John William Inchbold (1830-1888)
Painter and Poet

John William InchboldAmong the trees and flowers of Adel churchyard stands the gravestone of John William Inchbold, ‘Painter and Poet’. Below his name are lines taken from a long emotional poem written in his memory by his friend, the writer and poet Algernon Swinburne, beginning ‘If far beyond the shadow and the sleep/ A place there be for souls without a stain..’ Inchbold, born and brought up in Leeds, had spent most of his life in London or travelling, often abroad, but returned to Leeds in his final days. A solitary, difficult, unsettled man, he struggled all his life for artistic recognition.

He was born at Queen’s Square, Leeds, on 29 April 1830, the fifth child of Thomas and Rachel Inchbold. His father was a well-known bookseller and printer, briefly joint owner of the ‘Leeds Intelligencer’ newspaper, though his fortunes fluctuated. Sadly, when John William was only two, his father died in the cholera epidemic of 1832 and Rachel was left to look after the family and run the business. John William showed an early talent for drawing and after leaving school was sent to London to train as a lithographer, perhaps with a view to returning to work in the family printing firm. In London, alongside lithography, he began to study landscape painting, fascinated by the effects of texture and light. His work was exhibited for the first time in 1849 when he was only 19, and several pictures were accepted by the Royal Academy in the early 1850s. By this time his work was strongly influenced by the new Pre-Raphaelite movement with its emphasis on truth to nature, and by the writings of the movement’s prophet, John Ruskin.

In his early twenties he got to know Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and others in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and was encouraged and supported by Ruskin, who viewed him as the most promising of the young landscape painters, singling him out for special praise. After his mother’s death in 1853, with no reliable financial support, he had to try to make a living through his painting. But he found it hard to sell his work, refusing to use art dealers or compromise with potential buyers. Meanwhile he lived simply, staying in friends’ houses, and in the summer travelling to paint the dramatic scenery of Cornwall, Scotland, and Switzerland, where he stayed for a time with Ruskin. But Ruskin proved difficult to please, and Inchbold had problems too with the Royal Academy, the professional establishment, which did not treat him kindly.

During the 1860s he was often ill, but still escaped to the landscapes he loved. In 1864 he spent several months in Cornwall with the poet Algernon Swinburne, introduced to him by Rossetti - they remained life-long friends. He stayed for long periods too in Venice and later in Spain, painting and drawing, his style becoming increasingly free and poetic. However by the later 1860s he was in deep financial trouble, his work rejected by the Royal Academy and stacks of pictures unsold. He had to rely on his long-suffering friends to look after him and help to sell his work. For a time he moved away from expensive London to the Isle of Wight, and spent winters living cheaply abroad in north Africa and in his beloved mountains of Switzerland.

In 1877 he published a volume of poetry called ‘Annus Amoris’ (Year of Love), romantic, lyrical sonnets which achieved some success. Around this time he revisited Yorkshire, painting a magnificent picture of Gordale Scar, now in the Tate. He continued to paint, write, and travel but was increasingly beset by illness. In late 1887 he came back to Leeds for an exhibition of some of his work at the annual ‘conversazione’ of the Philosophical and Literary Society. Soon after, in January 1888, he died of ‘an affection of the heart’ at his sister’s home at 13 Ebberston Terrace, Woodhouse, aged 57. Perhaps he asked to be buried at Adel, surrounded by trees and green fields.

After his death his remaining pictures were auctioned, but fetched little. Walter Harding, promoter of the about-to-open new Leeds Art Gallery, travelled to London and bought three – and was berated for not buying more. Today the most well-known of Inchbold’s pictures in the Gallery (donated by his nephew) is the ‘White Doe of Rylstone’, painted at Bolton Abbey when he was 25, the title taken from a poem by Wordsworth whose poetry he loved. Other paintings are scattered and some lost, though the Tate holds an impressive collection of his work. His reputation has risen recently, but he remains a shadowy figure who never enjoyed the recognition he longed for and merited.

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2013