​​​​​​ Herbert Railton | James Morton | A Tale of Two Artists

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When he was doing the drawings for William Hutton's book on Hampton Court, Herbert Railton spent the night there and it is said he saw the ghost.  And in many of his drawings there's more than a suggestion of ghosts, of figures from the past, not difficult to look at them and fancy that the ghost has just walked, or is just going to.  Little wonder he was chosen to illustrate Thomas Hood's Haunted House.
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Herbert was born on November 21st 1857 at Brownlow House, near Pleasington Station. His father John ran St Paul's Foundry at Blakey Moor.  The family were Catholics and Herbert was educated at Mechlin in Belgium and Ampleforth College.
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From an early age Herbert showed a talent for drawing and his father asked the advice of writer and journalist, Luke Walmsley, who suggested the boy be articled as an architect, where he could utilize his skills and make sure of a career.  He joined the firm of W. S. Varley in Richmond Terrace, often working on his drawings till late at night.
Illustrious Illustrator
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Herbert joined the Blackburn Literary Club, where he met local artist, Charles Haworth, who passed on many tips on black and white work  His first success came with the publication of his drawings of a railway accident at Blackburn Station, which were published in the 'Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.'
Photography in journalism had not yet come into its own, and there was a big demand for illustrators.  Herbert Railton became one of the leading men of the day, achieving a distinctive style combining broken lines and ornate detail with areas of white, which was much imitated, though few had his light touch, nor the underpinning knowledge of architecture.
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Herbert moved to London and took  chambers in Chancery Lane.  He joined the community of artists and adopted a bohemian lifestyle, later marrying Frances, an illustrator herself.  They had one child, a daughter Ione, who also became an illustrator.
Photography eventually superseded illustration as far as newspapers went, but Herbert Railton was still a name that many publishers wanted on the title pages of their books.  J.M. Dent, later famous for their 'Everyman Library,' employed him on many of their early titles.  Herbert Railton died of pneumonia on March 15th 1910.  He was only 53 and would surely have gone on to embellish the world of letters for many years

You have to see them. Words won't do it.  You have to see the white headstones of France and Flanders.  You have to visit Tyne Cot, Thiepval, Newfoundland Park. To understand, you have to see them en masse.  You have to browse the names, note the ages, listen to the silence, listen to the bird-song.
They are well looked after now.  Nothing is too good for them now.
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Towards the end of the 19th century the future occupants of these well-tended graves were being born in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, in their hundreds of thousands.  One such struggled to draw breath in the bedroom of 5 Tockholes Road, Darwen on October 22nd 1881.  That tiny, angry, red body wrapped so carefully in baby blankets was destined to be perforated by machine gun bullets in the Mormal Forest near Les 5 Chemins on the 6th of November 1918, but not before a promising career had begun.
The proud parents were James and Elizabeth.  This was their first boy.  They already had four girls: Rachel Ann, who was ten, Sarah - eight, Fanny - five and Alice - two.  Their baby brother was to be called James Hargreaves Morton.  Hargreaves was Elizabeth’s maiden name.  That November heavy snowfall came, stopping the recently introduced trams from running.
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He'd not have lacked for cuddles and attention with four older sisters.  His father died when he was six - old enough to remember him, old enough to miss him.  Maybe that made James junior even more precious, even more to be protected and encouraged.
By 1891 the family were living at number four Willow Street.  If ever there was an aspirational street, it was Willow Street.  If ever there was a street aiming for the heights this was it.  From down in the town, it looked as though it were standing on its end.  As well as his mother and sisters, there were three female lodgers.  Young James was no doubt a clever and gifted child and here were seven women who would praise and encourage him in everything he did.  His sisters were probably equally clever, but by 1891 they were working in the mill, even young Alice, who was a cotton winder.
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What was Darwen like when Morton was growing up?  It was a town of greater contrasts than it is now, a town of greater energy, a town where things were happening.  Uncomfortably close to Willow Street was the Green with its promiscuous slums and cheap lodgings.  He would give that area a wide berth.   A well brought up young boy would be lucky to escape from there with nothing more than his dignity ruffled.  At Whitehall and, to a lesser extent Sunnyhurst, were the substantial villas of the wealthy.
The division between classes was quite clear. The ragged urchins ran barefoot along the gutter; working men and women rode the trams with clogs on their feet; the well-to-do bowled along in their carriages. Social mobility was possible.  Hard work and ambition might get you a villa on Falcon Avenue and a servant or two.
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Darwen was booming.  In the lifetime of James's mother its population had increased nearly sixfold, equivalent to Darwen growing to the size of Bolton.  From a vantage point on the moors there would have been more mill chimneys than you could count, more than you could count before gamekeepers moved you on anyway. The stagnant waters of aristocratic demands and privileges fetched up even here.  The Lord of the Manor was extinguishing rights of way and turning people off the moor, anxious to preserve game.
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James Morton was hard working and ambitious.  He was also talented.  He attended Belgrave British School and passed exams in drawing.  Art and design were not unfamiliar concepts in Darwen.  Wallpaper manufacturers J G Potter produced designs which won international awards. When Eccles Shorrock opened India Mill during the Cotton Famine, he filled the empty sheds with a Great Art Exhibition, featuring works by Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Lely and Durer.  Darwen was not a sleepy little village.  It was a modern industrial town.  Its Technical School opened in 1894.  Electrification of the tram system began in 1899.  It could send its brightest and best out to conquer the world.  It sent James out to the Royal College of Art in London with a scholarship provided by G P Holden of Bank Top Mill.
The Royal College of Art had been founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design.  It gained the Royal title in 1896.  Design and craftsmanship was the emphasis there and in the art world generally at the time.  William Morris, John Ruskin and Ford Maddox Brown had promoted design and craftsmanship and had influenced public taste.  For Morton too design was of paramount importance.
Morton had lodgings at three Clifton Gardens, off Chiswick High Road.  It was about three miles along Hammersmith Road and Kensington High Street to the college.  The first motor buses were appearing on London's streets, some of them built in Leyland, but Morton would have walked.
Interesting to compare him with another young man who came to London with the hopes of his sisters pinned on him, another young man dreaming of making his way as an artist.  It was earlier in the century when Branwell Bronte came down from Haworth to astonish the world.  Branwell wanted to soar.  He wanted his talent to be recognised.  He expected London's art world to clasp him to its bosom and hail him as a genius.  Morton by contrast just wanted to learn a craft.  He contemplated a life of practice and hard work without a qualm.
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And what was London like at the century's turning?  In France Dreyfus was being vindicated. The newspapers were full of Boer War news.  This foreshadowed the Great War to come.  There were lists of casualties, photos of young men in uniform.  Morton could not have dreamt that soon he too would be in uniform, soon he too would be listed among the casualties of war, but that was not yet.  He had a few years left yet.
In 1901 he watched Queen Victoria's funeral from Hyde Park corner.  Maybe he caught sight of young men with cinematograph equipment filming the funeral.  Sagar Mitchell, with his companion James Kenyon, both of them from Blackburn, were making a film which would be shown up and down the country.  Maybe they caught him on film, a fleeting glimpse perhaps of his bared head, a half glance at the camera.  
There'd been a recent exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, featuring Monet, Degas and Pissarro.  Morton must have been a visitor and to judge by the Impressionist influence in his own work, an admirer.  Fifteen years later his own work was to be exhibited there.
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As a student Morton must have felt he was leading the life he wanted -learning about painting and practising it.  When he graduated, the situation must have been very different.  What was he to do now?  What does anyone do with a qualification in art?  There are no jobs for artists.  All you can do is teach, and this is what he did, becoming Assistant Art Master at Darlington Technical School.  How did the prospect of a lifetime spent teaching appeal to him?  How could he develop his own skills, try out his own ideas?  How could he find the time for that? And how little time he had. Did they know somehow, his sisters, that time was precious to him?  Was there some foreshadowing here of what was to come?
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Whether they did, or not, they gave him the opportunity to come back home and paint full-time.  In 1905 he was with his family in Sudell Road. In August of that year his mother died.
You can imagine what the neighbours thought - 24 years old and being supported by his sisters.  There'd be those who didn't have a good word to say about him, but there'd be those who knew him, knew the family and knew better, those who were proud in a way that somebody like them was getting this opportunity.  They'd know he was a worker. They'd see him setting off with his materials to Sunnyhurst Woods, the moors, and further afield - the Lake District, Cornwall, North Wales - trips he made in the company of the water colour painter John Yates.
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The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool had opened in 1877, paid for by brewer Andrew Walker.  It had a tradition of supporting work by Lancashire artists and in 1911 Morton had two paintings exhibited there.  He continued to exhibit there until conscripted into the army. He exhibited also at Bradford, Hull, at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Engravers and at the Royal Academy.  His hard work was bearing fruit.  His work was getting noticed. His career was beginning.  Recognition was not far away.
The War
When the war began there was no shortage of volunteers.  Some, no doubt prompted by patriotism, but many looking for adventure, looking for escape from drudgery. It might have seemed to those who stayed at home that the war would remain at arm's length, something to read about in newspapers. The two sides absorbed each other's momentum and came to a halt.  The line of trenches stretched from Switzerland through France and Belgium to the sea. Two things were clear  -  the war was going to last a long time and all offensives, all 'big pushes' were going to cost the lives of many young men.  A constant supply of fresh recruits would be needed.
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Industrial methods were being applied to warfare, and the result - 58,000 British casualties on the first day of the Somme. Human ingenuity had conjured unimaginable horrors. It was as if God had abandoned the World and even the Devil had looked on his work and grown pale.
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The Western Front was a vast machine, a huge mill for the grinding and shredding of young men. It had a voracious appetite. The supply of young men was exhausted; older ones would have to be supplied. Conscription was introduced in May 1916.  Men up to the age of forty one were called up.  Morton was thirty five.  He joined the 66th East Lancs.
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If he'd lived, how would the experience of war have affected his painting?  Would the scenes of carnage have found expression in his art?  Futile questions; he did not survive. Five days before the war ended the 1/5th East Lancs and the 8th Manchesters were advancing towards the road running south from Le 5 Chemins.  They encountered heavy machine gun fire.  Morton and many others were hit.  Bodies that had been nurtured and cherished, lives that had held great promise, all lay cold and broken in the mud.
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Morton is buried in Row A, grave number eight in the Communal Cemetery at Pont-sur-Sambre.
For more information on James Morton go to the Friends of Darwen Library web site.
Two stories.  Two stories with startling similarities but fundamental differences.  Two families, one on the wrong side of the Pennines, but both by moorland hills.  Five girls and one boy in each family. The boy in each case brilliant, talented, full of promise.  In each case the boy is encouraged and supported by his family.  In each case the story ends tragically. Both boys seek to pursue careers as artists.  Both boys set off for London to get the training and contacts in order to launch and establish their careers.  Both boys have very different experiences.

They were born at different times and in different circumstances. The first boy is born in 1817 in Thornton near Bradford, the son of a clergyman.  His mother and two of his sisters die at an early age.  He tries school but he has a nervous disposition and he struggles there.  His father teaches him at home, giving him a classical education.  He's prodigiously talented.  A number of careers seem open to him – poet, novelist and artist. He decides to be a painter and determines to go to London, to the Royal Academy, to study, to perfect his skills.  Although, once accepted, tuition there is free, he will need money to live.  His father and aunt agree to support him.  The boy's name is Branwell Bronte.

The second boy is born in 1881, in Darwen, the son of a cloth-looker.  His father dies in 1887.  The boy goes to the local Technical School and Higher Grade School.  He excels in woodwork and drawing.  He works hard and becomes the focus of the family's ambitions.  He wins a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art. The boy's name is James Hargreaves Morton.

Branwell went down to London in the autumn of 1835.  He had letters of introduction from his art tutor, William Robinson, and sculptor, Joseph Bentley, of Leeds.  The plan was to present himself at the Royal Academy Schools, housed in Somerset House and persuade them he was a worthwhile student.  We can't know for sure what he did, though he later wrote a fictional account of his time in London. What he should have done is visit the British Museum and work up some studies of the sculptures on display there to present at the Academy.  What he did do apparently is wander aimlessly, spend his money on rum in taverns and agonise about his inadequacies.  There's no evidence that he ever presented himself at the Royal Academy.  Did he think he would not be admitted and feared to put himself to the test?  Was he suffering from the paralysing homesickness that affected his sister Emily?

James Morton travelled down to London to the Royal College of Art in 1899..  The Royal College of Art's main focus was on training students to become highly capable art school teachers, while encouraging the development of technically competent (if not necessarily adventurous) artists and designers. Morton had already proved his competence by winning his scholarship.  He settled down to more hard work, approaching art as a craft to be learned, and a skill to be acquired by practice.  If he ventured to a tavern at all, it would have been after a country walk and his tipple would have been ginger beer.  He gained his diploma in 1904.
Back home Branwell tried to excuse his failure and empty purse by claiming he had been robbed. He threw himself back into writing, sending material to journals such as Blackwoods.  He had no success, and, by 1838, with the support of his family, set himself up as a portrait painter in Bradford.  He made a good start, using family connections, but hard-headed Bradfordians were not known for throwing their brass around, and besides, early photographic processes were becoming available for anybody who wanted a likeness doing.  The project did not prosper.

 After successfully completing his studies Morton took up a post as art teacher in Darlington. He quickly realised this was not what he wanted to do.  After a year, he returned to Darwen.  His mother died in 1906. It was clear Morton wanted to spend his time painting, but he couldn't earn a living like that.  His sisters, who were all employed in the mill, agreed to support him, and, for the next ten years Morton painted full-time, producing an impressive amount of work.  In addition, he undertook design work for local printers and wallpaper manufacturers.

Branwell made further stabs at a career, as a clerk on the railways at Luddenden Foot, and, as a private tutor.  Both ventures ended badly. He returned home, increasingly dependent on alcohol and laudanum.  He had never had robust health, but heavy drinking, self-neglect and despair led inevitably to the end.  He died in the morning of Sunday September 24th 1848 at home.

Morton's career was building slowly.  He had work exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and a number of important provincial galleries. His work was developing, always strong on design but showing impressionist influences. He was all set for a national reputation.  The First World War put an end to all that.  He was conscripted in 1916.  He wasn't posted to France until 1918 when he joined th 2/5th battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment.  He was killed on the 6th November and lies buried at Pont-sur-Sambre cemetery.

Two men whose potential came to premature ends.  In so far as anybody is responsible for their own fate, Branwell can be said to have brought his upon himself.  Not so Morton.  His death seems crueller, but at least he lived long enough to leave a body of work, a legacy. 

What of their sisters? Branwell’s received education and encouragement.  In their world, a woman could have literary success, and they did, all three of them.  But what of Morton's? What would have been the response if any one of them had declared she wanted to be an artist?  What if she'd said she wasn't going to the mill; she was going to stay at home and paint?  Would their brother have rolled his sleeves up and marched into the weaving shed to support her?

What have we lost?

Alan Duckworth, August 2020.

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