Walking With Ancestors

Cecil Lawson

Cecil Lawson

Cecil-Lawson

Regarded by many of his contemporaries as one of the leading modern British landscape artists of the late 19th Century, Cecil Gordon Lawson was born in Wellington on December 3rd 1849. During his lifetime, Lawson’s bold and innovative style gained favourable comparisons with greats such as Turner, Constable and Gainsborough, before illness tragically intervened and ended his career at the age of just 32.

Fountain Place

Cecil Lawson was born at Fountain Place, Wellington, a small area of the town that took its name from the public water-pump located on the junction of Glebe Street, New Church Road and High Street. Lawson, who was described by his biographer Edmund Gosse as an ‘excitable and rather morbid little child’, appears to have been devoted to art from an early age and it was while living in Shropshire that he is said to have first sketched in the open air. The fledgling artist received his initial training from his father William, a Dundee-born portrait artist of some note, while his mother Elizabeth Ruth, a native of Wellington, was apparently well known for her ‘flower pieces’. It is probable that her local roots explain the family’s presence in the town and it was while living here that Cecil’s elder brothers Wilfred and Malcolm were also born in 1842 and 1849 respectively. Wilfred also achieved notoriety as an artist in the illustration revival of the 1860s while Malcolm made his name as a composer, arranger and editor, particularly of traditional Scottish music. His credits include The Skye Boat Song.

To London

A-Hymn-to-Spring

The Lawson family finally left Shropshire in 1861, initially settling in St Pancras, where Cecil attended a local Dame School. According to legend, he was not an ardent scholar and apparently ran home one day after being unable to answer a question ‘patent to much smaller boys than he’. Rather than lock himself in his room, the young artist supposedly returned to school dragging a giant canvas, which he projected in front of his teacher enquiring ‘whether she thought she ought to talk in that way to a boy who could paint so large a picture’! Moving in the more refined cultural circles of the capital clearly benefited Lawson, whose drawings were soon attracting praise from established artists, such as the illustrator Fred Walker. This persuaded him to abandon large-scale painting in favour of minute studies of fruit, flowers and elements of landscapes, such as clouds, blossom and leaves. Lawson became so skilled in this endeavour that he was able to earn a living as a professional artist by the age of 14, passing off his work to local dealers under the signature of watercolorist William Hunt (so convincingly, it seems, his pictures were apparently sold on as original work of the acknowledged still-life master). By 1869, Lawson, who was a devotee of Gainsborough, had rekindled his interest in larger scale painting and embarked on a year of self-imposed study of compositional technique at the National Gallery that resulted in his first important work.

Cheyne Walk

Although Lawson’s bold style won favour among many of his contemporaries, wider recognition of his work continued to elude him until the Royal Academy exhibited The Hop Gardens of England (1876). The painting was created at Wrotham, Kent, where a local farmer lent Lawson a barn which he temporarily turned into a studio, producing a work that later won much praise at the Grosvenor Gallery. The prestigious venue was established by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche in 1877 as an antidote to what they regarded as the excessive power and ‘conventionality’ of the Royal Academy. The venture represented a clear departure from the Academy’s exhibitions, with artists designated considerably more wall space and given freedom to hang their paintings as they liked. The invitation-only policy operated by the gallery ensured the ‘right’ people got to view the works they chose to exhibit, providing an ideal climate for modern artists such as Lawson, who created a sensation with The Minister’s Garden (1878) and The Hop Gardens of England, which was exhibited there, with some alterations, as Kent (1879). Despite drawing admiration from luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, who praised his ‘wonderful landscapes’ that ‘caught so much of Turner’s imagination and mode of treatment’, Lawson’s increasing fame foreshadowed a decline in his own health from which he would not recover.

In The Minister’s Garden

Although Lawson’s bold style won favour among many of his contemporaries, wider recognition of his work continued to elude him until the Royal Academy exhibited The Hop Gardens of England (1876). The painting was created at Wrotham, Kent, where a local farmer lent Lawson a barn which he temporarily turned into a studio, producing a work that later won much praise at the Grosvenor Gallery. The prestigious venue was established by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche in 1877 as an antidote to what they regarded as the excessive power and ‘conventionality’ of the Royal Academy. The venture represented a clear departure from the Academy’s exhibitions, with artists designated considerably more wall space and given freedom to hang their paintings as they liked. The invitation-only policy operated by the gallery ensured the ‘right’ people got to view the works they chose to exhibit, providing an ideal climate for modern artists such as Lawson, who created a sensation with The Minister’s Garden (1878) and The Hop Gardens of England, which was exhibited there, with some alterations, as Kent (1879). Despite drawing admiration from luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, who praised his ‘wonderful landscapes’ that ‘caught so much of Turner’s imagination and mode of treatment’, Lawson’s increasing fame foreshadowed a decline in his own health from which he would not recover.

On the Road to Monaco

In 1879, Lawson married the artist Constance Phillip, daughter of the renowned sculptor John Birnie Phillip. Although he retained a large studio in Chelsea, where he completed much of his subsequent work, the couple moved to Haslemere in Surrey and, at nearby Blackdown, Lawson created The August Moon (1880) a landscape generally considered to be among his greatest works. According to Edmund Gosse, Lawson’s newfound popularity had the effect of firing his ambition ‘to an absolute frenzy of excitement’, demonstrated by his intentions for The August Moon, the artist’s attempt to show the colour that could be found in a landscape lit by moonlight. According to his friend, the art critic Heseltine Owen, this was, in Lawson’s eyes, a ‘truth’ that no great painter had yet fully grasped but one he ‘intended to show’.

Lawson’s commitment to his artistry was now taking a heavy toll on his health yet, with an almost fatalistic zeal, he continued to paint, visiting Yorkshire in the autumn of 1880 at the bequest of Henry Mason, an appreciative patron and collector of Lawson’s work. Here, he produced a number of pieces that were exhibited at the Academy and Grosvenor Gallery in 1881 but, after heading south to Devon, the fragile state of Lawson’s health finally forced him to rest.

In December 1881, he left England for the Riviera and, while travelling through Italy, completed his final painting, On The Road to Monaco. Returning to London in the spring of 1882, Lawson was able to attend a private viewing at the Grosvenor Gallery but his health continued to decline and he died in Kensington on June 10th from an acute respiratory infection and pneumonia. As an artist, Lawson only enjoyed widespread popularity for a short time but created a large enough body of work to leave a lasting impression on many of his contemporaries. Joseph Comyns-Carr, a director of the Grosvenor Gallery, which staged Lawson’s memorial exhibition the following winter, commented ‘There was in all his work…the essential secret of beauty in a landscape’ while the art historian Sir JL Caw simply concluded that Lawson was ‘one of the greatest landscape painters’ of the 19th Century.