and lame; his continued work that led to friendships with those like the renowned critic and painter John Ruskin and the purchase of his paintings by Prince Albert; the formation of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, with William as one of ten Founder Academicians in 1859 – Sheila Dewsbury in her history of MAFA (‘The Story So Far’) describes him as “a landscape painter with a natural sense of beauty”; works exhibited at the Royal Academy and other noted galleries in England; the awful death of his wife on 3 Dec 1861 while they were in Betws-y-coed in Wales with other painters (she was subject to epilepsy and died after a savage episode, in a coma for four days); the death just a week later of Prince Albert, who William had seen as somewhat of a benefactor; his membership of arts and literature clubs such as the Letherbrow Club in Manchester and his ever-continuing painting; his relocation to Rydal in Grasmere in 1870, living close to Wordsworth’s home, where his painting of the Lake District became well known; his death in 1880 and his burial in Grasmere.
Especially poignant are his drawings from that year, which were used in Robert Langton’s book “The Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens”, a highly successful book. William died halfway through his commission and his younger brother, Edward, was called upon to complete the drawings. So excellent did he consider William’s work that Langton wrote: “It is most probable…that had Charles Dickens lived to complete Edwin Drood, some of the views of Cloisterham given here would have been engraved as illustrations to the story.” It is also the only place I have found a drawing of William.
For now, a “Rest Along the Way” (by William Hull).