Charles Allen Du Val

His life and works

Charles Allen Duval

[An anonymous article entitled CHARLES ALLEN DUVAL which appeared in 1857 in The Art Treasures Examiner at pages 189 to 191.]

Of the youthful training and first development of artistic power in the mind of our fellow-citizen, it is not our province to enter into any detail, since such will come more naturally from the pen of his future biographer.

It may not, however, be uninteresting to some of our young readers at least to bear a few particulars from one who knew him at a very early period, and who shared alike in the tasks and sports of his boyhood, enjoying his friendship up to the turning point of life when the illusions of schoolboy days begin to lose their brilliancy of colour, and watching with anxiety his after course, amid the rough realities with which the grown man must grapple, to conquer or be conquered, at his first advance on the battle-field of life.

From this source we hare been informed that, as is usually the case with minds of a self-educating tendency, the graver studies pressed upon the future artist were evidently distasteful to him, and he withdrew as often as possible, choosing at times the most out-of-the-way nooks (on several occasions a dog-house close under the study window) to feed his fancy with the glittering stanzas of Tasso or Ariosto. At other times the scholastic “crambe repetita” was avoided by perching high up among the thick foliage of a neighbouring tree, whilst his half-angry tutor was seeking him in more distant or more likely hiding places.

His chief instruction seemed to grow upon him in a manner peculiar to himself, his favourite study being the book of nature - the sublime and picturesque in all her varying aspects – while the great and chivalrous in human action presented themselves sometimes in the sententious language of history, but more frequently in the artificial colouring of poets. With a taste for desultory reading, he happily possessed a sort of intuitive faculty for rightly analysing, also a quick perception and equally rapid appreciation of the real and beautiful, as well as their opposites, wherever they appeared, and however artfully disguised or blended together; to this we may add a keen relish for the ludicrous, a fertile imagination, with a ready flow and felicitous choice of language, which gave point to many a boyish jest and sharp repartee, the first irregular scintillations of that playful and sometimes caustic wit which has ever since distinguished him.

We understand, from the same authority, that the spirit of adventure which urges so many of our youth to fling their fears away and their hopes on the ocean, took possession of the young artist, who, though vacillating at the time in his choice between the pencil and the pen, suddenly cast both to the ground, happily but for a short season, and embarked for St. Petersburg.

The stern schooling of the stormy Baltic must, it seems, hare been quite as objectionable as the tedious discipline of Alma Mater, for we find him again, in undecided and half-lazy way, approaching the Muses of painting and poetry. To the former, it would appear, he became more decidedly attached by the following circumstance. Being at one time in a remote country town in Ireland, the man in whose house he lodged, a sort of half farmer, half shopkeeper, seeing him engaged with sketches and drawings, brought him one day a miniature on ivory, and, in an anxious tone, said, “Perhaps you can do something for this unfortunate picture of my wife. It was dirty, you see, on one cheek; and thinking to clane it, I spit on my finger, and what do you think? but I wiped away the half of the dear woman's face." With a smile at the man's account of his mishap, the task of repairing the mischief was half-doubtingly undertaken by the young sketcher, who had hitherto never touched ivory with his pencil, nor seriously attempted a likeness. On examining carefully the uninjured part, however, he set to work, and restored the "dear woman," not to herself, indeed, for the new half proved to be so superior to the old, that it presented still but half a resemblance ; so, effacing the whole, he began de novo, and produced such a startling and nicely-painted likeness, that both husband and wife were in an ecstasy of delight, and rewarded their lodger with what they considered the munificent sum of half-a-guinea. On the history of his subsequent movements we shall not entrench, for, as we have said before, it is not so much his life as his professional career that we have to deal with - that career commencing when he first came amongst us, upwards of twenty years ago.

At that time he was a very young man, bringing with him as his only passport one letter of introduction. This letter was to Messrs. Agnew Zanetti (now Thomas Agnew and Sons), from which house he, in after years, received many large commissions, almost the first being a picture containing a hundred portraits of the leading Wesleyans in the United Kingdom, who met in Manchester to celebrate the Centenary of Methodism. Previously to this he had painted several subject pictures. One of them was the “Ruined Gamester" (boys playing marbles), which was bought by Mr. Dewhurst, at that time a printseller in Market-street, and was immediately engraved and published - became popular - was pirated upon children's pocket-handkerchiefs, and used by Punch as a political squib against the late Sir Robert Peel. An etching of it by his own hand, also appeared in the North of England Magazine, where it was accompanied by the following very able verses, illustrative of the subject, written, as we are informed, by the artist himself, he being an occasional contributor to that short-lived periodical :—


And art thou fleeced ! done up, and cast away !
To thee a sad and earnest thing is play,
For thou hast seen the ignis fatuus dance,
In thy young days, of all-bewildering chance,
A foretaste of the huge and wild turmoil.
Where men cheat, lie and swindle, sweat and toil,
Swear, fight, and wrangle, steep their souls in sin,
Things full as worthless as thy toys to win.
And art thou then of everyone bereft,
None of thy treasured, hoarded marbles left?
Well may’st thou wear upon thy dismal face
The stamp of ruin, blush of deep disgrace :
Where was the cunning of thy skilful aim ?
E'en inching could not save thee from this shame ;
Where was the sudden push, the jostle rude,
The hasty scramble and the angry feud ?

* * * * * * *

Yon ruined merchant once possessed a plum ;
Awed by his wealth, before him men stood dumb ;
His carriage rolled, his table groaned with plate,
His look shook markets, and his voice was fate !
But things are changed; the man's not worth a groat,
He stands alone, who once by crowds was sought.
Friends look upon him with unwilling eyes,
And those who cringed, as meanly now despise ;
In haste from scarcely opened doors he's turned,
With scornful hand by those whom once he spurned ;
His wealth has run like water through a sieve,
And he now begs who oft refused to give.

* * * * * * *
Where are thy horses and thy dogs, proud squire,
Thine acres, once the richest in the shire,
Thy liveried menials, and thy pictured walls,
Thy hunting dinners, and thy racing balls,
Thy morning “harkaway”, thy late carouse,
Thy pairing from, thy vote within “the House,”
Thy lady’s boudoir, and her opera box,
Italian sculpture, and Geneva clocks,
Thy house in town in some delightful square,
Thy girls’, – so snug – not very far from there!
Where are these things, so comme il faut, so nice ?
Gone – vanished by the magic of the dice.

* * * * * * *

See yonder shrivelled yellow piece of clay,
Who in a chair is wheeled from day to day ;
A rosy youth, he left his father-land,
To sell his liver on a foreign strand,
And now returns to leave some unknown heir
All that he gained for what he could not spare.

* * * * * * *

And thon, old warrior, now thy race is run,
Show us the glory many a risk has won ;
Boldly thou'st sought grim death—grim death is nigh,
And thou must meet him with but half an eye.
For that blue rag thou wear'st with so much pride,
Thy right sleeve dangles empty by thy side.
One leg, half wood, doth cause thee much to fret,
But—thou wert mentioned twice in the Gazette.
The limbs thou hast are racked with gnawing pain,
That medal, not worth half-a-crown, to gain ;
And “daily died” for thee thine anxious wife,
Whilst thou wert madly gaming for thy life.

* * * * * * *

With clammy brow, sunk cheek, and haggard eye,
Lies one, scarce fit to live, still less to die ;
Oft turns he on that weary bed of death,
Straining for rest, and gasping for a breath.
The vices he has crowded in a span
Would fill with sin the longest days of man.
The hour he thought so distant now has come,
And conscience thunders, that before was dumb.
Rise, strangely hideous, deeds which seemed of yore,
But pleasant frolics, “wild”, but nothing more.
His shrinking eyes already view the dead ;
The friend who for his worthless honour bled,
The cheated father, the deserted wife,
Repeat the hellish antics of his life ;
The pigeoned comrade asks him for his all ;
The gently girl, so pure before her fall,
Stands piteously, with shame upon her brow,
And tears, before unheeded, scald him now.
Gone are the days with idiot joy so rife,
Drunken with folly he has reeled through life.
And lo ! the end of all his crimes and lies,
The ruined Gamester “curses God," and dies !

We may observe here that we have seen specimens from the same pen, in which a poetic spirit of a very high order is evinced.

For the “Ruined Gamester," we are told, the artist received no more than £12, which so disgusted him with that branch of art that he turned his attention for many years exclusively to portraits. We have also heard that, in the early years of his struggle here, meeting with but small encouragement as a portrait painter, and with the claims of a family growing from day to day, he attempted furniture designs for calico printers, and made several under the kind directions and suggestions of Dan Lee, Esq., who, however, finding his designs impossible to print, and thinking his talent might lie in a higher direction, gave him his first commission for a life-size portrait in oil. This was a portrait of Mr. Lee's mother, and may be considered his starting point as a portrait painter. He soon became recognised as one who had the power of seizing upon character, and fixing it with fidelity in a likeness, and this was still more observable in the rapid chalk sketches of children - subjects in whom the expression is at all times difficult to catch, in consequence of their restlessness ; but in this, if we may judge from the number we have seen in various parts of the country, in Liverpool and London as well as here, he has ever been eminently successful. Amongst the portraits from his easel that have been engraved are those of some celebrated men. That of Daniel O'Connell, painted for Mr. Lee, was the first sized whole-length, and was executed under extreme difficulties, with only about two and a-half hours sitting from the original. As might expected, it is not a good picture, but it is a strong likeness. There are two portraits of Cobden, one a whole-length (life-size), now the property of Norman Wilkinson, Esq., of London. and the other a half-length, in the series of anti-corn-law worthies executed for Mr. Agnew - not those known as the League Picture, executed by Herbert, R.A., but the separate portraits. Amongst them are some very admirable likenesses, such as that of Colonel (now General, Thompson, Lord Radnor (the property of his lordship's family), Sir John Bowring, and John Fenton, Esq., of Crimble, for whom he afterwards painted a large whole-length, a good picture, and a good likeness. It was exhibited in Manchester and attracted very general admiration.

But painting portraits does not at any time seem to have satisfied his ambition. The early aspirations of his genius, so inauspiciously checked by the disappointment before alluded to, revived with more ardour than ever as he advanced in his career, until about seven or eight years ago - we do not exactly at what date - he painted "Luther Burning the Pope's Bull," a large work, upwards of 10 feet by 5 or 6. and with a great number of figures. The copyright was sold to Mr Agnew, who published an engraving of it by T. O. Barlow. The picture, we understand, is now the property of Mr. Threlfall. It was exhibited before it was completed, at Westminster Hall, at the great exhibition of Historical Pictures; afterwards in many of the principal towns in the kingdom. The grouping is good, the figure and face of Luther particularly successful, but the colour, upon the whole, somewhat heavy; nevertheless it showed a considerable advance beyond anything he had previously achieved, and may be regarded as the result of his study in the German galleries, whither he went after visiting Wittenberg, the scene of the Reformer's daring act.

His next work of importance was “Columbus in Chains," painted after a visit to the Paris galleries, and intended for the Paris Exhibition of 1855; but having been sent too late, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, where it was hung upon the line and kept its place with the most powerful pictures there. It was afterwards exhibited at the Royal Institution, Manchester, last year, and more recently at the Mechanics' Institution. It is the property of Mr. W. Bradley, of Cheetham Hill.

The next works of his are the two pictures which we have engraved (1), numbered 429 and 436 in the Art-Treasures Exhibition, the property of Edward Loyd, jun., Esq. Upon these Mr. Duval occupied himself last summer, instead of spending two or three months in London, portrait-painting and making chalk drawings of the young scions of the aristocracy, which he has been in the habit of doing for many years past - a change that may be considered judicious even in a money point of view, for it is certainly better both for his reputation and his practice to turn out works of this class than portraits to an equal or even greater amount. They are most elaborately-finished, large cabinet pictures (kitcat size), and tell a pleasant story in a not unpleasant way. The colouring is rich, and perfectly harmonious as well as powerful. They are, we think, in advance of the “Columbus ;" at all events they are more taking in subject and more finished in treatment.

The first, “Forgotten Vows,” represents a scene in a country house, in the latter part of George the Second's or the beginning of George the Third's reign. A young squire, who has just dropt in to make a morning call, as may be guessed from his hat and cane, sits in an offhand, swaggering way, laughing and talking to a fair girl beside him, whilst a dark girl, to whom the sequel shows his addresses ought to have been paid, has left her book and her seat at the window, and stands at the other side of him, biting her nails, and beating what is commonly called the devil's tattoo upon the back of a chair. He may or he may not be aware of her presence, and of the rising storm which so soon overtakes him ; but he seems unconscious, and altogether absorbed in a pleasant flirtation. From the sequel it would seem that but a few seconds have elapsed, for the colour of the picture is brighter than the first, which is accounted for by your seeing through the window a cloud-shadow on the field beyond, which evidently lay upon the house only a few moments before, - thus, by a subtle artistic idea, making time, as well as place, part of the picture. The dark girl, half in jest and half in earnest, unable any longer to control herself, has made her presence felt and understood by pinching her faithless lover's ear, much to the astonishment of a page who is bringing in cakes and wine, and to the amusement of her fair friend, who laughs so heartily that you are tempted to believe she has been leading him on for the pure love of mischief, and has been aware of his danger from the first.

In this metropolis of toil and traffic, to which it may be almost said the whole earth's "merchants most do congregate" - where in the struggle for mere wealth-preeminence it would seem as if all thought, all faculties were engaged, so as to be quite absorbed, or, as a cynic would say, stultified - it is gratifying to have to record the arrival, at a period of some 20 years since, of an almost unfriended stranger, a mere youth, armed only with the implements of his art, and to be able to add that, in the midst of such apparently uncongenial elements, his genius, having been fairly appreciated, gradually grew into eminence amongst us, and is likely to reflect a lasting lustre on the city in which it was first welcomed, fostered, and brought to light.


(1) Woodcut engravings of the two paintings appear on pages 190 and 191 of the text. The first is by H. Morton, and the second appears to have been made by Charles Allen Du Val himself.