Walter Charles Horsley (British, 1855-1921)

The Soothsayer

“The soothsayer” Framed Oil on Canvas 36 x 26 1/2in

Walter Charles Horsley (British, 1855 – 1921) was born at his family’s home in Kensington in 1855, the son of the historical and genre painter John Callcott Horsley R.A. (1817-1903) by his second wife Rosamund Haden (1820-1912), sister of the etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910). On his paternal grandmother’s side, Walter was related to the artist Sir Augustus Wall Callcott (1779-1844); one of his paternal aunts married the acclaimed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel while both his grandfather and uncle were composers. It was within this cultured and highly artistic milieu that Walter grew up as the eldest of seven children that included his brother Victor Alexander who became a surgeon, Gerald who became an architect and Rosamund who was an artist and writer. As one biographer noted it was Walter who “inherited his father’s power of observation” and having trained under him he then entered the prestigious Royal Academy Schools where he furthered his artistic studies and where he won a silver medal for a portrait likeness.

In 1875 Horsley made his debut at the Royal Academy where he continued to regularly exhibit up until 1911. In addition to the present work, some of his best known Academy exhibits included Shopping in Constantinople (1878), The French in Cairo (1884; Sheffield Museum Collection) portraying an incident during the Napoleonic occupation when the names of Bonaparte’s generals were inscribed upon the towers and gates of the city walls; this incensed the native population, all the more so as the chief of each quarter was obliged to be present. Like that painting Horsley’s Great Britain in Egypt, 1886 (exhibited at the RA, 1887; Gallery of New South Wales, Australia) has a humorous element in which he portrays an English and Scottish soldier being offered a pipe from a beautiful Egyptian attendant. Later Academy exhibits included numerous other Orientalist views as well as a very English scene Old Time Tuition at Dulwich College (exhibited at the RA 1906; Dulwich College Museum) portraying an amusing scene as recounted by his father; in it a group of school boys are going about their daily lessons in their master’s bedroom, where at centre stage the teacher is seated in his four-poster bed smoking a clay pipe. In addition to the Royal Academy, Horsley also showed his work at the Royal Society of British Artists and other annual exhibitions.

In 1875, the year that he first showed at the Academy, Horsley was commissioned by The Graphic magazine as an illustrator to record the Prince of Wales’s visit to India and while there the Nawab of Bahawalpur commissioned him to paint a series of hunting scenes. This trip was followed by others to India as well as numerous painting expeditions to Egypt, especially Cairo and along the banks of the Nile, Tangiers, Morocco and Turkey, in particular Istanbul (then known as Constantinople). He continued to travel east well into old age for instance in 1931, he and his wife went to Tangiers and two years later returned from a trip to India.

For much of his life Walter lived with his parents, either at their Kensington home at 1 High Row or in the Kentish village of Cranbrook at Willesley, a beautiful old house on the outskirts of the village which his father had bought in 1861 and was subsequently remodeled by the architect Norman Shaw. It was there, during his youth, that his father befriended other members of the Cranbrook Colony of artists that included Thomas Webster, F. D. Hardy and G. B. O’Neill who delighted in portraying scenes of domestic rural life. Walter eventually inherited Willesley where he and his wife spent many happy years and where he eventually died in May 1934. He did not marry until 1916, when he was 61 and chose as his bride the much younger widow named Catherine Anne Browne (1871-1956).

As a reflection of his standing Horsley’s work is represented in a number of public collections which in addition to those already mentioned includes the Royal Academy who own two portraits by him of his father, one with John Callcott Horsley working in his studio and the other showing him seated with an open book on his lap. Another of his portraits of Matilda Blanche Crawley-Boevey, Mrs. William Gibbs is housed at the National Trust property Tyntesfield, near Bristol, while his portrait of An Officer of the Northumbrian Fusiliers is owned by the National Army Museum. In addition his delightful view of The Water Seller (A Cairo Street) is owned by the National Trust property, Cragside in Northumberland, showing an elderly man and young girl riding through the streets of Cairo as they are approached by an aged man selling water. In addition to his artistic ventures, in 1881 Horsley became a Lieutenant of the Artist’s Rifles Association and from 1822 up until his death was Colonel of the Regiment.

Horsley gained considerable repute for his multi-figural genre scenes which likewise contain dramatic narrative, fine detailing, strong brushwork and are often tinged with humour. Unlike many contemporary Orientalists, Horsley viewed his subjects at first hand having travelled widely throughout India and Egypt as well as Turkey, Tangiers and Morocco.

Horsley can be considered among the great late nineteenth and early twentieth century British painters of which the present Royal Academy exhibit is one of his most charming. Well observed and sensitively painted, it has the added bonus of being housed in its original frame, featuring a frieze of palm fronds that reflect the palm trees on the distant bank in the painting itself. Given the artist’s repute and that his works seldom come onto the market, this quality painting can be considered a very rare gem.