John William North, ARA HRSW RWA (1842-1924) John William North was one of the most successful of late Victorian painters at capturing the experience of the rural atmosphere, in both oil and watercolour. Though he was best known for his English landscapes – and especially those of Somerset – his intense, almost tactile, approach to representing dense foliage equally suited the lush vegetation of the Bay of Algiers, which he visited regularly during the late 1870s.
John William North was born in the London suburb of Walham Green, Fulham, on 1 January 1842. At the age of 11, he was placed in the care of his uncles, when his draper father, mother and younger brother migrated to Canada. One great-uncle owned a farm in Hertfordshire, and early visits there set the pattern for the rural sojourns in which he nurtured his art. Leaving school at the age of 13, he studied at the Central School of Art at Marlborough House and, by 1858, was apprentice to the wood engraver Josiah Wood Whymper.
He began his career in 1862 with the Dalziel Brothers, the leading firm of wood engravers, for whom he provided contributions to leading periodicals and volumes, including Wayside Posies (1867). From 1865, he also exhibited paintings, mainly watercolours, at such leading venues as the Royal Academy (elected an associate in 1893) and the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (elected an associate in 1871 and a member in 1883). Later he would be elected an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water-Colours and a member of the Royal West of England Academy.
Back in 1860, North had encountered the Quantock Hills, Somerset, for the first time, on a walking tour with Edward Whymper, son of the engraver. He so loved the area that he lodged regularly at Halsway Manor Farm, often working there in the 1860s with fellow apprentices George Pinwell and Frederick Walker. These artists were bound together, in illustration and painting, by a response to their environment, for they evolved a form of landscape with figures which was grounded in topographical particulars yet imbued with the spirit of pastoral poetry. (Retrospectively, in 1895, on the occasion of an exhibition in Birmingham, the circle of artists centring on Walker and North would be given the name of ‘Idyllists’.)
North confirmed his close association with the Quantocks in 1869, when he moved to Woolston Moor Farm, about three miles north of Halsway. He stayed there regularly until 1884, when he married Selina Weetch, the daughter of a Somerset farmer. They then settled at Beggearn Huish House, at Nettlecombe.
However, his friendship with Walker also led North, in the early 1870s, to take fishing trips to the Scottish Highlands, and to travel to Algiers. North arrived in Algiers on Christmas Day 1873, joining Walker, who had gone there for the sake of his health. When Walker became homesick and returned to England in the following February, North remained, buying a piece of land on which he built himself a house. He resided there for several months of each of the following six years, and maintained contact with the town until late in the century.
The premature deaths of Pinwell and Walker, in 1875, made North assess his career and strike out independently. He turned increasingly to pure landscape, excluding the figures that had emphasised his involvement in illustration. He also worked increasingly in pure watercolour, eschewing bodycolour, and evolving a loose, abstracted handling. He employed a similar approach in his occasional use of oil, a medium he took up at the suggestion of George Frederick Watts.
Four years after the death of his wife in 1894, North moved to Bilbrook, near Washford. He established the OW Paper and Arts Company, in order to manufacture and market a type of watercolour paper, made substantially of linen, which was ideal for his own practice but generally found hard to use. He remained preoccupied with such experiments to the neglect of his painting until the company folded at the outbreak of the First World War. The few works that he completed after the turn of the century are considered to have a visionary quality. He spent the decade from 1904 at Withycombe and then his last years at Stamborough Farm, on the edge of Exmoor, dying there on 20 December 1924.
Further reading: Herbert Alexander, ‘John William North’, Old Water-Colour Society’s Club, vol 5, 1927-28, pages 35-52; Christopher Newall, ‘North, John William (1842-1924)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 41, pages 107-109