Charles H. Harrison (1842-1902) was known for his landscape paintings depicting the Norfolk countryside. Born in Great Yarmouth in a dull neighbourhood, his parents moved to a more comfortable cottage where the first signs of the young prodigy bloomed. Harrison developed an appreciation for all things beautiful, and this was captured in his work. As with many artists then and now however, his skills were overlooked by the education system. He soon gained a job as a decorator where he was mentored by people who also had an eye for detail and wished to express this. As with many young aspiring artists, he declined to follow ‘approved’ models, instead wanting to give his own unique spin. His style is described as bold and distinguished although rather crude and faulty when it came to colour. He was also a perfectionist and ended up destroying a fair amount of his own work, noticing faults which would bypass a less keen eye.
He studied art as much as he created it to seek guidance. While he did admire his art predecessors, it never came at the expense of losing his strong sense of individuality. This makes it rather ironic that he joined the military at a young age in 1859 becoming part of the Rifle Volunteers, winning the respect of his superiors and comrades and eventually obtaining his sergeantcy in 1867. His military dedication meant his artistic passion was pushed to the side until 1870 when a relative working upon a boat gave him a set of water colours a passenger had left behind. After some practice he soon specialised in water colours, especially as the ones offered to him were of such good quality.
Despite art not being regarded as a financial success, he was encouraged by his friends to pursue such a career and his confidence never faded. He married Miss Edith Porter in 1866 and his career prospects were promising in the decorating business. In 1872 when he received his first commission, a drawing of Old Ramp Row. Harrison’s first big buyer was Lady Crossley who in 1876-77 purchased several of his drawings which were received well by her friends. She was keen to get into contact with the artist so she requested a visit from him. The meeting was a success. Soon after, a few close friends of his urged him to consider associating himself with art students but he declined, arguing that it was just not possible to teach nature by night in a classroom.
Tragedy struck the Harrison household when his young wife died of illness, leaving behind two children. While his drawings were still appealing, there was now a depressing aspect about them, compared to the bolder and brighter paintings of his younger years. These paintings often included a tree bending over a hedgerow, casting a long shadow over it, Autumn Glory was one such example. Despite the gloomier tone to his work, his pieces were still being reproduced and sold to well-known art patrons. A drawing depicting Beccles as seen from the river became especially popular. Mr Carpenter, a Yarmouth art dealer offered trading opportunities to Harrison and his pictures were put on display at a tobacco shop where they were sold at a high rate. He also sought advice and encouragement from Mr. Lemon, an art dealer based in Lowestoft. In both cases, there was little benefit for the artist, as the dealers pocketed most of the earnings for themselves.
In 1878, Harrison married Miss Emma Read and departed for London. Upon arrival it was immediately obvious that he hated the capital, even if he sympathized with the local artists, he commented, ‘saw some good pictures at prices small enough to starve the poor devils who painted them’. He found little inspiration in the city and returned to his beloved Norfolk in 1879 where he found a friendly rival, Batchelder. In the summer of 1880 they went on a scenic sketching tour on the Bure and its many tributaries by rowing boat. Compared to the highly detailed style of Batchelder, the smaller scenic details such as reeds, bull rushes, lily pads and marsh flowers were merely ‘suggested’ in Harrison’s work. His sketches focused on lighting such as the deep shadows and the rippling light, creating a 3 dimensional effect. Harrison would also befriend Mr G. Calver who was studying astronomy and the two of them would walk together. Calver would lecture Harrison on the scientific basis of art, much to his enthusiasm while they looked around at the bull rushes. In these instances the artist was known to grumble because something like picturesque tree was at the wrong angle from their seated position.
Harrison would contribute to the East Anglian Exhibitions and Exhibitions of the Royal Institute of Water-Colour Painters. His contributions were usually purchased before opening day and they were generally received well by critics. However, Harrison’s perfectionism meant that he frequently rejected the invitations of secretaries due to his refusal to display anything that failed to satisfy him. He had a habit of comparing his works to more professional paintings at the National Gallery and was generally very harsh analysing his flaws. Despite this extreme perfectionism, his works from 1880-1900 are often regarded as his best. During this period he also studied animals, although he put less effort into them despite his intrigue with the natural world. One exception was fish which he encountered in the Broadlands and this fascination developed into his new found hobby in angling.
One time while the artist was painting he had an encounter with a farmer who spoke to him rather condescendingly and apparently threw a stone through his hard work. Understandably furious Harrison asked the man if he threw the stone. The farmer replied, ‘What if I did!’ The already angry artist exclaimed, ‘Then take that for your pains!’ before punching the man right between the eyes, knocking him back and causing him to flee the scene. There was also a point where Harrison’s perfectionism once again got the better of him. A lady had commissioned him to draw her house and grounds. When she insisted that he draw a certain path that did not come within his perspective, he argued that it would spoil the picture. After much persuasion he indignantly took a large paintbrush and swiped it across the canvas repeatedly, resulting in the loss of a good commission.
In his final years Harrison was becoming increasingly deaf and was suffering from depression, losing interest in doing things, even hobbies he enjoyed like fishing, and he felt suicidal. His mental illness affected his art too, becoming less inspired and motivated. On October 4 1902, shortly before his death, a letter appeared in local papers. The writer criticised the fact that none of Harrison’s paintings were displayed in the Tolhouse Museum and Art Gallery, lamenting that his beautiful masterpieces would be less accessible to poorer residents. On November 14th, Harrison died aged 60 years and was laid to rest in the Yarmouth Cemetery. Long after his death his work still has an impact across Norfolk. Exhibitions have been held in celebration and some of his art has been spotted on sites like Ebay, which shows that this local interest remains present in the digital age.
Sources: C. H. Harrison, Broadland Artist, A Memoir (NRO, 5814)
By Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.