Sir Henry George Rushbury, RA VPRWS RE HonRIBA NEAC (1889-1968)
A painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Henry Rushbury was one of the finest artists of the twentieth century to specialise in architectural and other topographical subjects. He had a great ability to capture the spirit as well as the appearance of a place through the use of light and shade and the introduction of elements of everyday life. Henry Rushbury was born in Harborne, then a village in Staffordshire (now an area of southwest Birmingham), on 28 October 1889, the younger son of the clerk, George Norbury Rushbury, and his wife, Naomi (née Fennell). According to S C Hutchison, his father, ‘when unsuccessfully job-hunting’, used to take him ‘on visits to churches and other old buildings, thereby ... kindling ... a lifelong and essential interest in immediate surroundings’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
At the age of 13, Rushbury gained a scholarship to Birmingham School of Art, where he first studied gold and silversmithing, and later turned to stained-glass design and mural decoration.
His teachers included Henry Payne, who was working on the decoration of the chapel at Madresfield Court, the Worcestershire home of William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, the results of which are considered to comprise a masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement. By 1906, Rushbury had become one of three student assistants to work with Payne at the chapel, alongside Joseph Sanders and Richard Stubington. And, though he left art school in 1909, he continued to work as Payne’s assistant (and was living with him, at St Loe’s House. Amberley, near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, at the time of the 1911 census). He and Sanders also worked for a while under Archibald John Davies at the Worcestershire stained glass workshop known as the Bromsgrove Guild.
In 1912, Rushbury settled in London, and shared a succession of Chelsea lodgings with his close friend, Gerald Brockhurst, who had been a fellow student at Birmingham School of Art. While ‘working on an architectural drawing in Essex Street, off the Strand, he attracted the attention of Francis Dodd, who suggested that he try the medium of etching’. Then, when he began to gain mastery of the medium, Dodd arranged ‘introductions to the dealer-publishers [Robert] Dunthorne and James Connell’ (Wildman, 1989, page 5). The first work that he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, in 1913, was the etching, The Pin Mill, Gloucestershire. By late in that year, he was sharing lodgings with the painter-etcher, James Hamilton Hay, at 18 Trafalgar Square, Chelsea (now Chelsea Square). Hamilton Hay introduced him to Florence Layzell, who, in the following year, became his wife, marrying him at Chelsea Registry Office, with the painter-etcher, Job Nixon, as best man. They would have two daughters, Janet and Julia, both of whom would become painters.
The First World War broke out a month after the wedding and, in 1915, Rushbury enlisted in the army as a draughtsman, and was stationed at Lowestoft. In 1916, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, serving for two years. He then became an official war artist, producing documentary drawings (that are now in the Imperial War Museums). In 1917, he was elected to the membership of the New English Art Club.
On demobilisation, Rushbury studied at the Slade School of Fine Art under Henry Tonks for a few months of 1919. He soon returned to his busy life of drawing and engraving, and worked widely in Britain and on the Continent, particularly in France and Italy (sometimes in the company of Charles Cundall and Job Nixon). In addition to his regular contributions to the Royal Academy (ARA 1927), he exhibited principally with the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (ARE 1921, RE 1922), the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours ARWS 1922, RWS 1926) and the New English Art Club. His first solo show was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1921. His status as an etcher was confirmed in 1923 by an article by Randolph Schwabe in The Print Collector’s Quarterly (with a catalogue by Harold Wright), and in 1928 by Malcolm Salaman’s monograph in the series, ‘Modern Masters of Etching’. From 1929, the metal-window manufacturer, W F Crittall, sponsored him to produce an annual drypoint.
In 1931, Rushbury and his family settled at Lower House Farm, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, close to the border with Essex. However, he retained a studio at his London home, 8 Netherton Grove, Chelsea (and let the house to his friend, the Australian artist, Will Dyson). unlike many of the artists who contributed to the revival of interest in etching, he continued to find a market for his prints during the Depression. Some of his best work as an etcher was produced to illustrate three books: Sidney Dark’s Paris (1926), Sir James Rennell Rodd’s Rome of the Renaissance and Today (1932) and Iris Wedgwood’s Fenland Rivers (1936). However, he displayed his versatility in undertaking a series of mural decorations for Chelsmford Town Hall in 1937. His distinction as an artist was awarded in 1936 when he was elected a full Royal Academician.
During the Second World War, Rushbury again worked as an official war artist, recording the production side of the war effort. He also became a Visitor in Engraving at the Royal College of Art in 1942. From the end of the war he gained a number of further administrative roles and honorific titles. He was the Vice-President of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in the years 1945-47; Visitor in Engraving at the British School at Rome in 1948; an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1948; and Keeper of the Royal Academy in the years 1949-64 (so having responsibility for the RA Schools). He was created a Commander of the Victorian Order in 1955, a Commander of the British Empire in 1960, and a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1964. He was a staunch member of both the Arts Club and the Chelsea Arts Club.
On retiring as Keeper of the RA in 1964, Rushbury settled at 6 Martin’s Lane, Lewes, Sussex, and died there four years later on 5 July 1968. He was survived by Florence and their daughters.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford).
Further reading: S C Hutchison (rev), ‘Rushbury, Sir Henry George [Harry] (1889–1968)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35873; Tod Ramos, Henry Rushbury, Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2010; Stephen Wildman, Sir Henry Rushbury: A Centenary Exhibition of Drawings and Etchings, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, 1989