The family of the "Moonlight Pethers"

Henry Pether, (5 March 1800 - 1865), (f. 1828-1865) was an English landscape painter, the son of Abraham Pether (1756-1812) and brother of Sebastian Pether (1790-1844). All were known for their skill in portraying moonlit scenes. His father's cousin, William Pether (1738-1821), was a well-known engraver. He exhibited 7 paintings at the Royal Academy (1812 to 1862), 1 painting of Venice at the British Insitution, and 3 paintings at the Royal Society of British Artists. He painted views of London, the English countryside and Venice. The work of Pether is represented in Tate Britain, London, and the Museum of London.

The family of the "Moonlight Pethers", landscape painters of note in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Helen was the seventh child of Abraham Pether, former vice-president of the Society of Artists, a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy and its precursors the incorporated Society of Artists and the Free Society of Artists and cousin of William Pether, perhaps the most renowned mezzotint engraver of the late eighteenth century. Helen was born on 6 March 1805, (privately baptized at St Michael's church the following month), the first of Abraham's children to be born in Southampton after the family had moved from Chelsea. Two of her brothers - Sebastian (born 1790) and (grandson*) Henry Pether (born 15 March 1800 and baptized in All Saints church on 15 March 1812) - followed their father as landscape painters specialising in moonlight scenery. It is generally accepted that Henry was by far the most talented and capable artist. His work has a security in terms of composition, control of detail, atmosphere and colouring which is greatly superior to his father and brother. It may have been this connection that led Thomas Henry - himself as was later proved an artist of considerable talent - to diversify into the art world, and particularly into lithography.

An advertisement in the Hampshire Advertiser, 12 June 1830, listed the services he offered from 180 High Street: lithography in all its branches executed; stones and all materials Southampton Local History Forum Journal furnished; oil paintings, water colour drawings and prints cleaned and repaired or bought or sold on commission; framing and varnishing for paintings, prints, etc; prints of Southampton, the Isle of Wight and neighbourhood constantly on sale.

An 1830 trade card describes him as "lithographic draughtsman and printer". A short-lived but productive collaboration in 1830 between T. H. Skelton as lithographer, printer and publisher and his artist brother-in-law, Henry Pether spawned arguably the finest engravings to be published of early/mid-nineteenth century Southampton.

These included commercially viable prints of the
"Assembly Rooms" [aliter the Long Rooms], the
"Royal Victoria Archery Grounds and Assembly Rooms", the
"Custom House on Town Quay", the
"French Protestant Church" ("Maison-Dieu"), the
"West Gate and St. Michael's Church".

It was a partnership born out of necessity. Thomas had just emerged from bankruptcy and the Pether family had yet to recover from their destitution following the death of Abraham leaving a widow and nine children dependent on public charity.

Southampton Local History Forum, sponsored by Southampton Library Service.

Abraham Pether was born at Chichester, where he was a pupil of George Smith, one of the three brother landscapists of that town in the mid-18th century. He derived much of his early style from Smith, whose influence is discernible until the late 1790’s, but he also progressed his art by a careful observation of the romanticism of Richard Wilson RA..

He later travelled through the north of England and painted numerous views in Yorkshire. From at least 1784, he developed an increasing interest in the painting of crepuscular and night scenes, to the extent he was christened with the sobriquet “Moonlight Pether”. His son Sebastian (1790-1844) and *grandson Henry (fl. 1828-1865) continued the family tradition of nocturnal scenes, but neither approached him for quality of execution. His cousin was the distinguished engraver William Pether (b. Carlisle 1738; d Bristol 1821). Pether was also renowned for his interest in the empirical sciences, and experimented in the novel field of electricity as well as astronomy.

Sebastian Pether

March 18. At York Cottage, Battersea Fields, aged 54, Painter of‘ Moonlight Scenery.

The subject of this brief memoir was the eldest son of Abraham Pether, one of the original Society of Artists, out of which arose the present Royal Academy, of which, however, he was not a member. He is usually designated by connoisseurs and dealers as “ old Pether." His works are not numerous : they consist, principally, of firelights, moonlights, and sunsets, and exhibit fine feeling and judgment, with admirable harmony of colour.

Sebastian married young — "too young and too poor;" a large family followed rapidly; in the course of a few years he found himself struggling to maintain a wife and nine children by the sole produce of his pencil. Thus circumstanced, opportunities for developing his talents were very few; and he had no chances of properly exhibiting them. As a matter of course he soon fell into the hands of those barpies — the dealers. When once they had obtained power over him they took care to retain it: he was their victim all through life. Under their sole guardianship be continued to “work, work." The eye of atronage never found him out. The only "patron" he ever had was Lord De Tably, who commissioned him, but not wisely — to paint a picture quite out of his line, the subject being a caravan overtaken by awhirlwind. This, and some occasional employment in painting birds, was, we are told, the whole of his “help" apart from “the dealers.”

In the spring of 1842, by the assistance of a picture-frame maker, he was enabled to paint three pictures, which he intended for exhibition, and they were sent to the Royal Academy for the purpose: the whole were rejected. It occasioned him deep despondency and great mortification. The reason he imagined to have been the enormous size and depth of the frames furnished by the person in whose hands he was placed by his necessities.

During his career as an artist, although his works always ensured a ready sale, yet the low prices given by traders proved too small for the wants of so numerous a family; and he passed a life, short, indeed, but full of the most painful privations that any man ever endured. He had received a good education, which be continually cultivated, the bent of his mind being the mechanical arts: he first suggested the idea and construction of the stomach-pump to a surgeon, Mr. Jokes, who introduced it to the medical profession.

His illness (of an inflammatory attack) was very brief; and death perhaps found his work more than half achieved by the previous assaults of adversity and domestic trouble. During the three last years of his life he lost three grown-up children by consumption; and, since the demise of the father, another son died in the Westminster Hospital of lockjaw, occasioned by an accident to the hand. The eldest son now living, William, is an artist in mosaic. A younger brother of Sebastian, Henry Pether, exhibits several designs of considerable ability at the Exhibition of Decorative Works.

A subscription has been opened to help his surviving family out of their terrible state of distress — the appeal of their friends is the more touching, and will come home the more to the hearts of those who read it, inasmuch as it asks a fund to enable one good member of the family to procure tools and materials by which he might contribute to the support of the rest. Subscriptions are received by the Editor of the Art Union, from which publication the present article has been abridged.

The Gentleman's Magazine, Volumes 176-177, F. Jefferies, 1844.

View painter's work: Pether, Henry (1828-1865) [new window view]