MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: The family connections of some of England’s foremost artists of the early 19th Century have been traced to the churchyard by DAVID MORGAN
John Singleton Copley is the famous American-born artist who is buried in Croydon Minster. Many over the years have visited the church in order to see the memorial of his final resting place. But there is another accomplished 19th Century artist who lies forgotten in the churchyard.
Theodore Henry Adolphus Fielding died in July 1851 and was interred in the churchyard of what was then known as Croydon Parish Church. Some time later, in common with so many, his gravestone was removed. If that stone was laid down to create a pathway, any inscription was long ago worn away.
But his records remain, and from them it has been possible to discover much more about Fielding and his gifted family.
Not only was Fielding especially skilled in painting in watercolour, he was also a renowned engraver and printer. He produced many impressive prints using aquatint and stipple techniques. He also wrote and published several books about art teaching and the restoration of oil paintings.
Fielding was born in 1781, in Yorkshire, the eldest of six children. His father, Theodore Nathan Fielding, was himself a respected artist, who lived near Halifax and painted portraits for Yorkshire’s landed gentry. Four of his sons, taught to draw by their father, showed a talent with pencil, paper and palette. Theodore and his brothers Copley, Thales and Newton all became artists.
The third Fielding son was named after the great American artist who was buried in Croydon. I am sure that fact was not lost on Theodore in later life when he lived in the town.
Encouraged by their father to draw, paint and colour, the four Fielding boys soon began to exhibit their works. Theodore Fielding first came to the public notice when, still in his teens, he exhibited “A View of the North Tyne” in 1799 at the Royal Academy.
The artistic talents of the Fieldings came to wider prominence when they set up a studio in Newman Street, off Oxford Street in London, and later when they joined the French artistic community by renting an atelier in Paris in the 1820s. In both of these workshops they developed an impressive network of artistic contacts and acquaintances.
In London, they employed William Callow as an apprentice. Callow went on to have a distinguished career as a leading landscape painter. Writing in his autobiography, he acknowledged the debt he owed to the Fieldings in helping him to develop the skills which brought him such success.
Charles Bentley, the engraver and painter, was articled to Theodore Fieelding in London in 1819, before following him to Paris. He spent much of his early apprenticeship colouring the prints created by his boss.
In Paris, the brothers were part of an artistic scene which included many famous painters. In 1824 Copley Fielding won the Medaille d’Or at the Salon de Paris. He shared the award with John Constable as well as Richard Parkes Bonington, another talented English painter, but who died in his 20s from consumption.
However, it was with the artist Eugene Delacroix that the brothers spent most time. Delacroix wrote in his journal that he thought Copley to be the most talented of the four. He also painted a portrait of Thales, with whom he used to fence regularly.
Theodore Fielding obviously enjoyed and benefited from his time in Paris. Two of his landscape paintings are now in the Louvre collection and currently housed at the Eugene Delacroix Museum. “Lac au pied d’une montagne” and “Paysage de montagne” were both painted around 1820.
After managing the French family enterprise for some years, Theodore Fielding decided on a career change. It would also mean a regular income and the promise of a pension.
Although he had taught drawing on an individual basis, he formalised this aspect of his career by successfully applying for a tutor’s post at the Honorable East India Company’s Military Academy in Addiscombe.
In an age before colour photography was available, the ability to draw and paint accurately landscapes and buildings was a useful skill for young officers. At the age of 44, Theodore Fielding became assistant to Mr Wells as a Civil Drawing Master. Apparently, the nickname given to him by the cadets there was “Johnny Bleu”, due to his pronunciation of that colour having a decidedly French twang.
For the next 24 years, he gave loyal service to the Academy, retiring at the age of 68 with a pension of £150 per annum. His last few years must have been difficult, as his eyesight clouded due to cataracts.
At the time of his death, on July 11, 1851, aged 70, he was living at 6 Duppas Hill Terrace. In his will he describes himself as “Professor of Landscape Painting”.His wife, Mary Anne, was the sole beneficiary. She, too, was a watercolour artist, exhibiting paintings with the Water Colour Society from 1821 until 1835.
Theodore and his wife hadn’t always lived in that house, as William Callow writes about visiting the Fieldings at their residence in Coombe Lane.
Colonel Vibart’s 1894 book on the Addiscombe Academy is a source of much information about our art professor. He included a sketch of Theodore Fielding, completed by Cadet Maisey. The young man provides us with a pencil drawing of a bald man, with fashionable sideburns, rather sharp features and wearing spectacles. Sporting a broad collared jacket, he is bent over a sheet of paper, pencil in hand.
Vibart tells us that Fielding was a popular master and well respected by the cadets. We can assume that was an accurate statement as the writer was much less complimentary about some other staff members. Apparently, a tradition built up at the Academy that if you wanted to get high marks in Art, then you ought to avail yourself of some extra tuition. This just happened to be with Theodore Fielding’s younger brother, Newton.
He devised a step-by-step tutorial from which many cadets benefited. There was also another attraction. Newton provided a studio lunch together with bouts of singlestick and fencing in an adjoining room. It’s a good thing they brought the épées back from Paris!
The Academy proved an attractive career option for another of the brothers. Thales Fielding was appointed drawing master at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1836.
Copley Fielding didn’t follow such a route, being immersed in art for the remainder of his life.
Copley was clearly born to be an artist, his parents christening him Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding.
As a witness to brother Theodore’s will, Copley gave his address as 26, Newman Street, the premises where the brothers first set up in London around 1820.
If Theodore Fielding is remembered by anyone today, it will probably be because of his books of prints. A Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes and Picturesque Illustrations of the River Wye are two of his best aquatint projects.
The book on the English Lakes, published in 1821, quoted William Wordsworth extensively and helped to cement his reputation as the best of the Romantic poets. Excursion sur les côtes et dans les ports de Normandie is a book of engravings based on paintings completed by Fielding and other artists, including Bonington, while they were based in Paris.
As lockdown is ending and you are venturing back into London, you might consider planning a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, where you can see Theodore Fielding’s painting of Manobier Castle.
The 46 of his prints held at the British Museum are not on display, although an inquiry in advance of your visit may well result in one of two of them being brought out from storage for you.
Theodore Fielding was too talented to be lost from our view, but why didn’t he paint anything of Croydon? An aquatint print of the church would have flown off the presses and a stippled view of the River Wandle would have been a wonder.
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