Financial problems, plagiarism and marital difficulties.
In 1821, Francis Danby fathered a fourth son, Thomas, and the family were still living in the Bristol suburb of Kingsdown. Aross the River Avon, on the south-west side of the Avon Gorge, was a large area of woodland known as Leigh Woods.
This was a magnet for artists who had a large range of picturesque views to paint and sketch en plein air. However in the 1820’s, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge which did not get built until 1864 and so, to cross the Avon Danby and fellow painters living in Bristol would have to traverse the river by means of the Rownham Ferry and then walk along the tow path before ascending Nightingale Valley.
Francis Danby completed his painting A Scene in Leigh Woods in 1822. This oil on panel painting measuring 35 x 50 cms is awash with many tones of green but such variation of tones and tints is well managed. The sunlight coming from the right hand side has struggled to penetrate the dens foliage and this results in the shadows not being so dense. The artist has moved away from his two companions who are busily sketching and by distancing himself from his friends he has been able to give us a very relaxed scene. The Revd. John Eagles, a writer and amateur artist, wrote about the friendship between artists when they descended on Leigh Woods and how Leigh Woods was the best painting-ground. In an article, he wrote about the colours one could find there:
“…they were of all shades, but rich as if every colour had by turns blended with them, yet unmixed, so perfect in predominance was the green throughout. So varied likewise was the texture, whether effected by distance, by variety of shade, by opposition, or by character of ground. There was much of emerald, not in colour only, but in transparent depth…”
Danby also completed another painting in 1822, View of the Avon Gorge, which is a companion piece to A Scene in Leigh Woods. This painting depicts a view looking downstream across the entrance to Nightingale Valley which was a favourite spot for the artists of the Bristol School. In the painting we can see a quarry barge moving slowly up the River Avon. In the distance you can just make out the Sea Walls and to the right you can just see the construction of the Bridge Valley Road which eventually ran around the riverbank on the right.
Another of Danby’s captivating paintings was one he also completed in 1822 which was entitled Boys Sailing a Little Boat. It depicts four young boys and a young girl on a riverbank and a small stone bridge. They are fascinated watching their small model boat floating in the water. A basket of potatoes lies on the riverbank and presumably the children had been taxed to peel them but the thrill of watching their boat in the river has been a distraction. It should be remembered that at this time Danby had four sons and it is thought he could also have a daughter so this may have been his idea of portraying them all in this scene.
In 1824, all was not well with Francis Danby. He was heavily in debt and he decided his only recourse was to take flight. He and his family left Bristol in April and headed to London where he believed he could make more money selling his work. The breakthrough for Danby came in July that year when he exhibited his painting, Sunset at Sea after a Storm at the Royal Academy which was then bought by the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, who became Danby’s mentor. Not only did Lawrence buy Danby’s painting but he put him forward as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Danby was duly elected in November 1825.
Following the good reviews of his painting, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, he followed it up with An Enchanted Isle which had been commissioned by his patron, John Gibbons, and which was shown at the British Institution, to great acclaim.
However his next painting, The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, which he exhibited at the 1825 Royal Academy Exhibition, was a veritable triumph and was immediately bought by the Marquis of Stafford who was the President of the British Institution for £500. The story of the sale of the work is fascinating. The Marquis saw the painting at a private viewing and immediately mounted his horse and rode of to Danby’s house and bought it. An hour later Lord Liverpool rushed into Danby’s house wanting to buy the work, only to be told he was too late.
In 1828, Danby completed a somewhat different painting from his light and airy Bristol landscapes. It was entitled The Opening of the Sixth Seal. He actually started the painting in 1825 but gave up on it accusing fellow painter, John Martin, of plagiarising the depiction with his Deluge work. It caused quite a controversy at the time. He returned to the work two years later and completed it in 1828. The depiction was based on the biblical text from the Book of Revelations (6:12-17):
“…I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?…”
It tells of the opening by God of the sixth seal on a scroll, the earth is rent and mankind descends into disarray. The sun becomes black and the heavens collapse; a king slumps among now worthless symbols of his sovereignty (crown and sceptre), people cower in fear of the wrath of God, and a city falls to rubble in the background.
It is interesting to note that Danby added to his depiction a topical reference to slavery. If you look to the left of the painting you can make out a crouching figure, similar to that adopted as the symbol of the abolitionist movement, and at the centre of the painting there is the figure of a liberated slave, who has broken the shackles that were wrapped around his wrists. This liberated figure in some way answers the question at the end of the biblical text. So why did Danby choose to paint this very different depiction? The answer probably lies with the fact that the slave trade had been discontinued in 1807 in Britain but the Bill for the abolition of slavery itself was not passed until 1833. Danby was not known to have had any particularly strong feelings for the religious subject in his works, but was opposed to slavery and was conscious that there was a prevailing appetite for the apocalyptic in art. In this work he has excelled at depicting dramatic phenomena in nature, from spectacular sunsets to lightning storms. The painting proved the most popular work at the Royal Academy in London in 1828. It was a triumph, loved by public and critics alike. Danby had been elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in November 1825 and now, following the success at the Academy exhibitions, he had high hopes that he would be elected a full member of the Academy. However there was one problem. The other candidate who stood for election was John Constable and Danby began to fear the worse as he anxiously awaited the result of the ballot, saying:
“…the awful moment is coming…..if Constable is put in, I think I will run out…”
As a full member of the Academy he could apply for funds and he knew that Constable would have no reason to ask for money as his wife had just inherited £30,000 and thus Danby believed that the Academy may look on that factor as a reason for choosing Constable. Danby’s fears were well founded and in February 1829 Constable beat Danby by one vote. Danby was both furious and bitter. He accused Constable as being underhanded and that the Academy had chosen the rich over the poor adding:
“…for the Academy I have much cause to be ashamed as it lowers their value when it is so evident that the have elected Constable for his money…”
His accusation against the Academy held some credence with the National Press, which must have hurt Constable. Even worse for Constable the President of the Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, was openly disappointed with the Academy’s choice.
A Danby painting of around this time had an interesting tale to it. Around 1826 when Danby was working on a Cleopatra painting for John Gibbons he mentioned to his patron that he had conceived an idea for a large work. It was to be called The Golden Age but he promised it would not hinder the Cleopatra painting although that work was causing him problems. Lord de Tabley, a patron of Turner, had shown an interest in buying one of Danby’s paintings and so Danby sent him a preliminary study of The Golden Age (above), but unfortunately Lord de Tabley was too ill to look at it and so Danby turned to his patron, Gibbons. In a letter to Gibbons in January 1827 Danby included a small sketch of his ideas for The Golden Age. He had to temper his enthusiasm for this new venture with the promise that Cleopatra had not been forgotten. He also once again told his patron he was in financial difficulty and in danger of debtor’s prison and asked for a loan of £300. Gibbons gave Danby more money and agreed to take the finished Golden Age painting.
Despite the money, Danby’s life became even more problematic and turbulent. It was anxious times on two fronts for Danby as he had both financial and marital problems to contend with. Despite selling his paintings he was continually asking his patron John Gibbons for money to pay off his debts which were mounting. In December 1829 Danby left London for Paris in order to escape his creditors only returning briefly the following January to attend the funeral of his friend, the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, but he had to make a hasty return to the French capital when his creditors were about to serve him with writs.
In June 1830, Danby with four of his seven children, moved to Bruges. He once again contacted John Gibbons expressing his parlous situation and also informing him that his marriage to his wife Hannah was at an end due to her infidelity with a Bristol artist, Paul Falconer Poole and her having also abandoned their children. In later letters to John Gibbons, Danby stated that he only married Hannah out of kindness and implied that she was already pregnant. He ended by saying that the marriage had resulted in a precarious and unhappy life. Ironically, Danby was now living with his mistress, Ellen Evans, who would give him three more children.
The last painting of Danby’s that I am showcasing is his monumental work, The Deluge, which he completed in 1840. It measures 285 x 452cms and is one of the largest works Danby ever painted. He had been away from England for eleven years, living in Europe but had, in 1839, returned to London. The subject of the painting could well have been chosen as to compete directly with his nemesis John Martin who had also exhibited two of his trilogy of Deluge themed paintings at the Royal Academy in 1840. Martin had decided to depict the story of the deluge in a number of paintings whereas Danby decided that the story should be depicted in a solitary work. The writer and critic William Makepeace Thackery wrote about the painting in in Fraser’s Magazine a literary journal published in London, praising Danby’s treatment of the subject, which he considered to be superior to those by John Martin, Turner and even Poussin, :
“…He has painted the picture of “The Deluge”; we have before our eyes still the ark in the midst of the ruin floating calm and lonely, the great black cataracts of water pouring down, the mad rush of the miserable people clambering up the rocks…”
The painting which is now housed at Tate Britain, London is described by the Gallery as:
“…As well as such meteorological portents as lightning, a comet, and a blood-red setting sun, Danby has also extended his theme by the use of symbolic references to destruction, in particular the juxtaposition of the serpent and the drowning lion, and the angel weeping over the dead giant. This giant may have been included by Danby on account of the references to venerable giants and heroes that occur in Genesis vi, 4, at the beginning of the account of the Deluge…”
The background is believed to have been derived from the coast of Brittany, a place Danby is known to have visited in 1838. The picture also shows the effects of Danby’s three years stay in Paris, such as the rising pinnacle of figures struggling up the rocky promontory which could have been inspired by a similar compositional form of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and Poussin’s Deluge painting which we know he copied during visits to the Louvre in 1837. The national press liked the work but the public were less impressed in comparison to the notable success he had had with his Opening of the Sixth Seal work.
Danby remained in England for most of the rest of his life. He lived in London until 1842 and then moved to Kent. In 1846 he was living in Exmouth, Devon where he not only painted but enjoyed sailing and boat building. His ever-loyal patron John Gibbons died in August 1851 and in 1856 Francis Danby took a long lease on Shell House on the Maer. where he devoted time to boatbuilding. He constructed his yacht ‘Dragonfly’ on the Maer. This boat was shipwrecked off the coast at Axmouth in 1860. It is thought that his studio in Exmouth was just off Exeter Road where he would have had a good view of the river Exe. Francis Danby died at home on February 10th, 1861, aged 67. He was buried at St John -in-the-Wilderness at Withycombe, Exmouth.