Croydon painter Sant, a portrait artist by Royal Appointment

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: One hundred and fifty years ago, Queen Victoria chose a Croydon-born artist to be her ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary to Her Majesty’, but as  DAVID MORGAN discovered, she never liked his work

James Sant: a self-portrait from 1884, when the artist was 64

As Croydon celebrates being the London Borough of Culture, it is good to remember the lives of previous generations of Croydon locals who have contributed significantly to the arts over the ages.

Croydon’s James Sant made a huge impact on the 19th Century art scene, including being appointed portrait painter to Queen Victoria with the grandiose title of Principal Painter in Ordinary to Her Majesty – a kind of painting equivalent of the Poet Laureate. The only problem was, Queen Victoria never seemed to like the portraits Sant painted of her.

Born on this day, April 23, in 1820, Sant is said to have developed an early love of drawing. His brother, George, also grew up to become a painter.

While James Sant concentrated on the lucrative Victorian market for portraiture, his brother produced landscapes.

Living with his parents on Duppas Hill, as an eight-year-old, young James was obsessed with copying a sketch by the artist Landseer. This convinced his family that he had real talent.

Sant’s first teacher was John Varley, one of the fathers of the British school of water colour painting. Subsequently, Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, another eminent figure of British painting, gave him tuition. In 1840, Sant became a student at the Royal Academy and began to focus his efforts on making a living as a professional artist.

Little Red Riding Hood: Sant’s work made him among the most popular portrait artists of the Victorian era

Sant was prolific. He exhibited at the Royal Academy even as a student. The first of these, a portrait of his father, William Sant, was exhibited in 1840. He continued to do so through to 1915, and had nearly 300 works accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy.

As he strove to find his niche in the artistic world, Sant began to be appreciated for paintings of children. Among such works were “Infant Samuel” and “Infant Timothy”, companion pictures using biblical stories as a basis. The “Infant Samuel” painting was first entitled “Speak Lord for Thy Servant Heareth”, but was renamed after it was reproduced as an engraving.

“Little Red Riding Hood” and “Dick Whittington” were based on traditional folk tales. Many of his paintings were reproduced thousands of times as engravings. The January supplement of the Illustrated London News of 1869 included a coloured print of Little Red Riding Hood for its readers, together with a poem.

Here are the first three verses;

Dear Little Red Hood. Hampshire Lass!
You ever welcome comer;
What lucky chance has brought to pass
That you came here, with Summer?

That grass is warm beneath your feet,
Your cheek is warm and rosy;
You’ve stolen to shelter, from the heat
And picked yourself a posy.

Pray tell us, Miss, has Mr Sant
Conspired with Brothers Leighton
To give a picture, which we shan’t
Frame with its Christmas date on?

The newspaper was proud to reproduce the picture in a much larger size than anything it had printed previously and it described Sant’s original as “being more solidly painted and richer in colour” than any of his other paintings of this genre.

We are not amused: Queen Victoria wasn’t a Sant fan

Sant didn’t have the same success, though, when painting Queen Victoria.

Shortly after his Royal appointment in 1871, he set about composing her portrait. He chose to paint her with three of her grandchildren. The Queen was seated in a chair, displaying the star and ribbon of the Garter and the badge of the Order of Victoria and Albert. The three children of the Prince of Wales surrounded her: Princess Victoria was sitting on her grandmother’s lap, Prince Albert Victor was leaning against the chair, while Prince George was picking up some flowers from a basket to give to his sister.

The painting was displayed in the Royal Academy in 1872.

Queen Victoria, however, did not like it. She was, you might say, not amused.

When there was a need of a new painting of the Queen for Britain’s embassy in Turkey, Victoria refused to sit for a state portrait by Sant. She suggested that instead, Sant should use an existing portrait by the German, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, as a guide.

With Queen Victoria’s disapproval hanging over him, Sant went ahead with the painting.

Upon its completion, Queen Victoria again expressed her displeasure and announced to Sant that he was “never to paint one again”. Both these paintings, together with nine others by him, are today part of the Royal Collection.

Other notable Victorians did sit for Sant. They included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Campbell Tait, Lord Russell, who was twice Prime Minister, and Adelina Patti, a great Italian opera singer. He also painted John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst, three times Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, whose father, the artist John Singleton Copley, is buried in Croydon Minster.

Sant was also known to be an acquaintance of Lewis Carroll, one of the most famous authors of the day.

Height of fashion: by 1870, Sant’s work was being lauded in the Illustrated London News

Perhaps the greatest admirer of Sant’s paintings was Frances, Countess Waldegrave. She commissioned 22 paintings, known as the Gallery of Friends, for her house Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham. Lord and Lady Lyndhurst’s portrait hung here, as did that of Earl Grey, the former Prime Minister.

The Countess Waldegrave was one of the leading socialites of her day and the parties which she held at Strawberry Hill would see invitations sent to leading politicians, scientists and anyone who was anyone in Victorian society. Letters which Sant sent to Countess Waldegrave survive and show that she was a real driving force in getting the portraits done and completed in the way that she, and her influential sitters, wanted.

As Sant’s obituarist noted, among his portrait subjects “were Duchesses and Countesses in abundance, for these great ladies and their husbands were pleased with Sant’s somewhat flattering touch”.

At one point, Sant wrote to Countess Waldegrave and told her was struggling to “make the eyes less prominent” in one of the portraits. In 1861, all 22 paintings making up the Strawberry Hill Collection went on exhibition at the French Gallery in Pall Mall. Sant’s reputation had never been so high as people marvelled at the variety and quality of that collection. He was elected Associate of the Royal Academy that same year.

Sant married Eliza Thompson in 1852. She was the daughter of Captain Dr RMM Thompson, a staff surgeon with the Royal Army Medical Corps who had served in Bengal. The Sants had six children. One son, James, became a diplomat in Stockholm and another, Mowbray, would become Chief Constable of Surrey.

Portrait of the artist as an old man: a photograph of Sant, c1902, from the National Portrait Gallery

James Sant would have been familiar with Croydon Parish Church, as his grandfather and aunt were buried there.

Sant continued to work into his nineties. He even showed a picture at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1915 when he was 95. Sant died on July 12 1916 at his house in Lancaster Place. He was 96.

Sant had had a remarkable artistic career, albeit that he is overlooked today.

His early paintings gained him fame through their popularity, especially when they were made into engravings. He painted the great and the good with much success, though of course, he had to live with the knowledge that Queen Victoria was highly vocal in her dislike of his paintings of her.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

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1 Response to Croydon painter Sant, a portrait artist by Royal Appointment

  1. Lewis White says:

    Sant ?

    Never heard of him……….. maybe a Catalan or Basque ?………….. until now.

    A big thank you to David for pushing aside my hitherto ignorance.

    Maybe Queen Victoria was unamused because the portrait (shown above) does not show one at one’s best. A bit of a stressed Mama with children who looked a bit bored or unhappy.

    Croydon has clearly been a hotbed of art.

    David’s articles have given us incredible insights into Benjamin West, the world famous Flower Fairy artist Cicely Mary Barker, and the Victorian artist Frederick Walker.

    Not sure if he has yet highlighted Horace Mann Livens, another artist I just found on Google….. a friend of Vincent Van Gogh.

    Ruskin lived in Croydon.

    Who are the latter day Croydonian artists of national and international repute?

    Bridget Riley, another world famous artist.

    If one goes on to music artists and artists of stage and screen, of course, the list goes on and on………………………..

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