Edwin Ellis, 1842-1895

Ellis is a most interesting artist - and there is a very readable biography by Stephen Hickford[1], which is available on the web. A collection of Ellis’s works can be seen on the BBC Your Paintings website[2] and this provides plenty of evidence that his paintings are always rewarding and often remarkable[3].

Ellis was born in Nottingham. He started work as a draughtsman, for his family’s lace-making business which, in the late 1850s-early 1860s, was thriving. Probably at about the same time, he attended evening classes at what was then called the Government School of Design, in Nottingham. Like many mid-19th century, provincial art schools, this was intended to provide training for the local industries - and, in Nottingham, of course, that meant lace. Nevertheless, the education was generally wide-ranging and did ensure that students were well-equipped to do much more than draw lace patterns: accordingly, Ellis, in 1861, won a medal for a watercolour painting of a landscape, executed ‘from nature’.

Probably later in 1862, Ellis travelled to Paris. He could hardly have found a more interesting time to visit. It is now commonplace to record that when, in 1862, Edouard Manet exhibited Music in the Tuileries Gardens - a picture which shocked many contemporaries, with its cursory brushstrokes and crowded composition - it was clear that this painting was a herald of radical change. If we assume that Ellis saw the painting (and it caused enough of a stir to ensure that most young men would go to see what the fuss was about), the difference between what he found and the miracles of intricacy and martial repetition that he was producing for Nottingham lace, must have been both shocking and exhilarating, probably in equal measure. From this date, Ellis embarked on a career as an artist. Accordingly, in 1865, he exhibited a view of Loch Lomond, in Nottingham and, in 1867, we find him living in London.

From the 1870s, Ellis was exhibiting at the RA., but his attachment to the SBA (Society of British Artists) – which was regarded, at this time, as somewhat more adventurous than the RA – can be read, perhaps, as a sign of his ambition. He continued to focus on the landscape and the sea. Increasingly, these paintings were peopled with busy figures: field workers, peat gatherers, crabbers, fishermen and -women. In both oil paintings and watercolour, one has the sense that Ellis was deliberately investing his pictures not just with a vigorous touch but also an interest in, even a commitment to, the lives of the rural poor.

In 1871 – a strikingly early date for painting out of doors, from nature, for a British artist – Ellis set off on what may have been his first painting tour, around the coast and villages of East Sussex. In the following year, there was another tour, this time to Guernsey.

Intriguingly, Ellis here met Victor Hugo. He seems to have been commissioned to paint the rooms in Hugo’s house on the island: this was a decade after Hugo had finally published Les Misérables, which had been followed, in 1866, by Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), dedicated to the people of Guernsey. Thus, when Ellis encountered the great man, he found someone who was profoundly critical of aristocratic or even bourgeois culture and drawn, instead, to the curiosities and miseries of the lives of those at the bottom of the heap.

Ellis continued his travels, through the 1870s and ‘80s: Northumberland, the south coast, North Wales, Yorkshire and even, in 1882, St Ives and Cornwall - he was amongst the first to appreciate this part of the country, which boasted busy fishing communities and a bright, translucent light. He also continued to exhibit, with increasing success, in London, including at the RA, the SBA and the Dudley Gallery, and also in Birmingham Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff and other big, provincial cities.

Ellis worked in both oil and watercolour and his attachment to painting the working poor, at sea or in the fields, persisted. As the 1880s wore on, however, the narrative – the political and social – implications of some of these pictures were replaced by a growing engagement with the weather, the sky, the changing light and atmosphere. Of perhaps even greater significance was Ellis’s enthusiasm for the stuff of paint itself: the colour, the deft mark, the audacious expressiveness of what some contemporaries described as the ‘attack’ of his brush.

This engagement with the intrinsic qualities of paint and composition may have been partly because of the shift towards what was neatly called, ‘art for art’s sake’ within the SBA. Driven by James McNeill Whistler, who joined the SBA in 1884 and was elected President in 1886, there was a profound rejection of narrative painting in favour of an art which was much more closely allied to the abstract compositional devices of musical notation[4]. Furthermore, it seems quite possible that Ellis became positively resistant to the work of some other contemporaries – Walter Langley, for example – who joined the artists’ colonies in Cornwall or Yorkshire and painted the lives of the beautiful – but piteous – poor. Ellis did not relish the meticulous watercolours which were characteristic of these artists and he probably rejected their implicit sentiment. Instead, he became increasingly bold and expressive. Indeed, in a review of his work, shown at the SBA in 1881, his painting is quite specifically associated with the French impressionists.

‘Mr Edwin Ellis, one of the most enterprising of these young artists, is here in great force. He is represented by six works, each of which contains some striking passages…. The largest and most important is called “Waiting for the Boats,” and shows the red brick wall of some old quay, such as might withstand the buffets of the North Sea in some little port of “Yorks” or Durham: a sandy beach with a couple of boat anchors and hawsers, and a few smacks hauled up under the shadow of the quay. In the distance, the long, low cabin of the coastguard is backed by a long spur from the inland hills, and the whole is bathed in the full light of the midday sun. Here audacity of colour is carried perhaps as far as it will go. Mr Ellis deals out unsparingly the purest of greens and blues, the most dazzling of reds and yellows.’[5]

Consistently, critics’ responses to Ellis’s paintings focused on their fresh, harmonious colour and the swift spontaneity of touch. It seems that, through the later 1880s, he also became increasingly preoccupied with creating bold, almost startling, compositions: spare, horizontal layers of land and sea, monumental expanses of rock and water dominating the foreground, explosions of water and wind, all executed with thick, impasto touches of oil paint or splashes of watercolour.

Though there was some cautiousness amongst the critics, this increasingly painterly and experimental approach did not, for a long time, undermine Ellis's considerable reputation. But, bankruptcy in 1887, followed by divorce in 1895, probably did.

Nevertheless, in 1893, his home town held a successful retrospective of his work in the Nottingham Castle Museum. Ellis was described as, ‘a brilliant colourist’, with a touch which was ‘broad and free’, dedicated to conveying the, ‘invigorating and exhilarating effects of the sea’.

‘The colouring is magnificent. There is no pettiness; it is all on the grand scale and firmness and decision mark every stroke of the pencil, every sweep of the brush. … the remarkable vigour of his work and mastery of his subject (is striking). … It is not many modern reputations, even of the front rank, that can withstand the test of a great one-man show’.[6]

Here is, indeed, an artist to be reckoned with.

© Dr. Hilary A. Taylor, 2013

[1] Stephen Hickford, Edwin Ellis, 1842-1895. A powerful painter of English coast scenes, 2012.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings.

[3] As Hickford notes, it is important to distinguish between Ellis the painter, and Edwin John Ellis, roughly his contemporary, but primarily a poet and a book illustrator. We have encountered confusion on more than one occasion when looking for Edwin Ellis’s work - even the big auction houses can get it wrong.

[4] In 1887, Whistler was able to obtain the prefix ‘Royal’ for the SBA but he also became increasingly autocratic. Ellis continued to exhibit at the RSBA at this time and, though he did not have a personal attachment to Whistler, it seems that he must have valued some of the theoretical debate which was current.

[5] Quoted by Stephen Hickford, from The Star newspaper on 21 April, 1881.

[6] Quoted by Stephen Hickford, from the Daily Express, 20th September, 1893.