People’s taste in art is a very personal thing. What some of us like is anathema to others. The main consideration when we choose our favourite paintings or favourite artist should be that they or their work make us feel good, inspired and happy. Why should we decry art that others like even if we consider it to be trivial or amateurish? What makes people who are critical about a certain painting or certain genres think that they are the great experts on art. Let us just like what we like and allow others to like what they like.
This is all a round about way of justifying the art genre of today’s featured painter. It is a genre which is liked by many but decried by others. My featured artist today is Alfred Robert Quinton, an English nineteenth century watercolour painter who was known for his depictions of villages and landscapes. Detractors label his work as being chocolate-box art. This term derives from scenes of a highly stereotypical nature found on biscuit and chocolate boxes. They were often scenes of the English countryside depicting charming cottages with little girls adorned in pretty dresses dancing happily with their pets. Now the term chocolate-box art is more of a judgemental and derogatory expression. The decriers call these works over-sentimental and kitsch and yet, at the time, they were very popular, albeit in recent years they have fallen slightly out of favour.
Alfred Robert Quinton was born in Peckham, London on October 23rd 1853. He was the youngest of seven children, the fifth son of John Allan Quinton and Eliza Quinton (née Cullum). His parents came from the county of Suffolk. John Quinton was from Needham Market and his wife, whom he married in 1840, was from Ipswich. John and Eliza Quinton moved from Suffolk to 5 Ellington Terrace, Islington, London in 1850. John Quinton, a printer, editor of periodicals, and supporter of the Liberals, was staunch Congregationalist and worked for the Religious Tract Society, an organisation which published Christian literature intended originally for evangelism, but also incorporated literature aimed at children, women, and the poor. John eventually became editor of titles such as The Boys’ Own Paper, The Girls’ Own Paper and The Sunday at Home. Alfred was influenced by his father, who lived to be eighty-eight, and was a regular Congregational Church attender and supporter of the Liberal Party.
Alfred attended the Hornsey School in North London and excelled in art. He was a hard working pupil and when he was fourteen years old, received a book prize for his hard work, entitled Drawing From Nature. A Series of Progressive Instructions in Sketching To Which are Appended Lectures on Art Delivered at Rugby School. It was to be one of his favourite possessions and an inspiration to him on his artistic journey.
Alfred left school and went to study at Heatherley’s Art School, which boasted Burne Jones, Rossetti, Millais, Lord Leighton, and Walter Sickert amongst its former students. From there Alfred became an apprentice engraver but soon decided to concentrate on becoming a professional artist. Initially Quinton worked in oils but his last-known work in that medium is dated 1885. From then on he concentrated on watercolour painting and black and white drawings. He exhibited his work at many London galleries and exhibited a large painting, Above Wharfedale, Yorkshire at the Imperial Jubilee Exhibition in Liverpool on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In 1879 his watercolour work, At Gomshall, Surrey was his first work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Although Quinton was not a member of the Academy, his paintings were seen there on a regular basis, in fact, he had twenty works of art exhibited on the walls of the Academy between 1879 and 1919. Later however, his work was banned by the Royal Academy because they disapproved of what they termed, his ‘commercialisation’ of art. Quinton also exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society, which later became the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Quinton’s original London studio was in Bolt Court, Fleet Street but in 1880 he moved to a studio in New Court, Lincoln’s Inn which he shared with a contemporary of his, the artist Henry Bailey.
Alfred Quinton regularly travelled throughout Europe in the early 1880’s. His favourite foreign trips were his sea voyages to Spain and the coastal town of Malaga and it was during one of his return trips home from the Spanish port that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Annie Crompton. The couple married at Bolton, Lancashire on May 20th, 1885. He was thirty-two and she was twenty-seven years of age. The couple went to live with Quinton’s parents who had a house in Finchley, London and they stayed there until his mother died in 1886. That year, on March 5th 1886, their son Leonard was born at Hampstead, London. A second son, Edgar, was born in 1891. Sadly, Edgar, who suffered from heart problems, died aged twenty-one, in 1912.
Quinton had a routine for each year. He would go off on his travels for three months during the summer and during this time would make hundreds of sketches and took and bought photographs of the places he visited, and then settle down at home to convert the sketches into paintings during the autumn and winter months. Quinton’s paintings were very popular and sales of them allowed him to purchase Westfield, a large eleven-roomed house with its own studio in Finchley, which, at the time, sat alone among the fields in the countryside. This home remained in the family until 1974, forty years after Alfred Quinton’s death.
Not only did Quinton sketch during his summer journeys but he also kept a diary of his travels in England and Europe and these would be published in articles with accompanying illustrations by him. One such journey happened between May and October 1895 when he and his cycling companion, thought to be his artist friend, Henry Bailey, travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats and this mammoth cycling trip was serialised in the journal, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Of the long journey, Quinton wrote:
“…Our idea was to tour leisurely from end to end, to enjoy varied scenery which our native land presents in such variety to those who care to see it and to study the life and character which we might meet with on the road…”
This was just one of the many he completed during his lifetime and was typical of the Victorians desire to travel.
The well-known English historian and a prolific author, Peter Hempson Ditchfield (P.H. Ditchfield) wrote a book The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England in 1912 and Quinton provided seventy-one illustrations for it. Quinton recalled the collaboration fondly:
“…We have explored together some of the quaint nooks and corners, the highways and byways, of old England, and with the pen and brush described them as they are at the present time. We have visited the peasant in the wayside cottage…..entered the old village shop, and even taken our ease at an inn…”
He provided illustrations for other books and magazines including a set of illustrations featuring the Wye Valley and Wharfedale in 1902 for the Art Journal. One of his most prestigious collaborations was his fifty-nine illustrations for Hilaire Belloc’s 1907 book The Historic Thames, which is considered a minor classic during the early part of the twentieth century.
The illustrations included views of Lambeth Place, Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle and it took Quinton the summers of 1905 and 1906 to complete the illustrations, many of which were exhibited at the Suffolk Street Gallery which was the home of the Royal Society of British Artists. Two of the paintings on display were purchased by The Duke and Duchess of York for their private collection.
During the 1870’s and 1880’s Quinton struggled to sell his paintings, achieving a top price of fifteen guineas if he was lucky. But his fortunes changed by the early twentieth century and by 1920 his large 4 x 5ft works were fetching around one hundred guineas. In the early days of his career, most of his money came from book and booklet illustrations, but during the late 1890’s and the early 1900’s when he became a recognised landscape painter his paintings began to sell well
The postcard publisher Raphael Tuck began to produce images from Quinton’s watercolours in a series called Village Crosses.
However Quinton’s main outlet for his work came from Joseph Salmon, the Kent printer and art publisher who founded and owned J Salmon Limited. Joseph Salmon, who had a personal interest in photography, had begun to publish black and white reproductions of photographs of the Sevenoaks neighbourhood in Kent as postcards. By the end of 1903 Salmon decided that picture postcards reproduced from paintings would be the way forward and he commissioned local artists to paint pictures of their local area.
Around 1911 Joseph Salmon visited the Selfridges Store in London and visited its art department where he noticed an art display featuring watercolour paintings of cottages and countryside scenes mainly of the Worcestershire area. The signature on all the works was A R Quinton. Salmon bought six of the watercolours and arranged with Quinton to have the copyright of the works and then had them reproduced as postcards. They proved a great success and it was to be the start of a collaboration between artist Quinton and printer J. Salmon which would last until Quinton’s death in 1934.
Quinton was a prolific painter. In 1924, he completed one hundred and forty-three paintings which were delivered to J. Salmon for reproducing as postcards. Even in the last year of his life he managed to complete forty-seven commissioned works and one, an unfinished work, was on the easel where he had left it, the day before he died. His total artistic output was approximately two thousand watercolour paintings for Salmon postcards. For Quinton it was a lucrative association with Salmon as up until November 1922 he received four pounds for each painting, then his fee increased to five guineas per work. The artistic genius of Alfred Quinton was his ability to capture the flavour and colour of English rural life at the turn of the century. In his paintings, he was able to combine accuracy with an impression of rural peace and harmony which made his work so popular with the public. He was in love with the English countryside.
Alfred died at his beloved Finchley home, Westfield, on 10 December 1934, aged 81. His wife Elizabeth died ten years after her husband on February 16th 1945. She was 86. Their eldest son Leonard died on January 14th 1981.
Why was his work so popular? It is probably the nostalgia of the carefree days spent in the countryside, away from the fast paced towns and cities. P.H. Ditchfield, the author, whom Quinton collaborated in 1904 and 1912 summed it up, writing:
“…Agitators are eager to pull down our old cottages and erect new ones which lack all the grace and charm of our old-fashioned dwellings. It is well to catch a glimpse of rural England before the transformation comes, and to preserve a record of the beauties that for a time remain…”