Henry Bright

(1810 or 1814 - 21 September 1873)

Landscape-painter, educated as a physician, but soon relinquished a profession uncongenial to him for the study of art. Settled in London at an early age, became a member of the Institute of Painters in Water-Colors, and also painted in oil. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845. His "Entrance to an Old Prussian Lawn, -- Winter" painted in 1844, was purchased by the Queen, who is the possessor of several of his earlier works. He exhibited but rarely at the Royal Academy in the later years of his life, -- in 1869, "The Ray after the Storm"; in 1871, "Battle of the Frogs and Mice."

"The subjects of Mr. Bright's pictures are very varied, but his manner of treating all shows great originality and a high degree of self-possession, while his manipulation is broad and masterly, and his coloring rich and deep. With us his most attractive subjects are the banks of a stream or a river. His snow-scenes also are most skillfully and faithfully represented." -- Art Journal, November, 1873. [Artists of the Nineteenth Century & their Works, Clara Erskine Clement & Laurence Hutton, 1879.]

Henry Bright was born at Saxmundham, Suffolk, in 1814. He was at first apprenticed to a chemist at Woodbridge, and afterwards became dispenser in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Here, having fallen in with John Bemay Crome, Cotman, and others of the Norwich School, he threw up his appointment, and entering on art as a profession, went to London, where he was soon after elected a member of the New Society (now called the Institute) of Water-Colour Painters, and became acquainted with some of the then leading artists -- Stanfield, David Cox, Prout -- and other celebrated men. He painted in oil as well as water-colours, exhibiting in the former medium for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1845. His pictures display great breadth and richness of colour, especially those depicting the banks of rivers. His snow scenes, of which he executed several, are very carefully painted. He died at Ipswich in 1873. [Bryan's Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, 1903]

Henry Bright; water-colour painter, born at Saxmundham in 1814, and though he early showed a talent for art, was apprenticed to a chemist and druggist, and afterwards became dispenser to the Norwich Hospital. Here a self-taught student from nature, he found time to improve himself in art, and to gain a place on the walls of the London exhibitions. In 1839, he was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Water-Colours, and in this year, in 1841, and 1844, contributed to its exhibitions. He then seceded from the Institution, and from that time to 1850, was an exhibitor of landscapes in oil to the Royal Academy Exhibitions. Painting the passing effects of nature, his art was bold and vigorous, his skies full of feeling and beauty. After a career of above 20 years in the Metropolis, his health failing, he retired to Ipswich, where he died. He has been classed as of the Norwich School. [A dictionary of artists of the English school: painters, Samuel Redgrave, 1878]

The period intervening between Henry Wright's death and the present day has been marked by scattered attempts to recall his claims to remembrance. The 1910 Winter Exhibition at Burlington House, to which was lent the Earl of Wemyss's beautiful "St. Benet's Abbey, Norfolk," is still fresh in mind, as also are the important collections placed on view at Walker's Galleries in 1911, affording practically unique opportunities for the London public to judge Bright, not only by his oils, but also by selected examples of his pastels, water-colours and pencil drawings.

A discerning writer who, when penning Bright's obituary in The Art Journal, observed of the artist's remaining works that "collectors will do well to secure some one, or more of these desirable examples," is now being amply justified in his advice. Although Bright achieved a high popularity during his life, his pictures are now commencing to be held in that more lasting esteem which, based on matured and unbiassed judgment, must inevitably gain him an assured niche with the great masters of the Norwich school.

If Bright was of Norfolk by tuition, he was of Suffolk by birth, his first breath being drawn at Saxmundham in either 1810 or 1814. The baptismal registers of the parish church are silent on the question; no instance of the name occurs in them between 1805 and 1820. This is not to be wondered at, however, as the Brights were Independents. They attended the old chapel at Kendham, three miles from Saxmundham, and owned a vault in its graveyard.*

[*The Bright vault at Rendham is so deeply embedded in ivy as to render any inscriptions illegible. The Congregational Minister, the Rev. Alfred J. Basden, has very courteously provided me with extracts from the registers recording the following burials: Ellen Maria, infant daughter of Denny Bright, of Saxmundham, 3rd April, 1839; Miss Jane Bright, 1846; "Mr. Bright," 1846; "Mrs. Bright, of Saxmundham," 22nd January, 1847; Jerome Denny Bright, of Saxmundham, 21st April, 1871 (son of Jerome and Susan, born 9th March, 1793, died 14th April, 1871, in 79th year); "Jane Bright was interred in the family vault, 12th July, 1376."]

The early registers of the chapel, now in Somerset House, contain numerous references to the family, but, unfortunately, the most important is undated, simply stating that "Henry Bright, the son of Jerome and Susan Bright, of the parish of Saxmundham, was born." This entry is sandwiched between others of 1811 and 1812 respectively, but the compilation of the register is extremely erratic, and 1810 may have been intended. Jerome Bright had several children, but I did not notice any younger than Henry, whereas some were born so long previous to him as the 1790's. On the other hand, Henry Bright's age at death (1873) was published as 59, and this is supported by the statement of the artist's grandson, Mr. J. H. C. Millar, who has always understood that the birth took place in the year before Waterloo. According to the artist's niece, now approaching her nineties, Henry Bright's father was "a high-class Jeweller and Lapidary at Saxmundham." A more general reference to his antecedents appears in Add. M.S. 19120 (Davy's Suffolk Collections, Vol. XLIV.): "He was, I believe, of Saxmundham formerly, where the family has been long established as tradesmen."

Bright's early years did not lack romance. An early inclination towards an artistic profession received small encouragement from his father, who apprenticed him to a Woodbridge chemist. Thence the lad went to Norwich, where, after entering Paul Squire's shop, he became a dispenser at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. The change of locale proved auspicious, since it brought him in contact with the painters of the Norwich School, and it was not long before his inherent talent was perceived and fostered. The mentors of his novitiate were "Young" Crome and John Sell Cotman, to whom and especially to the latter Bright owed the development of that breadth of conception and directness of treatment which ripened into being his most prominent qualities. That he had always possessed them to a large degree can hardly be doubted. There are in existence numbers of sketches by him bearing all the impress of magnificent draughtsmanship. Even when one has glanced at their dates, it is difficult to believe that some of them were produced by a youth barely twenty years of age. Mr. Walker has more than one such early masterpiece in his varied collection.

The country in the midst of which Bright was living played a part in influencing his aesthetic appreciation of the picturesque. Crumbling abbey ruins, tottering gabled houses, crazy derelict mills, all served as points of interest in the atmospheric landscapes he loved to draw. A less ambitious spirit might have rested content among such sympathetic surroundings, but Bright was made of sterner stuff. Art's luring lantern hovered constantly before him, and, in the end, his footsteps followed it to London.

Bright's public career commenced in 1836, when his debut at the British Institution laid the first foundation of success. He was then settled at 12, Spring Terrace, Paddington Green, whence his work was "sent in" for some years. Having established headquarters in the metropolis, he courted inspiration by tours not only in England, Scotland and Wales, but also on the continent. In the course of one of these trips he struck up a friendship with J. M. W. Turner. Mr. Millar thinks that Bright travelled in Turner's company on certainly two, and possibly more of these sketching excursions. He recounts a story which enables one to visualise a characteristic incident of the great academician routing the Norwich man, grumbling, from a warm bed in order to see the sunrise from some Swiss peak. Ruskin, Turner's prophet, more than once expressed his esteem of Bright's work. A pencil sketch by Bright of "A Cottage in Arran," in Mr. Millar's possession, was so much admired by the author of "Modern Painters," that it is known to the family as "The Ruskin Cottage." I am tempted to dwell on Mr. Millar's reminiscences, since although but of tender years when his grandfather passed away, he has inherited a fund of anecdote from his mother who, in addition to being Bright's eldest daughter, was his constant companion. Her mother dying when she was about nine years old, Mrs. Millar was thrown into the closest contact with her bereaved parent. Until her marriage, she accompanied him on several sketching excursions, meeting many noted artists by the way. Bright's list of acquaintance was varied, including Samuel Prout, David Cox, George Lance, Collingwood Smith, Leitch, Henry Jutsum (a very great friend), and J. D. Harding, who eventually handed over to him a class of pupils which Bright augmented until it boasted scores of members, nearly all belonging to titled houses. This section of his profession is estimated to have meant as much as 2,000 per annum to Bright at one portion of his career. An offshoot of the same branch is observable in the instructional copies which he issued. "Bright's advanced Drawing Book, adapted for the Pencilling Tints," 15" x 11", six numbers (2/- each), and "Bright's Graduated Tint Studies," 15" x 11", 24 plates (1/- each), were examples published by Messrs. George Rowney & Co.

In 1839, Bright was elected to the New Society of Painters in Water- Colours (now the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours). The following was a "bumper" year as regards exhibited works, no fewer than 15 scenes, many of them records of his continental travels, going to the New Society alone. The impulse proved its own numerical exhaustion, and was never repeated on a similar scale. It is probable, however, that Bright had decided to conserve his energies towards the mastery of oil-technique, but it was not until 1843 that he gained the verdict of the Royal Academy authorities. In 1843, he was residing at 12, Park Place Terrace, Paddington, this being the year before he resigned his membership of the New Society. Park Place Terrace did not keep him long, since the 1845 catalogues locate him at Dudley Villa, Paddington Green. This year Bright received the ever-signal compliment of being bought by a brother brush, his "On the River Yare" being chosen by Clarkson Stanfield, with whom he cherished a friendship ever after. This was not the first important recognition received by Bright. Queen Victoria had purchased his "Entrance to an old Prussian Town," in the New Society's show of 1844, and is also said to have collected other examples of his art.

Between 1848 and 1849, Bright removed to Grove Cottage, Ealing. During the period so far covered one can picture the artist setting out on sketching tours or staying at Brodrick Castle, where he once carried the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia on his back across a swollen stream. The Grand Duchess was one of his patrons; she gave him several commissions, particulars of which are extant in one of his sketch books, but unfortunately the execution of some of these was delayed by the Crimean War.

The remaining years of the artist's life present difficulties to the biographer. His track becomes overlaid by that of another H. Bright, possessing no nearer connection than a coincidental similarity of name. In 1875 and 1876 this secondary Bright was to be found at Long Ditton; between then and the eighties the name reappears at Thames Ditton.

The subject of this memoir was certainly living at Haling in 1850. Mr. Dickes (in "The Norwich School of Painting") keeps him there until 1869, when the Windham Club was cited as the place to which enquiries might be directed. In this case, the two pictures hung at the Society of British Artists in 1867 and 1868 may have been by his namesake. It has been asserted in the above-mentioned book that it was the Norwich man who went to live at Vine Cottage, Kennington Oval (in 1870-1). "The Annual Register" (1873) assures us that Bright "retired about five years ago, incapacitated by illness, to Ipswich," where he died on September 21st, 1873.

It must remain to be noted that a Henry Barnabas Bright, of Vine Cottage, Kennington Oval, deceased three years later.

Although "the brilliant genius, Bright "as Major Haldane Macfall unhesitatingly styles him in the eighth volume of his "History of Painting" has been dubbed the "last of the Norwich School," and certainly ranks with the last great artists produced in that brilliant procession, he was survived actually by several members of the body. His capabilities brought him into collaboration with many contemporaries. Amongst these must be included his companion, Thomas Lound, in an "Ely Cathedral, Sunset "[The Norwich School of Painting]; J. J. Hill in "The Cabin Door"; Armfield in "The Dying Stag, Glencoe"; J. F. Herring in "Cattle Drovers and Deer Stalkers Meeting"; T. Faed in a "View in the Tyrol"; H. B. Willis in a "Landscape with Cattle"; and Herring and Baxter in "Cavaliers with Horse and Ladies."

It will be conceded that Bright's claim to recognition is based, not on these, but on his more personal work. An adept with the brush, he produced some superb landscapes in oils, dignified by sympathetic observation, by direct handling and by sweet coloration. His pastels and water-colours, by which he is best known at Walker's Galleries, seldom failed either in tenderness or harmony. Their constituents were peculiarly adapted to the technical capabilities of a man with a swift perception of changing chords in the chromatic scale of nature, which he noted down with an assured facility surpassing comment. He was emphatically a stupendous draughtsman, and it is amazing to note how level was the balance of his mind between drawing and colour. In considering his drawings, count must be taken of the sketches in pencil and charcoal which he turned out so lavishly. Bright roamed the earth with an avid eye for quaint cottage corners, picturesque tree forms or glimpses of wild moorland scenery. These random jottings form important witnesses to his dexterity; they contain no line without its meaning, no tentative fumblings after effects. There were few men better qualified than he to belong to a body with a title like the Graphic Society, of which he was at one time a member. It is not within the province of this "Quarterly" to act as a Catalogue Raisonee, else I should have dwelt upon such masterpieces as the beautiful "Shrimper" pastel in the British Museum, or the "Effect after Rain" oil at Norwich. In lieu, I give a list of the works which he exhibited at London galleries, supplemented by some references to those which are doubtful or which seem likely to have emanated from another hand.

The compilation of even so short a memoir has been attended by considerable labour, lightened by the kindnesses of many art lovers. I must acknowledge special gratitude to Mr. Augustus Walker for his unremitting aid and the opportunities he has provided for me to make close examinations of the "Brights" in his galleries. Mr. J. H. C. Millar, in addition to valuable information, provided the photograph of Bright reproduced in this brochure - Other relatives of the artist who have come forward with assistance are Mr. Alexander Denny (nephew), Mr. George Bright Ashford (a great nephew), and Mr. Denny Bright. The Rev. Frederick Gonway, Rector of Saxmundham, has been most courteous in the matter of registers, whilst Mr. Sam Dale, of the same place, the Rev. Arthur Platts, the Rev. A. J. Basden, Mr. Leonard Calvert, Mr. Frank Leney (Curator of the Norwich Castle Museum), Messrs. Geo. Rowney & Co., Mr. Henry Ogle, F.L.A. (Librarian of the Ipswich Central Library), Mr. R. A. Coates, Mr. John Booth, late of the "East Anglian Daily Times," and many more have given help in various matters. The printed works which have been consulted are too numerous to specify in extenso, but "The Norwich School of Painting" by W. F. Dickes (Jarrold & Sons), and Mr. Algernon Graves's monumental series of reference books have my homage. © Henry Bright of the Norwich School, By Frederic Gordon Roe.