Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, NEAC PS (1821-1906) For much of his life, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon pleased himself as a gentleman traveller, producing luminous, loosely-handled watercolours of favourite paintings and places (including India, which he visited in 1870, 1875 and 1876). Admired by John Ruskin as an heir to J M W Turner, he joined the eminent critic on a sketching tour to northern France in 1880. Yet his startling modernity was probably recognised only in the 1890s, by a younger generation of artists, which included John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer. Through their enthusiasm, he was elected a member of the New English Art Club in 1891, and held the first of a series of solo shows at the Goupil Gallery in the following year.
Hercules Brabazon Brabazon was born in Paris on 27 November 1821, the youngest son of Hercules Sharpe of County Durham and Ann Brabazon of County Mayo, Ireland. In 1832, the family returned to England and settled into their new country house, Oaklands, in Sussex, built for them by Decimus Burton.
Brabazon was educated at Dr Hooker’s preparatory school, until 1835, when he began an unhappy period at Harrow. This came to an end in 1837 when he transferred to a Pestalozzi School in Geneva. Three years later, he began to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Following his graduation, he flouted his father’s wishes to read law and, as a result, travelled to Rome on a reduced allowance. There he studied music at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, and art at the Accademia di San Lucca, and from then on concentrated on those two subjects. In 1847, his elder brother died, and he succeeded to the Brabazon estates in Connaught, by the terms of the will becoming Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. On 24 May 1848, he left Rome and returned to England via Spain and France, encountering the work of Velasquez for the first time; after Turner, Velasquez became the artistic inspiration of his life. Following the death of his father in 1858, he also inherited the family estate in Sussex, and appointed his brother-in-law Major Combe to act as its manager. Brabazon spent the summers in England, and winters on the Riviera or travelling further afield. His major travels included a number of visits to the Middle East, North Africa and India.
Brabazon began to produce his atmospheric watercolours and pastels in the 1860s. Though he first appeared as a gentleman amateur, his unique talent was soon recognised by John Ruskin, and later by John Singer Sargent, so that he straddled artistic generations and approaches. In 1867, he was elected to the membership of the Burlington Fine Art Club alongside Dante Gabriele Rossetti and Ruskin and, in 1880, accompanied Ruskin, Arthur Severn and Arthur Ditchfield on a sketching tour of Amiens. Sargent met Brabazon in 1885, and was inspired by his work to turn to watercolour. In 1891, he succeeded in encouraging Brabazon to join the New English Art Club, and exhibit alongside its other members. His first solo show took place at the Goupil Gallery in the following year, and was a critical success. He attracted a following of younger artists, and counted Francis James as a pupil. He died at Oaklands on 14 May 1906.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate, the V&A, The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Manchester Art Gallery and The Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester); and Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge MA).
Further reading: Hilarie Faberman, ‘Brabazon, Hercules Brabazon (b Paris, 21 Nov 1821; d 14 May 1906)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 4, page 619; Martin Hardie (rev Jessica Kilburn), ‘Brabazon [formerly Sharpe], Hercules Brabazon (1821- 1906)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 7, pages 131-133; C Lewis Hind, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, 1821-1906: His Art and Life, London: George Allen, 1912
Chris Beetles has mounted a number of highly successful exhibitions of the work of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. The most recent, entitled Art and Sunshine, was held in 1997 and accompanied by a large illustrated catalogue: 176 pages, 273 colour plates and extended biographical essays.