Do you own any works by this temperamental Norfolk artist?
PUBLISHED: 10:54 01 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:20 01 May 2019
Rebecca Hanley of Norfolk Record Office delves into the past of Charles H Harrison, who had a fickle relationship with his career.
Born in Great Yarmouth in 1842, Charles H Harrison was a landscape painter famous for his depictions of the Norfolk countryside. A man of great talent he was beset by feelings of inadequacy and failure.
Harrison showed a passion for painting from a young age. However, his creative talents were stifled by the rigid Victorian education system.
He left school and worked as a decorator. Here his skill and distinct style shone through, but his “bold and distinguished, but rather crude technique”, may not have lent itself to the fashions of Victorian interior design.
In 1859, in a decision that seems at odds with his disregard for rules and norms, he joined the army. Serving with the Rifle Volunteers he rose, on merit, to sergeant. His service took priority over his art career and for a while he stopped painting entirely, until by chance in 1870 he was lent a set of watercolours that reignited his passion.
Having married Edith Porter in 1866 and leaving the army a few years later, Harrison struggled to make a living as an artist, returning to work as a decorator. He continued to paint however, and received his first paid commission in 1872, a drawing of Old Ramp Row. His work was well received and throughout the 1870s he had further success. Notably, several of his drawings were purchased by art collector Lady Crossley.
As he became better known Harrison was encouraged to teach. He refused to do so, arguing that his style and his subject matter, the countryside, could not be taught in the classroom. Ever keen to remain distinct in his style he was also known to destroy his pieces if they did not meet his own high standards.
His successes of the 1870s were tempered by the death of his wife, Edith. Now alone, bringing up two young children Harrison's work became darker and melancholy.
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Despite the change in tone his work continued to grow in popularity. He had an unsuccessful and very one-sided relationship with a Lowestoft art dealer, Mr Lemon. Harrison saw little return from this partnership.
In 1878 Harrison married again. With his new wife Emma, he moved to London to further his career. He quickly came to loathe life in the capital and the way it treated its artists, commenting that he “saw some good pictures at prices small enough to starve the poor devils that painted them”.
By 1879 he had returned to Norfolk. He became friends with local artists and scientists, such as Stephen Batchelder and G Calver. Both attempted to temper his style, to make it more detailed and precise and less suggestive, both failed.
Over the next 20 years Harrison became a more established figure and produced what is widely considered to be his best work. His work was shown at the East Anglian Exhibitions and the Royal Institute of Water-Colour Painters and was well received.
His work would often sell well, but he often rejected invitations to display his work claiming it was not good enough. On occasion he would destroy a piece to prevent it being displayed.
This perfectionism could boil over into real anger. Once, when painting alone he was interrupted by a farmer who insulted his work. The farmer went on to throw a stone at Harrisons painting, understandably angry, Harrison is said to have exclaimed “take that for your pains” and punched the farmer square in the face.
Harrison's final years were beset by both physical and mental illness. Severely depressed he lost all interest in painting. He died on November 1, 1902 aged 60 and was buried in Yarmouth Cemetery. Despite his dissatisfaction with own work, his paintings have continued to be popular in Norfolk and beyond. His birthplace is marked with one of English Heritage's famous Blue Plaques.