CHURCHYARD, Thomas

1798 - 1865

Thomas Churchyard

Born at the butcher's shop, opposite the 'Horse and Groom' in the village of Melton, Suffolk, on 22 January 1798, only child of Jonathan Churchyard (1765–1825), cattle dealer, grazier, & butcher, and his wife Anne, daughter of Thomas White, a wealthy grocer & draper of Peasenhall, Suffolk. In 1808 he entered Dedham grammar school, Essex, living in the headmaster’s house as a boarder. He studied Classics, French and English poets, philosophy, religious speculation and natural history. John Constable was an old boy of this school 20 years earlier, and had often been found sketching in the Dedham Vale during these summers. Churchyard left school in 1815 and the following year his father articled him to Crabbe & Cross, solicitors at Halesworth, Suffolk, leaving for London in 1820, to complete his final year of articles and admitted to the Roll, an attorney. During his time at Halesworth Thomas learned more than the law, he travelled to Norwich where he would have seen works by John Crome and his son John Berney Crome and began to copy their paintings and from this study to develop his own style of natural landscapes. He also illustrated a book of botanical subjects with William Hooker, later Director of Kew Gardens. He had probably already begun collecting the works of his favourite artists, an addiction which never left him even when he later fell on hard times. In London he visited the exhibitions at the Academy and in 1821 he would have seen John Constable’s 'Haywain'. By 1822 was established as an attorney at Woodbridge and in January 1825 Churchyard married Harriet (1797–1865), daughter of Lieut George Hailes RN, of Henley, near Ipswich, and his wife, Susan née Harris of Ramsey, Essex. The couple rented their first home at 29 Well Street, Woodbridge. A pair of portraits in Christchurch Mansion Museum, Ipswich, shows Harriet as a charming girl with pretty blue eyes and a rosebud mouth; her husband appears as a curly-haired young blade posing in a panelled study, with a quill in his hand and a grandly framed oil painting already over the fireplace. Their first child, Thomas, was born on 16 March 1825 and over the next fifteen years they had seven daughters Ellen, Emma, Laura, Anna, Elizabeth (Bessie), Harriet and Catherine (Kate), as well as a second son Charles in 1841, another son died in infancy. In 1832 the family moved to The Beeches, Melton, though Churchyard himself spent the following two years in London, and about 1843 to Cumberland Street, Woodbridge. Churchyard's father died in October 1825, leaving him richer by a half-share in his parents' estate. At the age of twenty-seven in 1825, Churchyard could look forward to an unruffled career, secure in his profession, in his financial expectations, and in his belief in himself as an artist. In 1829 Churchyard exhibited four 'Study from Nature' pictures at the Norwich Society of Artists, being elected an honorary member and the following year at the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street, London and in 1831 at the Royal Academy and, on the strength of his public appearances as a landscape painter, determined that his true vocation lay not in the law after all, but in art. In 1832 he impulsively decided to sell up in Woodbridge to sell his books and some of his collection of paintings by Gainsborough, Crome and George Morland, housed his wife and five young children at Melton and, with his old friend George James Rowe [q.v.], make for London where Churchyard set up a studio at 7 Stamford Grove, Stamford Hill, Upper Clapton from where he submitted four works at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1833. Realistically, however, there was little chance that a country lawyer-cum-artist would succeed in a profession which John Constable himself, supported by his wife's handsome legacy, found such hard going, Perry Nursey [q.v.] was in financial trouble and John Berney Crome went bankrupt. Churchyard's own dash for fame quickly faltered, firstly his confidence was shaken by his failure in 1832 to get any of his pictures into the Royal Academy exhibition and within eighteen months of setting himself up as an artist in London, he was back with the family at The Beeches, Melton and resumed his legal practice opening a makeshift office in Quay Street, Woodbridge and taking newly qualified Edwin Church Everitt as his partner. Having more success as a solicitor and in 1834, together with his family, moved to a part of Marsden House, Cumberland Street. His London experience however had a long-term effect, for it was to be eighteen years before he contributed again to a public exhibition when he exhibited at the Suffolk Fine Arts Association at The New Lecture Hall at the Ipswich Mechanics' Institution in August 1850 several oil paintings including 'Dead Partridge', 'Dead Pheasant', 'Sketch of a Hollyhock', 'A Woodland Scene', Scene at Melton' and four 'Sketches from Nature' and watercolours 'Heath Scene', two entitled 'Sketch from Nature', 'Heath Scene' and 'River Scene'. His easy-going belief in an impending inheritance was soon to be shaken, his great-uncle James died in the summer of 1858, his house, Byng Hall at Pettistree, and his farms turned out to be so heavily mortgaged as to be nearly worthless. This financial setback caused the family to leave Marsden House and move back to Melton for a year or so, to retrench, but by 1856 they returned to Woodbridge, to Hamblin House a little further down Cumberland Street and almost opposite Marsden House. Churchyard was obliged to surrender a number of treasured artworks he had pledged against loans and to put his life-assurance policy up for sale and, for his daughters' behalf, began making provision for the stock of his own paintings to pass to them. He set about dividing them into seven equal lots, against the day when their true worth, he assured them, would be recognised. There would be no provision for son Thomas (1825-1896), who had sailed off for a new life in Canada, losing his young wife and two children in a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland and ending up in New Zealand, nor for son Charlie, hopelessly spoiled by his sisters and doomed to end up in an alms house in his old age. Churchyard died of heart failure at Woodbridge on 19 August 1865 and buried in Melton Old Church. He died insolvent but with the remnants of his art collection still hanging on his walls. In March 1866 his effects were auctioned when Edward Packard, jun. [q.v.] purchased Gainsborough's 'Shepherd's Boy and Dogs' for 28 guineas; Bassano's 'The Vintage' 20 quineas, Morland's 'Horse and Sheep' 17 guineas, Old Crome 'Cottage at Heigham' 29 guineas, 'Study of Horses' 6 guineas; and in all his twenty-three oils by Crome fetched £650, his four John Constable's £120, and his three Wilson's £60. One of his own large oils, of Melton Meadows, was knocked down for £7 15s. Hundreds of his works, however, and more than a score of albums passed into his daughters' keeping representing about 90% of his output. As none of them married, the works were not widely dispersed until the last of his daughters, Harriet died, whereupon Charles bundled his surviving works in with his sisters’ works and a total of over 4,000 items were sold in Arnott and Everett's Woodbridge salesroom on 30 April 1927. People purchasing folders full of drawings and paintings naturally judged them as very variable in quality. Some were so good that they were mistaken for works by Constable, Cotman or Crome. But some so weak that collectors pronounced Thomas too amateurish to merit real attention. The whole sale, including the furniture and china realised slightly more then £600. His work is now to be found in many major public and private collections including: the Tate Gallery, London; the British Museum; the V & A Museum Library; the Ashmolean, Oxford; the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge; Norwich Castle Museum; Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich; The Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand; Dunedin Art Gallery, New Zealand; the Huntington Art Gallery, California; The Putnam Museum, Iowa.




Works by This Painter