Thomas Churchyard (1798-1865) Often mistaken for those of John Constable, the Suffolk landscapes of Thomas Churchyard are as fresh and lyrical as any of the period.
Thomas Churchyard was born in Melton, Suffolk on 22 January 1798, the only child of a cattle dealer, grazier and butcher. He was educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School in Dedham, Essex, and articled to a firm of solicitors at Halesworth, north of Woodbridge, Suffolk. By 1822, he was established as an attorney in Woodbridge, and would develop a reputation for being ‘liberal and humane’ (Denis Thomas, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, vol 11, p 690), though would devote most of his energy to painting.
Marrying in January 1825, Churchyard and his wife rented 29 Well Street (now called Seckford Street), Woodbridge. During the following fifteen years, they had two sons and seven daughters, most of the daughters showing a talent for art.
An early admirer and collector of paintings by members of the Norwich School, Churchyard was particularly influenced by John Crome, and made convincing copies of his works, as well as those by John Constable. In 1831, he exhibited his first landscapes at the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution, in Norwich, and was elected an honorary member.
He also exhibited in London, at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Society of British Artists. As a result of this success, he decided to devote himself to painting, and settled his family at The Beeches, Melton, in 1832, so that he could try his luck in the capital. However, he failed to have any pictures accepted by the Royal Academy that year, and soon returned to his family and his legal practice. Though continuing to paint – and develop as an artist – he did not exhibit publicly again for another twenty years. And, while he made visits to Bury St Edmunds and London, his oil and watercolour sketches were almost exclusively of the fields and rivers of his native area.
Churchyard the solicitor took on Edwin Church Everitt as a partner and moved his business into part of Marston House, Cumberland Street, Woodbridge (Everitt living in the remainder). Later, they took on Daniel Charles Meadows as a further partner, and moved the business to Market Hill. However, by 1841, Churchyard was working alone again, and moved his family into Marston House.
Churchyard became a focus of local artistic and literary life. He formed a close friendship with the poets, Bernard Barton and Edward Fitzgerald, and also the son of the poet, George Crabbe. Fitzgerald described the group – initially ironically – as ‘the wits of Woodbridge’. Both Churchyard and Fitzgerald were members of Ipswich Society of Professional and Amateur Artists (founded in 1832).
When Churchyard did exhibit again, in 1850, it was alongside painters of the Norwich School at the inaugural exhibition of the Suffolk Fine Arts Association, of which Churchyard was acting local secretary.
Though Churchyard was professionally and financially successful, he spent much money on building up his art collection, as well as supporting his large family. Expectations of a large inheritance from his uncle, Isaac Churchyard of Byng Hall, came to nothing; for, when Isaac died in 1858, he did so intestate and in debt. Becoming concerned about the future of his daughters, Churchyard divided his own works between them so that they could not be considered part of his estate (see inscription to reverse of 219). When he died, of heart failure, on 19 August 1865, he too was insolvent, but he left behind him a great collection of pictures (including examples by Constable, John Sell Cotman, Crome, Gainsborough and Wilson).
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Ipswich Museums Service and Woodbridge Museum.