MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Four paintings in the Museum of Croydon’s collection show the town 250 years ago as a rural idyll. They are by a talented watercolourist whose career was marred by politics and professional jealousies, as DAVID MORGAN explains
Over the years, many artists have been inspired to paint a canvas of Croydon Parish Church, now Croydon Minster. The results of their creativity provide not only a view of how the church has changed over time, but also how the surrounding landscape has altered too.
The earliest paintings show the church nestled in a rural idyll. The church, positioned next to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence, Croydon Palace, is surrounded by greenery, with the River Wandle flowing past it.
A series of paintings from the 1750s came from the brush of a young artist named Jonathan Skelton. Little is known about his early life, but he did leave notes jotted on the backs of his paintings.
We know he was in Croydon in 1754, painting views of the church and the Archbishop’s Palace. During the following year he painted scenes in Camberwell, Lambeth, Westminster and Carshalton.
Croydon was on his itinerary again in 1756, this time with the vicarage his subject. His 1757 paintings included scenes from Canterbury, Rochester, Greenwich and Carshalton.
All these paintings were landscapes in watercolour. Given their locations, it seems likely that Skelton must have been based somewhere south of the Thames. In addition, the fact that he painted at three locations where the Archbishop of Canterbury had residences – Croydon, Lambeth and Canterbury – suggest he could have had a church background or connection.
In 1758, there was a remarkable change in both his circumstances and the type of painting produced. Gone are the fresh colours, the light touch and the careful transcription of nature. They are replaced by more heavily worked landscapes, often with a contrived compositional feature, as Skelton had travelled to Italy to further his artistic career.
His earlier landscape paintings had attracted the attention of art connoisseurs, one of whom became his patron and gave him the money for his Italian trip. This was William Herring, who lived in Croydon. Local historians will recognise the name: his cousin, Thomas Herring, is one of the Archbishops of Canterbury buried at Croydon Parish Church, in 1757.
Unlike most of his family, William Herring was not a clergyman. He seems to have held some sort of secretarial role for the Archbishop, and was one of two people who were called, after the Prelate’s death, to testify that the will and codicil were written in Thomas Herring’s hand. In 1767 one of William’s daughters, Harriot, married Francis Baring, the founder of Baring’s bank.
It is clear from the correspondence between patron and artist that Herring was more than just a patron. He was also a mentor and friend.
Not only did he provide the money for Skelton’s trip, he sent him a Bible and the sort of advice that a father would give his son going abroad for the first time. The quality of Skelton’s correspondence showed that he was well-educated.
Much detail emerges from the letters.
In his first letter back to Croydon, Skelton provides a breakdown of the costs for the journey to Italy. He wanted to provide Herring with his expenses to show he was not squandering the money.
Travelling to Italy in the 18th Century wasn’t a straightforward task, and nor was it cheap. The journey from London to Portsmouth alone, at £4 4s is the equivalent of £773 at 2021 prices, allowing for inflation over the last 250 years.
Skelton’s sea voyage from Portsmouth took him via Cork (costing another £7 15s 6d) and Gibraltar (where he stayed for 14 days, another £4 17s). Skelton tells of the mountainous seas that he experienced and how he feared he might never survive the stormy east winds. He also speaks of French naval craft that shadowed their ship but never intercepted it.
They eventually arrived in Italy at Livorno, on the west coast of Tuscany. The remainder of the journey to Rome (£4 10s) was by horse-drawn coach. The journey from London to Rome, via Portsmouth, Cork, Gibraltar, Livorno and Florence, and including the purchase of a sword along the way, came in at a total of £32 12s 6d – or about £6,000 in 2021 values, or nearly 10 times the price of return flights to Australia today.
Skelton’s adventure, and Herring’s costs, would not end there.
Once in Rome, Skelton sought out the handful of English painters who were living and working there. He informed Herring that they told him he will not be able to live as a gentleman in Rome for less than £60 a year. Skelton believed £40 ought to be adequate and in the first letter back to Croydon he asked for an advance of 30 guineas.
Other well-known English landscape painters in Rome at that time were Robert Crone and John Plimmer, together with John Forrester who Skelton described in a letter of August of 1759 as “my very particular friend”.
Skelton also had a Mr Lumsden as a companion, whom he described in a letter as “almost Universally learned and extremely communicative”. Lumsden got him into a bit of bother, though.
This was the reign of George II, and littlemore than a decade after the last major battle fought on British soil, Culloden, where forces loyal to the Crown under the Duke of Cumberland routed Scottish rebels under Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Lumsden had at one time been in the employment of the Old Pretender, James Stuart, the son of the deposed King James II, and father of Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince. James was living out his life in exile in Rome.
Through this friendship with Lumsden, Skelton was accused of being a Jacobite, and was shunned by many of the Anglo artistic community. William Herring sprang to his defence, writing that his protégé was unwaveringly loyal to the Hanoverian throne. The labelling of him as a Jacobite, though, made it more difficult to sell any paintings.
Throughout his time in Rome, Skelton was always faced with this problem and became ever more reliant on Herring’s generosity. Art critics speak of the jealousy of other Rome-based artists towards Skelton for his undoubted talents and this, too, affected the sales of his work.
Skelton travelled widely in Italy to experiment and develop new styles and techniques. He wrote to Herring in August 1759 to say he was at Tivoli, about 20 miles from Rome, and intended to stay for a “further three weeks”. His apartments were in the Villa d’Este.
But Skelton fell ill towards the end of his first year in Rome.
A letter was sent to William Herring at the end of January 1759 informing him of the death of the artist he had done so much to help. The letter’s writer, George James, had blamed Skelton’s death on the anxieties caused by the Jacobean accusation and his tendency to take too many “quack” medications.
The young artist seems to have become a hypochondriac during his stay in Rome.
He was often in despair at not being able sell more of his paintings than he would have liked and his attempt to live as frugally as possible resulted in a poor and meagre diet.
A modern medical eye cast over the letters might well conclude that he suffered and died as a result of a duodenal ulcer.
Whatever the cause, his premature death brought an end to the career of one of the most promising of the early English watercolourists.
In his will, which he had been encouraged to get in order by Herring, Skelton asked that all his sketches, paintings and worldly goods be sold to pay off his debts. He stated that he owed William Herring 105 guineas; Samuel Herring 5 guineas; an uncle, Jonathan Beck, 20 guineas; and Thomas Parry 10 guineas. Samuel was an uncle of William.
Among his possessions were listed 30 prints; 15 pictures, of which three were unfinished; inside a bag were 118 sketches and drawings by himself and others, “the greatest part by himself”. There were 21 crowns and 40 baiocchi (old Italian coinage) in his purse.
Skelton was buried in an anonymous grave next to the Pyramid of Cestius, in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where Keats and Shelley would also be buried, as well as the Scottish author, R M Ballantyne.
Skelton’s works were lost for many years until they came up for auction in 1909, being sold by T C Blowfeld from Hoveton House, Norfolk, a former Chancellor of the Diocese of Norwich. All the paintings and sketches had been acquired by a Thomas Blowfeld, who had travelled to Italy in the mid-18th Century.
Jonathan Skelton is little remembered these days. Perhaps he should be better known. He was a young talent who thought that his Italian expedition would be a step along the way to greater achievement. Four of his Croydon pictures are in the Museum of Croydon, and there are few of his works that today are not part of the collections of some of Britain’s, and the world’s, finest museums and galleries.
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