My blog today stems from a visit I made to an art gallery in one of our major cities, Manchester. I have been to the two main galleries, the Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery, in the city before, but I had never been to the Salford Museum and Art Gallery. The Salford Museum and Art Gallery was the UK’s ‘first free public library’, which opened in January 1850, followed in November by a museum and art gallery. The building was a mansion house known as Lark Hill, which had been built in the 1790s and has given its name to our famous Lark Hill Place; a Victorian street within the museum.
I had originally thought of featuring five or six of my favourite paintings from the gallery but the more I looked at one of the works of art, the more I wanted to know about other works the artist had produced. The painting in question was Famine and the artist was the Victorian painter John Charles Dollman, who I had not heard of before. I was intrigued by both artist and the atmospheric painting and I needed to find out more. Dollman, during his lifetime, was a celebrated artist but since his death just over eight decades ago he has almost been forgotten, so let me introduce you to a very talented Victorian artist.
John Charles Dollman’s ancestors originated in France where their surname was spelled ‘Doleman’. Both Dollman’s grandfather and great-grandfather were prestigious hatters to the British royal family and it is believed that their work was well-liked by the courtiers. Dollman’s father, also John, and his wife Mary lived on the south coast of England, in the East Sussex coastal town of Hove where they had a bookstore and ran a stationery business. John Charles Dollman, their first son, was born on May 6th, 1851 one year after his sister, Selina, was born. Ten years after John entered the world the family had expanded by a further four children, with the addition of Thomas Frederick, Herbert Purvis, Gertrude Eleanor, and the six-month old baby, Kate Maria.
By the time John Dollman was a teenager his artistic talent had been recognised. Some of his early work featured animals and at one local exhibition the art critic of the Brighton Guardian commented on Dollman’s work:
“…Mr Dollman’s forte seems to be for animal drawing. The strong-looking limbs, the well-rounded forms, and the symmetry of the horses show them to be types of a thoroughly serviceable animal…”
Dollman studied art at both South Kensington and the Royal Academy Schools and soon gained a reputation as an animal painter and many at the time saw him as a natural successor to the renowned animal painter, Edwin Landseer. Many of Dollman’s works featured dogs and the plight of stray dogs. An early painting by Dollman completed in 1871, entitled The Dogs Refuge, was a classic example of this genre and is housed in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
Dogs had been companions to humans for tens of thousands of years but the acceptance of one as part of a family really only came about during Victorian times. With this sentimentality over the dog came the concern for the fate of abandoned animals roaming the streets and it was this concern that led to the foundation of homes for these canine waifs. In 1860, the Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs opened its doors in Holloway. London which eventually moved south of the Thames and became the well-known Battersea Dogs Home. Paintings featuring abandoned dogs pulled at the heart strings of the Victorians and were in much demand. Another work featuring the plight of stray dogs is his painting Table d’Hote at a Dogs Home which was exhibited at the 1879 Royal Academy and is now housed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Probably his most famous works was one which also featured animals. It was the atmospheric painting entitled A London Cab Stand which he completed in 1888 and is now housed at the London Museum. It is a depiction of a group of forlorn-looking horses tethered to their cabs standing in pouring rain awaiting their next fare. The work is often known as Les Miserables for obvious reasons. Dollman composed at least three variants of this picture.
Dollman was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy for over forty years from 1870 to 1912, and was elected a member of the Royal Watercolour Society. To subsidise his income from selling his art he worked as an illustrator for magazines in the 1880’s such as the British weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. In some artistic quarters Dollman was referred to as a “black and white artist” which undoubtedly was based upon the amount of illustrations he did for newspapers and magazines.
As I said earlier this blog was brought about when I saw Dollman’s haunting oil painting entitled Famine, which he completed in 1904. It depicts a tall emaciated figure going forward through a wasteland whilst being surrounded by hungry wolves and ravens. It is a troubling work of art and one wonders what it is all about. Some believe it is all about starvation with its visualisation of death in the form of the grey shrouded man who is being surrounded by ravenous wolves. The artist, on the other hand, said he intended it to portray a famine of human spirit, or death of the soul after its neglect. One amusing story behind this painting is that Dollman went to the zoo to sketch wolves for use in the painting but was disappointed to find that they all seemed well fed and all of them were too healthy-looking, which did not fit in with the idea of the work!
Many of Dollman’s illustrations featured Viking mythology. His work conveys a powerful sense of drama. In 1908 Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton used eight of Dollman’s images in her book Told by the Northmen, and in the following year nine were reproduced in Hélène Adeline Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas. One of these illustrations which Dollman completed around 1908 was Frigga Spinning the Clouds. Frig, or the anglicised version of the name, Frigga, which translated means “beloved” was the wife of Odin, the chief of the gods and thus she was the highest ranking of Aesir goddesses.
There is a woman who weaves in the sky
See how She spins, see Her finger fly
She’s been before us from beginning to end
She is our mother, lover and friend
She is the weaver and we are the web
She is the needle and we are the thread.
From the poem Changing Woman by Adele Getty
Frigga was goddess of the clouds, and was usually depicted as wearing either snow-white or dark garments, which was dependent on her disposition. She was queen of the gods, and she alone had the privilege of sitting beside her husband, Odin, on the throne, Hliðskjálf, which in Norse mythology was the high seat of the god Odin allowing him to see into all realms. From that lofty throne it was said she too could look over all the world and see what was happening, and, according to the belief of our ancestors, she possessed the knowledge of the future. Although she often appeared seated beside her husband, she preferred to remain in her own palace, called Fensalir, where she assiduously worked her jewelled spinning wheel producing golden thread and weaving long webs of bright-coloured clouds. Fensalir was also where Frigga invited husbands and wives who had led virtuous lives on earth, so that they might enjoy each other’s companionship even after death, and never be called upon to part again.
Paintings since the days of the cave drawings have been a means for us to learn about the past. Paintings are often pictorial histories and without them the past would have been just our imagination gleaned from what we read but we lacked the graphic detail. If we look at the seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish genre paintings we get an idea what life was like for the peasant classes in those days. At the other end of the scale, in the eighteenth century paintings by the likes of Francois Boucher we get an idea of how the well-off lived in France. Whereas the paintings looking at life of the rich could well be more stylised versions of the truth with elaborate furnishings added to the picture to enhance the status of the sitters, the peasant paintings were more realistic and it is this realism in a painting that appeals to me. Add a story behind what we see before us as in narrative paintings then it is the icing on the cake.
Narrative art is art that tells a story. It may be a single moment in a continuing story, often based on history, mythology or the Bible or as a sequence of events unfolding over time, such as the set of six paintings entitled Marriage a’la Mode by William Hogarth. Narrative paintings were especially popular in the Victorian era and John Dollman produced a classic entitled The Immigrant’s Ship in 1884. In the painting, we see a young girl playing with a doll whilst her exhausted mother, who is almost drained of life, tries to get some rest as she leans her head on her husband’s shoulder. He stares blankly at the wooden deck of the ship as if he wonders what they have all got themselves into and what was their future. Unlike the wealthy man, who is sitting nearby with a top hat on his head, his family is living in very cramped quarters in the lower deck, a space which probably measured only a couple of square meters. Beggars cannot be choosers, and this family was almost at beggar-level having received an assisted passage so that they could make a new life for themselves in Australia. For people travelling on an assisted place this was no luxurious cruise. Such passengers had to provide their own bedding and eating utensils and were fed biscuits, gruel, potatoes and occasionally preserved meat.
Dollman captured a very poignant moment in history with his 1913 painting entitled A Very Gallant Gentleman which depicts Captain Laurence “Titus” Oates walking out to his death in the blizzard, on Captain Scott’s return journey from the South Pole, in March 1912. Oates had been suffering from severe frostbite which became so severe that he could hardly climb into his sleeping bag and the “killer”, gangrene, had set in. Oates realised his physical condition was now hampering his three other colleagues’ safe return and he pleaded with them to leave him behind, but they refused. The next day he awoke, and knew what he must do. He left his colleagues knowing that this may help them and uttered his immortal line:
“…I’m just going outside; I may be away some time…”
Captain Scott recorded in his diary that day that Oates had gone out into the blizzard never to be seen again. The final three members of the expedition party struggled on for a few more days before they too died before ever reaching safety.
John Charles Dollman died in London on December 11th 1934 aged 83. In his will he bequeathed a sum of ten thousand guineas to the Royal Academy to fund scholarships for promising young artists. Dollman was a most amazing and yet forgotten artist.