Whilst searching for clues provided for us in old documents by the heroine of one of our books, we inadvertently stumbled across the artist Rolinda Sharples (1793– 1838). Our heroine says that she had a self portrait painted by ‘the best female artist in Bristol’, around 1815. This led us to the conclusion that there could only be two possible candidates for that position – either Rolinda or her mother. So this of course led us to research Rolinda’s life a little more, to see if we could make any connection. Unfortunately for us there doesn’t appear to be any record of her commissions, which leaves us unable to prove conclusively that we have found the correct artist. However, the Sharples family life was so interesting that we decided to carry out some further research, hence their place on our blog.
Rolinda was part of an amazing family of artists headed by her father James, who established themselves in England, travelled to America set up an incredibly successful practice there and then returned to England.
We begin Rolinda’s story with the birth of her father, James. James Sharples was born into a minor landed gentry family from Lancashire. He was the son of George Sharples and was baptized on 27th May 1748 at St Anne’s Church, Woodplumpton, Lancashire. The Sharples family were deeply divided between Catholicism and Puritanism, James’s side of the family being Catholic. His father was George Sharples and his mother was Ann Harrison, a widow when she married George. Her previous husband had been Richard Talbot of Lancashire, and from this marriage James had a half-sister named Elizabeth (1738-1803) who became a nun in the order of the Holy Sepulchre in Liege. With a fortune of £285 which she donated to the order in return for 17 florins a year for life she took the name of Sister Mary Hellen Aloysia. She returned with the order as sub-prioress in the 1790’s when it returned to England and became the order of the Holy Cross. Besides his half-sister James had two full siblings, an older brother Henry (1740-1804 who became a successful timber merchant in Liverpool, and a sister Margaret who joined her half-sisters order. Margaret, who was admitted with no fortune at the age of 16 years and 8 months took the name of Sister Mary Felix Joseph and died in 1783.
Some sources say that James was sent to a Jesuit College in France to train for the priesthood, but quickly ‘opted out’ in favour of returning to England to become an artist where he became a pupil of George Romney. He was at the Jesuit College in Bruges in 1770 when his uncle William Harrison wrote to him. James wanted money to return home, but was criticized by his uncle instead for being of a ‘fickle and unsettled disposition’. James’ benefactor at the time was Lord Stourton, a Catholic relation of the Duke of Norfolk whose son was also at the Jesuit College at Bruges. The Sharples family back in Woodplumpton had fallen on hard times; George had died in 1761 and his widow Ann who had carried on in business trading in cloth had been declared bankrupt once. By 1774 he was exhibiting his work with the Liverpool Society of Artists.
By 1779 he had moved to Cambridge, then, in 1781 he moved again, this time to Bristol where he taught drawing – clearly his wanderlust was beginning to appear! We know that he was in Bristol at this time as a notice was placed in the Bristol Journal, ‘Mr Sharples from Bath, Portrait Painter in oils and crayons, begs leave to inform the nobility that he has removed from Hartwells to Mrs Jeffery’s , milliner, 28 Clare Street , where upwards of one hundred specimens of known characters may be seen.’ In 1783 he gave his address as 45 Gerrard Street in London.
James was to marry twice before meeting his final wife and co-artist Ellen. His first two wives who both died young may have shared his recusant faith, and so records on them are not forthcoming. With his first wife he produced a son George, then, with his second wife, he fathered another son, Felix Thomas. Both of these sons became artists and possibly one of his former wives was a celebrated needlewoman. In 1783 a ‘Mrs Sharpless … Needle Worker exhibited a piece at the Society of Artists, giving her address as 45 Gerrard Street and being described as ‘Embroideress to Her Majesty’. After the death of his second wife James went to live with his older brother Henry in Liverpool, renting a house on Everton Hill.
Whilst living in Bristol a ‘pupil and young lady of fashion’ caught his eye and became his third wife, she being Ellen Wallas (often shown as Wallace). Some reports say that Ellen was a Quaker, however, if she were a Quaker and James a Catholic it seems curious that they should have chosen to marry at St Mary’s Church, Lancaster on 5th January 1787. The proof of their marriage lies in the marriage register itself with Ellen’s signature – Ellen in fact, signed her name Wallas and not Wallace. The other curious piece of information is that there is a record in the baptism register of St Peter’s Church, Bolton Le Moors, for a child – James Sharples son of James and Ellen dated 22nd May 1785, i.e. prior to their marriage, so we can only draw the conclusion that James was born out of wedlock, although most sources give his birth date as c.1788.
The parish register for the 1st October 1793 at Bath Easton, near Bath shows the baptism of Rolinda Sharples, daughter of James and Helen (known as Ellen) Sharples, (some websites inaccurately say that she was born in America). The reality is however, that shortly after the birth, at the instigation of Robert Cary, a London merchant the family packed their bags and set off for America.
Their passage to America was somewhat arduous and early on their ship was captured by a French privateer and the family was interned at Brest for seven months. Later, in 1803 when James (junior) reported news of war with France, Ellen briefly recalls the terrible ordeal in her diary:
War! how dreadful the sound, whichever way contemplated misery precedes,
accompanies, and follows in its train. Our family have experienced; severely
experienced much of its misery, and much did we witness during our seven months
captivity in France, too heart rending to red [sic].
After their release, they continued their journey across the ocean and arrived in America to begin a new life. Records of arrivals in America show that James arrived in New York early 1796, his name being recorded as James Sharpless which, he decided was easier for Americans to understand.
James set about gaining commissions, with his most famous commission being that of a portrait of George Washington, the original being drawn in 1796. Sharples was literally a pastel portrait painter, almost the only serious artist using this medium in the USA at the time. His colours were kept in small glass vessels and applied with a brush; he made a collection of portraits for himself merely requesting a sitting for a portrait to add to his pictures. This was probably an ingenious plan to obtain patronage, for duplicates were generally ordered. He finished a portrait in about two hours and charged fifteen dollars for the profile and twenty for the full face.
The whole family engaged in artistic work and became copyists to James. Ellen appears to have been an amazingly independent woman and was one of the first professional female artists in America. With this in mind Ellen paid particular attention to her daughter’s education and development as an artist in her own right. Ellen held very progressive views on the education and independence of women. By 1803 Ellen had begun to encourage Rolinda to take an interest in art and taught her drawing and encouraged her by paying her small amounts for her work. By the time she was 13 Rolinda was a fully fledged member of the family business. She painted small scale pastel portrait of famous people and then copied them and sold them for a profit. Full accounts of the family life still remain in the form of Ellen’s diary, family papers, accounts, details of them building up a family business.
One story about the family tells how they travelled in a stagecoach near Middletown, Connecticut. The horses took fright and dashed off with Rolinda as the only occupant. Although she escaped injury James decided that it wasn’t a safe way to travel so built a large caravan drawn by one horse which they travelled about in from then on – quite the gypsy traveller!
In 1801 the family returned home, living in Bath, Bristol and London for some years. A planned return to America in 1806 was hampered by fears of war with France, and only James Jr and Felix took passage. James senior, his wife Ellen and daughter Rolinda finally sailed for America in 1809.
Tragically, on February 6th 1811 whilst in New York, James died, aged 59, according to the New York Evening Post, leaving an estate worth some thirty-five thousand dollars. After burying James at the catholic cemetery Ellen returned to Bristol taking Rolinda with her; the two boys James and Felix remained in America. George, James’s son from his first marriage did not appear to be with the family, but was mentioned in his father’s will.
Felix Thomas worked mainly in Suffolk County, as a pastellist. He was described as being extremely fond of his food and drink. Rumour has it that whilst working in Yardley at the home of the Winder family, Felix made a hasty departure in 1812, never to be heard of again. Various rumours suggested that he fell victim to small-pox, that he drowned in a shipwreck and that he committed suicide. However, the reality was that he joined the army. American records show him as having joined Gayle’s 61st Regiment, Virginia Militia, in 1812 reaching the rank of Corporal. He died in the 1830’s of natural causes and was buried at Yeatman Plantation Cemetery, Matthews County.
Rolinda, by this time was moving on from painting small portraits and earned her living painting portraits in oil and more ambitious genre and contemporary history paintings that depicted groups. In 1814, Rolinda painted a self-portrait, and in 1815 she completed a double portrait entitled ‘The Artist and Her Mother’.
Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1827 and was one of the first female artists to paint multi-figure compositions. Her major works include ‘The Cloak Room, Clifton, Assembly Rooms’, ‘Racing on the Downs’ and ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton’. Her works were exhibited at Bristol, Leeds, Carlisle and Birmingham.
One of her most famous paintings was that of ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton‘ painted after The Bristol Reform Riots of 1831. The riots were a protest at the House of Lords preventing the Reform Bill from passing through Parliament. Lieutenant Colonel Brereton was court-martialled in January 1832 for sending his squadron away on the Saturday night in the midst of the chaos. Some people thought that Brereton could have done more to save the city from destruction if he had acted earlier and more decisively. For others, however, Brereton had been trying to hold his troops back from violence against the rioters. Many people thought that he was being made a scapegoat for the failure of the city magistrates to support him and give him orders to cope with the rioting. Tragically, Brereton shot himself four days after the trial began. Rolinda not only sketched during the trial, but also as some of those attending to sit for her. A slight element of artistic licence here – the lady seated at the bottom centre of the painting was none other than her mother, positioned in such a way as to appear to be overseeing the proceedings – very clever!
For the last few years of her life she lived with her mother in the Hotwells district of Bristol and died of breast cancer in 1838. There remains a plaque at Rolinda’s old house on Canynge Road in Clifton which reads “Ellen Sharples (1769-1849) and Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838) mother and daughter artists lived here 1821-1832”.
A year and a half after Rolinda’s demise James junior was also to die of pneumonia leaving just Ellen who spent her remaining years accompanied by her servant Maria Johnson at St Vincent’s Parade, Clifton, until her her death aged,80. She was to die leaving no heirs leaving no heirs so she decided to donate over 90 pictures to The Museum at Bristol, as well as her own and Rolinda’s and James Junior’s.
Jane Austen has been described as a ‘provincial novelist’ and Rolinda as a ‘provincial artist’. There appears to be a wide gap of public awareness between the two women, what’s your view of this?