Charles Henry Schwanfelder (1774-1837)

Charles Henry Schwanfelder (1774-1837)

In September 1814 the Leeds artist Charles Henry Schwanfelder advertised proudly in the local press that he had been appointed ‘animal painter to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent’. What a coup! The flamboyant Prince Regent was notorious for his extravagant tastes in women, exotic architecture and top-breed horses. Schwanfelder had won favour with a fine painting of the Prince’s famous horse the ‘Malcolm Arabian’ – the picture still figures in the Royal Collection with two others of his.

In the same advertisement ‘Mr S.’ took pains to thank his friends for their ‘liberal patronage’ and to reassure them that, though he would have to spend time in London, Leeds would remain his home. He was Leeds born and bred, in spite of his exotic name. His father, John James S., was probably one of the many German immigrants who came to England following the Hanoverian accession (think of Handel). He came to Leeds around 1770, anglicised his name to Swanfelder, set up in business in the Headrow as a decorative painter, and in 1773 married a Leeds girl, Elizabeth Farrer. Charles Henry was the first of their nine children, baptised in the old Parish Church in 1774. He trained with his father – decorating clock faces, snuff boxes, house interiors – but showed a special gift for painting animals, landscapes and portraits, and in his early twenties went his own way.

He set up in Ripon as an artist and teacher of art, offering classes and private lessons. He married Martha Cundale there in 1800, but she died four years later, just after the death of their baby son. At this point he moved back to Leeds, reverted to the German form of his name (did it sound more distinguished?) and began building up a clientele for his work among the newly rich merchants and professional families. They wanted pictures for the walls of their mansions, reflecting their sporting and leisure interests (horses and dogs), alongside family portraits and pleasing landscapes – with no hint of smoking chimneys.

The time and place favoured him. In 1809 the Northern Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts was founded in Leeds, with support from the great and good. Its first exhibition took place in the specially decorated Music Hall in Albion Street, amid great excitement. Schwanfelder showed an impressive 24 pictures, mostly well reviewed and fetching good prices. That year he also had a picture at the London Royal Academy, enhancing his reputation with this metropolitan seal of approval.

Over the following years the Northern Society’s exhibitions continued to provide an important local showcase for his work, the sales bringing him a substantial income. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy too, though he never stayed long in London. His royal warrant was renewed when the Prince became George IV, so Mr S. could advertise himself even more impressively as ‘animal painter to His Majesty’! But it’s not clear that he painted more pictures for the King or attended at court. Maybe he felt more at ease in Leeds than in busy competitive London.

He had to work hard for his success, travelling to Hull, Doncaster, Sheffield to take commissions. He painted local beauty spots like Bolton Abbey but also journeyed further afield to paint fashionable romantic landscapes – the Lake District, Scotland, North Wales – much in demand. Some eminent men sat for him, including Sir John Beckett, MP for Leeds, his portrait later engraved for circulation. He tried his hand at biblical and historical scenes too, even sculpture, advertising a bust of the eminent surgeon William Hey when he died, modelled, he claimed, from life (5 guineas each!).

A friend has left a description of him: slender, sprightly, something of a dandy, with gold rimmed spectacles and a silver-topped cane. He lived well, moving from Boar Lane to Mill Hill, then in 1824 to a fine house in East Parade, with stabling for his horse and sporty phaeton carriage. His personal life was less blessed. He had married again in 1810, Elizabeth Wade from Gainsborough, but she died in 1823 aged just 36, and one by one his children died too – his last daughter Caroline in 1833, aged 18, ‘after a long and agonising illness’. He married a third time in 1827, youthful Eliza King from Ripon.

In his later years he suffered from severe asthma, then in 1837 developed a ‘disease of the windpipe’, travelled to London for an operation, but died shortly afterwards. He was buried at St. George’s, Hanover Square. Leeds has a collection of his work, mainly at Temple Newsam. It’s out of vogue now, but one charming picture of two brothers with their pony will figure soon in an exhibition there, a reminder of this once popular Leeds artist.

Eveleigh Bradford
February 2019