John N. Rhodes (1809-1842) from the book: John N. Rhodes, A
Yorkshire Panter, 1809-1842, by William Henry Thorp, John Nicholas Rhodes, pub.
1904. This book can be downloaded at the following link: John_N__Rhodes.pdf
John Rhodes, who afterwards assumed the additional christian name of Nicholas,
the talented son of Joseph Rhodes, a well-known Leeds artist, was born in
London in the year 1809, shortly before his father's return to his native town
in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
In artistic ability and perception, spontaneity and vigour of execution, John
far surpassed his father, and on account of his superior attainments, and the
position he acquired in the ranks of contemporary Yorkshire painters, he,
rather than his parent, has been selected as the subject of this monograph.
Heredity in this, as in so many other cases, supplemented by the fostering care
and instruction of his father, played so important a part in the development of
the son's natural talents, and the lives of both were so closely interwoven
during his youth and early manhood, that no account of the life of John N.
Rhodes would be complete without a sketch of the career of his father.
The early years of Joseph Rhodes, who was born in Leeds in 1782, were spent as
an apprentice to a house painter and decorator in his native town, and his
indentures completed, and a knowledge of his trade acquired, he removed to
London, where he speedily found employment in the business house of a japanner.
The art of japanning and varnishing after the manner of the Japanese was then
much in vogue, and for some time he was engaged upon designing ornament and
painting decorations on cabinets and other articles of furniture, which were
afterwards lacquered in the approved manner.
The night schools of the Royal Academy, then under the superintendence of West
and Fuseli, offered inducements to the young artistic craftsman, and there he
spent his evenings in study from the life and antique, and before he left he
had obtained a thorough knowledge of the proportions and anatomy of the human
figure. Such was the progress he made that we next hear of his being employed
in the service of M. San Jusse, a French decorative artist of some repute, upon
the adornment of the mansions of the nobility. His leisure time was occupied in
making designs for wood engravers, to be afterwards used for illustration
Copying pictures of the "Old Masters" for the dealers, for which there was then
a considerable demand, next appears to have engaged his attention, and it was
not long before this congenial occupation absorbed most of his energies. His
application was rewarded by the attainment of great skill in this branch of
work, and the masterpieces of Claude, Poussin, and other great artists, besides
undergoing repetition at his hands, largely influenced the original landscape
paintings which he afterwards produced.
The state of his wife's health, for he married in London, and it may be a
secret longing to return to his native county and the town of his childhood,
were responsible for his migration to the north; and once again settled in
Leeds, he established an art school of repute and gave instruction in drawing
and painting for a period of nearly forty years.
His appearance as an exhibitor at the rooms of the Northern Society in 1811,
and the notice which his works attracted at the time, already alluded to in the
preceding chapter, fix the date of his return to Leeds as either the early part
of that year, or the latter part of the year preceding. Quiet and unassuming in
disposition, devoted to the pursuit of his art, he not only gave efficient
instruction to his pupils, but also produced year by year a large number of
pictures in oil, water- colour, and tempera, which are to be met with in good
collections in various parts of the country, but more especially in the county
The repertoire of his art was extensive, and included topographical scenes in
the northern and midland counties, landscapes with figures and cattle
introduced, street scenes and examples of architecture, fruit and flowers,
cottage interiors, portraits, genre and conversation pieces, an occasional
flight into the domain of history, and numerous designs and decorative works.
His landscapes and fruit and flower pieces were the most prized at the time,
but all his work was characterized by conscientious care, and most of it
attained a fair measure of excellence. He never, however, displayed the vigour
and freedom of touch and handling of his material, nor employed the rich
palette, which afterwards distinguished the work of his son.
He was fortunate
in his pupils, and many of them achieved success in various branches of work.
In portraiture, may be mentioned William Robinson, an artist noted for his
sense of colour, who for many years rendered valuable assistance to Sir Thomas
Lawrence; William Frederick, described as " a chaste sweet painter of
portraits, dead game, and small moonlights "; and Henry Smith, who followed up
the instruction given to him by several years' study in Italy. Francis William
Topham was another talented pupil. He painted figure and general subjects in
water colour with considerable ability, and his work is justly appreciated; and
the list would be incomplete without the mention of Thomas Hartley Cromek, who
devoted himself to the delineation in water-colour of ruins and architecture,
for which he found many subjects during a prolonged residence in Rome.
Joseph Rhodes may be said to have anticipated in Leeds the art instruction
afterwards carried on under the auspices of the South Kensington authorities,
for he held evening classes for drawing from the round and antique, and to his
night school came several young men, sons of the manufacturers and tradesmen of
Leeds, to benefit by his instruction. Few of them purposed to take up art as a
profession, but they pursued their studies as a means of self-improvement and
culture. Several of them became accomplished amateurs, and by their influence
helped to create a taste in the town for pictures and artistic things. The
devotion shown to his vocation during an extended career, the recognition by
his pupils of his sterling qualities, and the interest taken by the public in
his paintings may be said to be responsible for the distinctive title given to
Joseph Rhodes of " The Father of Art in Yorkshire."
In addition to his son John, he had two daughters, one of whom married an
artist of the name of S. Massey, whose landscapes and flower-pieces were often
to be seen at the Northern Society's exhibitions; and at the house of his
son-in-law, in Grove Terrace, Camp Road, he died, in 1855, after a prolonged
Although the work of Joseph Rhodes generally met with a ready sale, he did not,
as a rule, obtain remunerative prices, and when he found his son, John, bent
upon being a painter, he, knowing but too well the precarious nature of an
artist's livelihood, did his utmost to dissuade him from his purpose. Of no
avail, however, were his father's words of warning; a painter the boy would be,
and nothing was allowed to stand in the way of the attainment of his objetc.
From his earliest years he had watched studies from nature, gradually revealing
themselves on the canvases in his father's studio, and, pencil in hand, he was
busy trying to copy them, and also indulging himself in tentative sketches of
his own imagining. Full of enthusiasm, his industry was unceasing. Nothing
would satisfy him unless he could accompany his parent in his rambles in search
of subjects for his pencil and brush, and as the result of one of these
expeditions we find him returning with a drawing of Kirkstall Abbey, which was
accepted by the Hanging Committee of the Northern Society, and exhibited in the
saloon of the Music Hall in 1822. He was then only thirteen, and at this early
age was able to show something of his powers of draughtsmanship.
He was educated at a school kept by Jonathan Lockwood, the father of Charles
Turner Lockwood, who bequeathed a number of paintings and drawings to the Leeds
Art Gallery. There he was taught the ordinary branches of education common to
English youth of the middle classes; but we may be safe in surmising that his
thoughts were often elsewhere, and that he longed to be out in the country in
the midst of his favourite scenes of rural life. Whether this were the case or
no, it was not long before he was country yokel or farm lad, and could not
readily be prevailed upon to delineate on canvas the features of more
Julius Cassar Ibbetson, said by some to have been born at Churwell, in the
vicinity of Leeds, and by others to have drawn his first breath at Masham, was
an old man when Rhodes was a boy, and he died in 1817. Doubtless he met the
boy's father at the Northern Society's exhibitions where he was usually well
represented, and the qualities and characteristics of his work would be known
to the young artist.
Ibbetson and George Morland had intimate associations with one another, and,
although particulars of their friendship are not abundant, it appears from
Nettleship's life of the latter that in one case, at any rate, they both worked
upon the same picture, in which the landscape was put in by Ibbetson, and the
figures by Morland. Yorkshire was not unknown to Morland, for he made some stay
at Whitby and painted coast scenes in the neighbourhood. Whether he visited
Leeds is not recorded, but it is stated on good authority that he and Joseph
Rhodes met and were acquainted with one another. That being the case, the
gifted animal painter, could he have foreseen the future, would have been
interested in knowing that a Leeds boy, the son of his friend, was destined,
among others, to carry on the practice common to himself of painting animals
and scenes of rustic life. Whether the younger Rhodes was influenced to any
large extent by works he may have seen by Morland we cannot definitely say.
That the class of subjects selected by the older artist appealed to the
younger, is, however, self-evident. In their mode of technique there is not
much resemblance, Morland's being the more scholarly of the two, and bearing
evidence of more careful training. Their sense of colour also differed. That of
Rhodes, as seen in most of his paintings in oil, was pitched in a much higher
key than that of his predecessor, whose colour was generally lower in tone and
usually pervaded by a note of silvery grey.
The Lock wood bequest of 1891 has put the Leeds Art Gallery in the possession
of several pictures and drawings by the two Rhodes, and amongst other
interesting and valuable examples from the same source are two landscapes by a
little-known Yorkshire artist of the name of Thomas Burras. Thomas Burras was
one of Joseph Rhodes' pupils who achieved success in his after life by painting
subjects after the manner of his master, which are noticeable for some charm of
colour and feeling. The son of his master and Burras would be well acquainted,
and it is interesting to see the work of the two pupils in the Permanent
Collection of the city in which they both spent their early days.
From this notice of some of the contemporaries of the two Rhodes we must return
to the career of John, and the records of his life. We left him at the time of
his early manhood, his training at the hands of his father completed, and
embarking upon life on his own account.
During his residence in Leeds his facility for turning out sketches, drawings
and paintings was phenomenal—to such an extent, in fact, that it was said
the town was inundated by them. In addition to the works he sold to his wealthy
patrons, he could always dispose of his extra output to a sympathetic dealer in
the town, a bibliophile and antiquary, who had a corner shop in the narrow and
picturesque Boar Lane of those bygone days. There, in the windows, were to be
seen exhibited week by week, a dozen or more studies, made in most cases direct
from nature, and priced at a guinea a-piece. Many of these sketches, vivid in
colour and dashing in execution, were painted on squares of millboard, in size
varying from twelve by ten inches to ten by eight inches. Some of his more
hasty performances he did not hesitate to call " pot boilers." Pot boilers they
may have been, in the sense of a means of providing the necessary means of
existence, but even the most rapid, and it may be careless impressions of
landscapes or rural life were characterised by marked individuality.
Works of greater importance, showing more care, and more detailed
in composition, ranging in price from two to five guineas, he often painted on
panel, sixteen by twelve inches being an average size.
They represented such scenes as the following :—
"The Woodcutter's Return." — The woodman, laden with firewood, returning
from his day's work, accompanied by two of his children.
"The Sportsman."—A man on a duck-shooting expedition, with his favourite
dog, in a rainy November landscape with drenched willows blown by the wind,
seen against a grey cloudy sky.
" Children catching butterflies."
"Dinner-time." Boy seated at his mid-day meal, his dog at his feet, in a
rock-strewn moorland landscape.
" Boy asleep under a haystack."
" An orphan boy and girl begging at the door of a cottage."
The title " Sheep in a landscape" was often adopted by Rhodes for his numerous
studies in which sheep were depicted. He was extremely skilful in drawing these
animals and grouping them in the most life-like manner; and whatever the medium
he used, whether pencil, pen and wash, water colour, or oil, they are nearly
Curiously enough, one of his pictures was called " Robert Burns seated under a
tree." Whether this was the artist's name for his subject, or whether it was
given to it by one of its later owners does not transpire. Certain it is, that
it could not have been sketched from the life, as the Ayrshire poet died before
J. N. Rhodes was born. This picture was for many years the property of the late
Mr. John Rhodes, a well-known Leeds connoisseur, who, however, was in no way
related to the painter, and who had a fine collection of pictures, including
several good examples of the work of both Joseph and J. N. Rhodes, which he
bequeathed to his son, Mr. Fairfax Rhodes, of Brockhampton Park,
A portrait of Burns also appears in the catalogue of pictures exhibited in the
old Music Hall in 1845. In this case, it was the property of John Hold, who
also possessed other examples of the art of J. N. Rhodes, and who was evidently
a lover of his work. Robert Burns, the poet of the countryside and of rustic
life, must have appealed to Rhodes the painter of similar scenes and incidents,
and finding a suitable model in an appropriate environment, he may have named
him after his favourite author.
A knowledge of Burns after the flesh being an impossibility, Rhodes struck up
an acquaintance with another writer of verses, John Nicholson, a fellow
Yorkshireman, known by the name of "The Airedale Poet," whom he met in his
wanderings, and whose irregular habits matched corresponding ones of his own.
The author of " Airedale and other poems," " The Poacher," and a drama called
"The Siege of Bradford," was patronised by the Earl of Harewood and Lord
Ribblesdale, and was received at their mansions as a welcome guest, his amusing
conversation and facility for impromptu verse-making, rendering him a lively
addition to the company.
At the age of twenty-five or twenty-six, Rhodes had reached such a standard of
excellence in his work, that almost everything which passed through his hands
from that time onwards to the date of his premature death, is of interest to
us, and shews what he was able to produce in the maturity of his powers. As
early even as 1830, when he was just of age, he was capable of turning out
pencil studies of figures, so admirably drawn and of such excellent quality,
that in comparing them with some of Morland's sketches of farmyard rustics,
they do not materially suffer in juxtaposition. At this period he may have been
living with his father, who, as before mentioned, occupied for some years the
back premises of the fine stone mansion of the BischofFs, in North Street.
Following his residence in Leeds, it is said that John spent some time in
Wakefield, where he found a patron in Mr. Stephenson, of Newstead Hall, near
that city, who was a liberal purchaser of his pictures, and the owner of about
fifty examples, chiefly in oils, some seventy years ago. More recent
information makes it appear that he never permanently lived at Wakefield, but
was in the habit of paying extended visits to a well-to-do aunt who resided at
Alverthorpe, in the vicinity of the city, and whilst there, made the
acquaintance of some of the gentry in the neighbourhood, to whom he disposed of
his paintings. After a time he married, but the union was not a happy one, and
need not claim further attention. There were no children, and his wife lived to
He next made his headquarters at Skipton, which was a good centre for his
country studies, and many of his mature works were painted at this time. Whilst
residing there he was in the habit of frequenting the shop of an old barber,
noted for his racy conversation and fund of anecdote, who had a son who
afterwards achieved distinction, and was rewarded with the title of Lord St.
Leonards. At Skipton, it is supposed, he picked up a rustic of the name of "
Billy Wade," who proved a most useful model, and whom he painted in various
attitudes.* This long-legged country lad appears in two or three of his most
spirited sketches, and when we afterwards come to consider the work of the
painter more intimately from the critical standpoint, in the succeeding
chapter, he will receive further attention.
Rhodes was thus at this time in the heart of a grazing country, and there he
would meet drovers with cattle and flocks of sheep, boys and dogs in
attendance, on their way to market. The title, " Boy with Sheep," appears over
and over again in the catalogues of his exhibited works. It is occasionally
varied by the alteration, " Sheep in a Landscape"; and " Landscape with Cattle"
is another familiar, but not quite so common, designation.
From Skipton to Barden and Bolton, into the midst of beautiful and romantic
scenery, is not a long journey, and in one of the wooded dells he may have met
with the subject of his charming drawing in sepia, known by the name of " The
Deer's Rendezvous," the record of one of his day's work in the year 1837.
Neither were Ilkley and Rombalds Moor far away, and sketches of the bleak, wild
moorland scenery so impressed his mind that several water-colours and an
occasional oil-painting were the outcome of his rambles in the neighbourhood. A
small water-colour, " Near Ilkley," in the Leeds Art Gallery, represents one of
these scenes — a group of rocks in a wild moorland landscape, with a
horse and pedestrians in the distance wending their way along a rough cart road
which skirts the crag and vanishes over the crest of the hill.
An oil painting, formerly in the collection of the late John Rhodes and now in
the possession of Mr. Thomas Winn, of Leeds, is another example of the scenery
of Rombalds Moor, to which is imparted the addition of human interest. A
country lad in corduroys is seated at the foot of one of the boulders with
which the moorland is strewn, and is enjoying his noonday meal, his dog at his
side keeping him company. Admitting that the dog is not quite so successful as
some of his animals, the boy, on the other hand, is capitally drawn and
painted, and the greyish green tones of the landscape are excellently rendered.
The greyness of tone which appears to have been a characteristic of the
atmospheric condition of things during Rhodes' residence in Skipton, and the
prevalence of cloudy skies which influenced him almost imperceptibly and caused
his paintings to become cold in colour, eventually led to his departure.
Did he tire of his country life, or was the market for his work in Yorkshire
becoming exhausted ? Did he think there was more chance of acquiring fame and
fortune in the metropolis, than in a continued
residence in the north ? We do not know, but it may be that one or all of these
reasons influenced him in coming to a decision to try his luck in London.
There we find him residing at 33, Sussex Street, in 1839, in which year he
exhibited a picture, entitled " Sit up, Sirrah," at the British Institution. In
the two following years he was living at Holloway, and he again was represented
in the same building by two works under the titles of "Which is the tallest?"
and "Horse and Donkey." In 1842 he appeared at the British Institution for the
last time, contributing an important work, called " Going to the hayfield," its
size being three feet three inches by two feet nine inches, a larger canvas
than most of his usual pictures.
At the Royal Academy Rhodes only exhibited twice—a picture in 1841,
called "The young bird," and another example in 1842, under the title of "Give
it a bit of bread." His work is said to have been hung in some other London
exhibitions, and to have attracted the attention of the press, who noticed it
favourably, and did not withhold a fair measure of praise. It is, furthermore,
stated that " his paintings, drawings, and pen etchings, were highly
appreciated by collectors." In one quarter, at any rate, his work met with a
ready sale, for the well-known publishers of prints and artistic literature,
the Messrs. Ackerman, in the Strand, purchased from him all the sketches and
drawings he did not otherwise dispose of.
A portrait of Rhodes is in existence, belonging to Mr. J. R. Pickering, of "The
Beeches," Harehills Lane, Leeds, a nephew of the artist, which was painted by
Joseph Rhodes, from memory, after his son's death. From it, we are able to form
some impression of his appearance and characteristics. He is pictured as a
young man with decided features, dark hair, grey eyes, and rather sallow
complexion. He is dressed in black, with a liberal expanse of shirt front, and
wears an old-fashioned cravat of the period.
This portrait corroborates in many of its features a pencil drawing of the
artist, in his early manhood, belonging to Dr. Abbott, of Aberford, which is
described in a succeeding chapter.
A gradual deterioration in health, accompanied by an affection of
the eyes, the former the result of his irregular habits, and the latter caused
by the close study required for his work, interfered with his intention of
making a permanent home in the south. His condition eventually became so
serious that he found it necessary to return to Yorkshire, where he could
receive the nursing and care from his relatives and friends that his case
demanded. The change of air and scene proved beneficial for a time, but the
good effects were not lasting, as his constitution was too seriously impaired
to be permanently reinstated. He went to live in lodgings in the suburbs of
Leeds, and was able after awhile to resume his work to some extent, and,
notwithstanding the interruptions caused by illness, he made several drawings
and painted one or two pictures, in which he displayed something of his old
vigour and skill. He continued painting until the day before his decease, and
just managed to finish an important work which was purchased by the late Thomas
Eagland from Joseph Rhodes after his son's death. Dr. Eagland, of Harro- gate,
the present owner of the picture, has an autograph letter referring to it
written by Joseph Rhodes, accompanied by a sketch of the subjetc. It reads as
follows :—" The annexed sketch of a picture painted by J. N. Rhodes was
the last picture he ever finished, which was a day or two before his
death—he worked upon it in my painting room under my own eye—it has
never been out of my possession from that day to this, nor was ever offered to
any person living till I mentioned it to Mr. Eagland, who purchased it of me
August I7th, 1846.
"As witness my hand, Joseph Rhodes." " As a work of J. N. Rhodes, for depth of
tone, harmony of colour, truth of character and poetick feeling, I consider it
a very fine specimen."
A fit of apoplexy was the immediate cause of the artist's death, which took
place at a cottage in Hare- hills Lane, near Leeds, in 1842, when he had only
attained the age of thirty-three.
For the last five years of his life, he had been producing work of admirable
quality, including several pictures of importance in which his own
individuality was strongly marked. He was on the threshold of a successful, if
not brilliant career, and had additional years been granted to him, and those
years been devoted to the steady pursuit of his art, it is probable that his
name, instead of being practically unknown except in the town where he spent
the greater part of his life, would have been handed down to later generations
as one of the foremost painters of landscape and rustic scenes who flourished
during the earlier half of the nineteenth century.