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THE HISTORY FILE

JUNE 2020

David Cummings

William Huggins 1820 - 1885

by David Cummings

William Huggins FRS Artist & Resident of Rock House Christleton

  •  Self Portrait

    Self Portrait

  •  The Artist's Wife

    The Artist's Wife

The famous animal and landscape artist William Huggins, was born in Liverpool on 13th May 1820. After studying at the Mechanics Institute, where he won a prize at the age of 15 for paintings of historical subjects, he turned to the drawing of animals for which today he is best remembered. His knowledge of these was gained from the large number of pets he kept at home, from visits to zoological gardens and on more than one occasion he followed Wombwells Menagerie, a travelling animal circus, around England.

In 1847 he became an Associate of the Liverpool Academy, and a member in 1850. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1842 and 1875. Apart from his pictures of lions, horses, donkeys and poultry, Huggins also continued to paint historical and religious subjects which contained animals. These included "Daniel in the Lion's Den", "Una and the Lion", Disobedient Prophet" and other portraits and landscapes. Many of his landscapes were painted around Chester or on Wirral. He developed a very individual technique, painting with pale transparent colours on a white background.

In 1861 he moved to Chester, and in 1876 he took a house over a stream in Betws y Coed which possibly caused him health problems in later life, as he developed rheumatism and arthritis. It was in 1880 after the death of his wife that he moved back to Chester, to Rock House an elegant Georgian Town House in Christleton where he lived with his brother Samuel an Architect, and sister Hannah. By this time he was suffering so much that he only painted and drew when he felt well enough. He never ventured far from the village, but lived quietly and modestly as he had always done. It's said in some reports that he was an eccentric individual, and that he preferred the company of animals to people. It's also recorded that he hated travelling in tunnels, and would get off the train before Liverpool and walk the rest of his way home! I like to think of him as a very compassionate man, who recorded meticulously the subjects he was drawing or painting, and there are some wonderful sensitive drawings and paintings in the collection of his work kept in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester or in local collections in Christleton. Some of his drawings of lions for example have a definite feline quality, where he appears to capture their cat like movements seen in their natural wild state.

In 1883 his condition worsened and his doctor diagnosed consumption. During the early part of the winter he grew steadily weaker and died on 25th February 1884 at the age of sixty three at Rock House in Christleton. All his life he had hankered after recognition as a history painter in the grand style, following on as he was from another famous Liverpool artist George Stubbs, but he never attained this. His brother once remarked ”that the chief characteristic throughout his career was his looking at nature alone” The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography stresses the worth of his animal painting and his talents as a draughtsman and colourist. For many years after his death, however, even the popularity of his animal pictures seemed to decline. It was only through the reawakening of interest in Victorian paintings in the 1960's that he became well known nationally and given him the recognition he deserved. His work then became very collectable in 1968 when Jackie Kennedy, wife of the late American President John Kennedy, purchased one of his paintings. Until then his paintings sold for between 115 pounds and 630 pounds, but then took off dramatically, and it's said that there were many attics and landings in Liverpool being searched in case they had a "Huggins".

When Samuel died in January 1885, Rock House was sold to the Mosford Family, who set up a Butchers Shop adjacent to the house, built of shiny red Ruabon brick, a fashionable brick developed by the Grosvenor Estate and manufactured at Ruabon. His sister Hannah lived for a further nine years in a small terraced house 82 Tarvin Road, Vicars Cross. All three are buried in the churchyard at St James, in a grave to the right of the sun dial walking towards the church from the Lych Gate. The epitaph on William's tombstone, said to have been composed himself reads 'A just and compassionate man who would neither tread on a worm nor cringe to an emperor'. He seems to have been a man of great socialist principles, and we were fortunate to have him living in our village.

Reference

Christleton History of a Cheshire Village 1979
Christleton 2000 years of History
Mr D Jones of Liverpool.
“The Observer” Supplement 1964
Merseyside Painters People & Places. Walker Art Gallery Liverpool 1978
  •  Painting of a Lion by William Huggins

    Painting of a Lion by William Huggins

  •  William Huggins Gravestone

    William Huggins Gravestone

  •  William Huggins Gravestone Detail

    William Huggins Gravestone Detail

Christleton History File June 2020

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