Artist profile - Wynford Dewhurst
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 August 2019
Peter Seddon explores the life and work of 'forgotten' British artist Wynford Dewhurst
The smallest monument to a life can harbour the most interesting story. In St Wystan's Churchyard at Repton a modest tablet bears a stark inscription: 'In loving memory of Wynford Dewhurst of London. Died July 9th 1941 aged 77 years.'
That it should honour a life closely intertwined with celebrated French impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) seems improbable. Yet such is the case, for Wynford Dewhurst (1864-1941) was a leading character on the Anglo-French art scene at the turn of the 20th century. A self-declared disciple of his hero Monet - even perhaps a rival - his remarkable life is well worth knowing.
Wynford Dewhurst was born Thomas William Smith on 26th January 1864, the third of seven children of James Robert Allen Smith and Ellen Dewhurst, then living in Newton Heath on the industrial fringe of Manchester. By the time young Thomas was six the family was living in the upcoming suburb of Heaton Moor to the south-east of Manchester, a move enabled by his father's self-made success in business and property.
Thus transplanted from industrial grime to leafy confines, Thomas was early exposed to the beauty of the great outdoors which he would later capture on canvas with such accomplishment.
Thomas (later to change his name to the more flamboyant Wynford Dewhurst) was first tutored at home, and then sent to Mintholme College, a private school near Preston. His father had aspirations for his eldest son to enter a profession and arranged for him to be articled to a Manchester firm of solicitors.
But the spirited young man envisaged a less traditional path. He enjoyed sketching and painting in watercolour and began submitting his work to local magazines and journals. After initial success he widened his scope and had drawings published in national journals.
Following a short spell at Manchester School of Art he took a bold decision. In 1891 at the relatively advanced age of 27 he went to Paris to train in the École des Beaux-Arts. Finding his tutor there quite conservative, he later moved to more progressive ateliers willing to embrace newer trends.
In Paris he became quickly attracted to Impressionism and landscape, making frequent journeys into the rural hinterland. Perhaps vestiges of his contrasting boyhood emerged in this choice, for he later wrote: 'My predilections led me to choose landscape painting as the best means of expressing my pent-up aesthetic emotions. I loved the open air and countryside. With equal intensity I abhorred city life and its concomitants. I must also have been born with an irrepressible love for brilliant colours, which has certainly moulded my style'.
In 1894 at the start of his final year of training in Paris, Thomas William Smith, then aged 30, symbolically signalled his commitment to consider himself 'an artist' - changing his name by deed poll to Wynford Dewhurst. His life's path thereafter followed his long-desired course.
His personal life too was forged at that time. In 1895 soon after completing his formal art training he married German aristocrat Antonia von Bulow, a fellow art student twelve years his junior. After initially living in a Paris apartment the couple moved close to Dieppe where Wynford found inspiration in the Normandy countryside and the nearby Seine valley. He was to spend a large part of his working life in France, and 80 per cent of his output was produced there.
The first three of the couple's six children were born in France but by 1900 the family had settled back in England, living in some comfort near Leighton Buzzard on the Bedfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. Although Wynford thereafter considered England his primary base, he would return regularly to France to paint in the style of Monet, who he considered his principal mentor.
Helped by his wife's considerable means the couple initially prospered, but in 1917 Dewhurst lost a fortune when his Russian railway bonds crashed during the Bolshevik revolution. This put the artist under increased financial pressure.
Blessedly his work was well received - although his achieved prices remained quite modest. He exhibited regularly at London galleries and between 1914 and 1926 at the Royal Academy.
By and large he painted 'happy' colourful unstuffy pictures which made him popular beyond the confines of academia. In 1908 he won a gold medal for the best landscape in oil at the first Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in London.
Two years later the Daily Express added to the plaudits: 'Nothing could be more delightful on a cold, dreary day than Mr Wynford Dewhurst's landscapes imbued with sunlight… he paints with rare distinction in the manner of the French impressionists.'
Yet in personality he spurned the Bohemian lifestyle pursued by many of his contemporaries, especially those seduced by the hedonistic offerings of Paris. For this he was sometimes labelled censorious or puritanical. One art critic referred to his 'dominating personality' and 'vehement individuality'. But Dewhurst was simply his own man - perversely 'rebellious' for being conventional. In a lecture 'Student Days in Paris' given in Manchester in 1908 he elucidated his values without holding back: 'Long hair, big hats, greasy garments, and dirty morals count for nothing in art. Avoid the pitfalls of shameful and ridiculous escapades which sap and hamper ones energies. Be clean in mind, body and attire.'
Clearly Dewhurst was no fence-sitter, a trait further borne out in his extensive writings on art which he commenced around 1900. His forthright articles sometimes provoked barely disguised outrage. In 1903 shortly before his death the Danish-French impressionist Camille Pissarro wrote: 'This Mr Dewhurst knows nothing of the Impressionist movement… Mr Dewhurst has his nerve.'
Dewhurst's lasting reputation as a notable art theorist was cemented by the publication in 1904 of his seminal volume Impressionist Painting, Its Genesis and Development - the first English language book to address Impressionism in detail. In it he made many claims, the most controversial being that essentially it was British artists such as J M W Turner and John Constable who had 'invented' Impressionism in its embryo form, and that the French masters 'merely followed'.
The history of any art movement is inherently complex with multiple crossovers, but Dewhurst's fundamental assertion was bound to make waves. As a consequence some critics in both England and across the Channel accused him of 'disliking the French' - this simply wasn't true.
In fact he was an ardent Francophile who loved both the country and its people. His constant return visits there and written testimony clearly bear this out. This sentiment was generally reciprocal - Dewhurst received a number of prestigious honours from the French government and was once asked by the civic fathers of a village where he often painted to become its Mayor, an honour he declined.
Not because of disdain for public duty, for during his decade at Leighton Buzzard he served on the Buckinghamshire County Council. When the family moved in 1909 to Tunbridge Wells, Kent, he received a glowing send-off in the Bedfordshire-Buckinghamshire press for his 'sterling, manly qualities' and 'assiduous approach to business.' A far cry from the lurid excesses of the Paris art scene - this steadiness in Dewhurst's character was what made him different... he bucked the trend.
By the 1920s the family had gravitated to Hampstead, London, and Dewhurst and his wife would spend their remaining years in the capital. As Wynford grew older he painted less, and arguably with diminished talent. His reputation gradually faded - in contrast to Monet whose celebrity mounted.
There remains a hint of poignancy in the fact that Dewhurst named one of his sons Claude after the celebrated artist whose orbit he had once shared - vestiges of a common ground in the face of diverging fortunes…almost hero-worship.
But the art world is ever shifting. In recent years Dewhurst has re-emerged as an artist of recognised merit. In 2016 the acclaimed exhibition 'Wynford Dewhurst - Manchester's Monet' was held at Manchester Art Gallery, accompanied by a beautifully-conceived book by art historian Roger Brown.
One pressing question remains. Why should 'Wynford Dewhurst of London' rest eternal in Derbyshire? A close family connection is the ready answer. In 1919 his eldest daughter Ottilie married Captain Alan Plumpton Wilson, freshly returned from the First World War and a master at Repton School. The couple still resided there in the 1940s when Wynford - then in declining health - came to Repton to stay with his daughter. He died in Burton Infirmary - 145 Belvedere Road now the site of Burton Hospital - on 9th July 1941, aged 77.
That Repton became his final resting place may have been a matter of expedience, but it is easy to imagine that Dewhurst might have assented. For a man who so loved the countryside it proved a fitting serendipity.
St Wystan's Church and the rusticity of its rural surrounds are idyllic in a way which impressionist artist Wynford Dewhurst would surely have appreciated - a tranquil haven for the modest gravestone of a British Impressionist painter of rare talent who deserves to be better known. u
With grateful thanks for the kind assistance and image permissions of Roger Brown whose lavishly-illustrated book Wynford Dewhurst - Manchester's Monet is published by Sansom and Company.