Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817)

Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817)
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

Julius Caesar Ibbetson‘s life began in tragedy, with the death of his mother and his birth by Caesarean section – hence his extraordinary name. His life was restless and difficult. At times he prospered, with distinguished patrons, but he also suffered debt, loss and illness before he finally found a haven back in Yorkshire. His paintings are in galleries all over the country, with a large collection here at Temple Newsam house. Most are landscape studies, often quite small, but enriched with colourful, lively images of the every-day life of the time, of ordinary people at work, at play, at home, vivid insights into the society of his day.

He was born at Farnley Moor Top in Leeds in 1759, perhaps in one of the small row of cottages which still survive there. His father Richard Ibbetson, after a period in London, had lived for many years in the Moravian settlement at Fulneck, but had to leave when he married an ‘outsider’, the daughter of a local farmer called Julius Mortimer. His young wife Rebecca, pregnant with their second child, died in an accident and so Julius was born by surgery. He was educated partly at Fulneck and then at the highly regarded Quaker school in Leeds, but at age 12, knowing his artistic interests, his father apprenticed him to a ship painter at Hull – not a marine artist as he perhaps imagined, but a painter of ships’ hulls! Young Julius made the best of it, and got a name for his fine decorative work, even painting scenery for the local theatre run by the famous Tate Wilkinson, who became his friend.

When his master sold the business and would have sold Julius with it, he rebelled and escaped on the stage coach to London, just 17, friendless and virtually penniless. He found work in a picture dealer’s workshop where over the next years, although overworked and under-paid, he learnt valuable skills and could study painting, especially the Dutch masters. His fine work began to be recognised and in 1785 his first picture was accepted by the Royal Academy. From then on he exhibited regularly, and very successfully – in 1790 pronounced the ‘genius of the year’ for his rich romantic landscapes. A large, humorous, sociable man, he was popular with a network of influential friends and patrons.

In 1787 he was offered the chance of a lifetime, to accompany the first ever British Mission to the Chinese Imperial Court as official artist. But six months into the long, arduous sea voyage the British envoy died and the ship had to turn back. Julius lost a year and money on this abortive venture. With help from his generous patrons, over the next years he enjoyed stays in various country houses, and the opportunity to tour and paint in the Isle of Wight and in Wales, the subject of many of his finest pictures.

A further blow awaited. He had married his wife Elizabeth in 1780 and year by year their family increased, but only three of their eleven children survived. In 1794 Elizabeth died too, leaving him totally desolate. He had a breakdown, and lost all his money and his home. Although some useful commissions helped to support him – book illustrations, interior decoration at Kenwood House at Hampstead – he remained in deep financial trouble. He embarked on further travels, touring Scotland, the Lakes, Yorkshire, always painting, desperate for money, disabled with severe rheumatism. Cheated in his scheme for a regular income by a Liverpool dealer (he viewed all dealers as ‘serpents’), he was rescued by a wealthy patron.

In 1799 he found a home in the Lakes, first at Ambleside and then Troutbeck. He also found a new wife, a local girl, Bella Thompson, only 17. She was his ‘assistant, companion, nurse’, supported him through his continuing money problems, and became indispensable to his happiness. Always convivial and popular, tempted by the local hostelries, he settled down. Encouraged by one of his patrons, he wrote a guide to ‘Painting in Oil’ for beginners, published in 1803, explaining the techniques he used himself – the first manual of its kind.

A commission from William Danby of Swinton Hall brought the family finally to Masham, where they lived from 1805. It was a simple but contented existence. He painted some delightful local scenes, including a touching domestic picture of his own family circle, surrounded by children and pets. These often featured in his work – he had a sympathetic eye for the life around him, including beggars, gypsies, country folk and their animals. He died in 1817, aged 58, ‘his extraordinary genius as a painter universally acknowledged’.

Eveleigh Bradford 
February 2017