Looking back over my selection of photographs of Minute Books and cuttings from the beginnings of Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, (taken while researching the Wilton antiquarian James Nightingale), I came across a number of references to committee members with the surname Read. There was a C.J., a Raphael, an S., a Sydney (presumably the same person) and, most mysteriously, a Deputy Inspector General. The Deputy Inspector General of what I wondered, were they all from the same family and where does the discovery of a sour relationship with John Constable fit into the story?
In 1820 an artist, David Charles Read (born 1790 in Boldre, in the New Forest) moved to The Close, Salisbury. The first census (1841) indicates his home was between Bishop’s Walk and St Ann’s gate on the southern side. He would have brought with him his wife Charlotte and his oldest son, born in 1819 with the artistically aspirational name Raphael. The couple would go on to have four more children, of whom two are of interest here: Charles John, born 1820 and George Sydney born in 1824.
David Charles Read trained as an etcher in London when young but returned to the country for the sake of his health. The Dictionary of National Biography states ‘he had ample though unremunerative employment as a drawing master’. He spent his spare time drawing and painting, mostly landscapes, though he did complete a few portraits, including two of the poet Goethe. His paintings were mainly of the Avon valley and the New Forest though the subjects of his etchings could be from further afield.
Campbell Fine Arts, a print specialist, writes ‘Whilst David Charles Read may have remained little known as a painter, he excelled as an original printmaker. His beautifully open and highly confident etched works display a spontaneity associated with fine natural talent and betray the particular influence of the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn. Further than this, D. C. Read was one of a select group of original printmakers…. to make extensive use of drypoint as an original printmaking technique, handing on the traditions of this important process to the mid Victorians’.
Salisbury Museum owns a particularly atmospheric engraving of Stonehenge by him.
Stonehenge. 1830. The Salisbury Museum.
View from Pugin’s House. 1835. The Ashmolean Museum.
Britford Vale. 1835. The Ashmolean Museum.
As a character David Read seems to have had inflated ideas of his own talent and his demand for recognition eventually upset none other than john Constable. Initially Constable found Read’s copies in oils from Claude and Van de Velde ‘very far from bad, and very much better than I expected’.
But in 1822 Archdeacon Fisher asked Constable to promote one of Read’s painting to a London gallery and this is his rather waspish reply.
” MY DEAR FISHER, There is nothing so cheering to me as the sight of your handwriting, yet I am dilatory in answering you. I will gladly do all I can for Read and his picture, but you know I can only send it; I possess no favour in that place, I have no patron but yourself, and you are not a grandee ; you are only a gentleman and a scholar, and a real lover of the art. I will mention R ‘s picture to Young, and this is all that is in my power. Is it not possible to dissuade him from coming to London, where he will be sure to get rid of what little local reputation he may have? But perhaps he prefers starving in a crowd, and if he is determined to adventure, let him by all means preserve his flowing locks, they will do him more service than even the talents of Claude Lorraine, if he possessed them’.
Some months later Constable confided to Fisher ‘the truth…is that he is ignorant of every rudiment of art-without one grain of original feeling-without one atom of talent’. Read countered this lack of public recognition by talking of ‘future fame being preferable to present flattery’ and, when ‘exalted’ at a wine-party in Salisbury, he prophesied that posterity would say ‘here Read walked and there he sketched’.
David Read worked fast, completing up to five etched plates a week, and produced six series of prints between 1829 and 1845. Also (perhaps in order to enhance his reputation), he presented the Earl of Pembroke with a set of prints, and dedicated another to Queen Adelaide. He befriended Pugin and presented a volume of his etchings to the British Museum in 1832 and 1842. In the letter he wrote to the British Museum with the presentation in 1842 he complained of the ‘chilling neglect that attended their first publication’. However, his works did find appreciation from Goethe, Mendelssohn and a few connoisseurs.
In 1845/6 he spent a year in Italy painting well known scenes. Then, in 1849 he moved to Kensington and died there in 1851 at the age of only 61. Between 1871 and 1874 his son Raphael compiled a manuscript catalogue of his works, with a memoir and gave it to the British Museum. They bought a number of his works in the nineteenth century with the result that they now hold around 300 of his drawings and etchings. It is now rare to find his etchings, partly because he was so scrupulous that did not wish any etchings to be taken from worn plates.
David C Read’s own etching copied from a watercolour by John Linnell. His son Raphael has added the words’ Very like him when young’. The Salisbury Museum has one of these prints.
The sale of his collection at Christie’s. 6 April 1853. Note that he is referred to as ‘that accomplished amateur’ which probably would not have pleased him.
Rosemary Pemberton May 2020
The story of David’s three sons (the committee members mentioned in the Minute Books) to be continued…
Rosemary has been researching this and putting it together ‘under lockdown’. It is another reminder of what we can do via our computers. Thank you Rosemary!