Let me introduce you to the Norfolk artist, Joseph Paul, who I came across a while ago on a visit to Newark Town Hall and Museum, Nottinghamshire, who have several works paintings by him. They knew little about the artist, except that I was told that he had left his native Norfolk under something of ‘a cloud‘, which was something I couldn’t ignore and needed to know about the man and more importantly ‘the cloud‘.
I could not have imagined for one minute how this story would work out though, the more I delved into his life the murkier it became. His life was complex and his art even more so – the art remains a mystery for reasons which will become more obvious by the end of his story. Many of the works attributed to him, I’m sure were not painted by him. Over these next posts we will trace his life story, accompanied by some of his paintings, so be warned, we’re in for a bumpy ride!
Joseph worked in both London and his native Norfolk, painted mainly landscapes, was reputedly a forger of famous works of art, such as those by Constable, but was this correct? Oh, and he had five wives and was accused of murder on more than one occasion.
According to the art historian Norman L Goldberg, Joseph was reputed to be the son of an artist, Robert Paul, but somewhat frustratingly, Goldberg provided no explanation as to where this idea came from, so right now that is simply speculation.
With some research, it appears there was a London artist named Robert Paul, but like Joseph Paul, nothing seems to be known about him, apart from the fact that several of his works were exhibited at the Norwich Society in the early 1800s. The Norwich connection arguably makes this a feasible connection to Joseph, however, there remains no proof either way for this assumption. A Mr R. Paul appears to have been painting Georgian scenes of London, but as they are all unsigned it is mere speculation.
A Robert Paul was listed in the Westminster rates returns from the early 1780s to the end of the century and was living on Charles Street, St Margaret’s, Westminster. Was he the R. Paul? It’s not at all clear, but it would fit with him painting scenes of central London. All of this is speculation and so as to whether there was any connection between the artist R. Paul and Joseph Paul remains unknown. Whilst this all appears to be incredibly vague, that is because it is, and no excuse can be made for this, the information at present is simply not known, so the focus has to be upon what is known of Joseph Paul.
According to the author, John T Hayes,[i]
Joseph Paul was born in Norwich in 1804. Nothing is known of his education or artistic training. He exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1823, 1829 and 1832, on the last two occasions as a portrait painter. Sometime after 1832, Paul seems to have run up against the law and fled from Norfolk. He acquired a studio in or near London, where he and his assistants turned out forgeries of Constable, Crome and other East Anglian painters and of Samuel Scott and other painters of old London views. Pauls style, even in his occasional original work, which was lacking invention, is marked by coarse handling with thickly and broadly applied impasto, and harshness of tone. A Yarmouth friend described him thus: “he was a great actor, a great singer, a great gambler, a great rogue, and a great fool”. He is said to have been married five times.
The problem with this being, that the same information appears to have been repeated over the centuries and there is, however, no clear evidence to support it and no-one has, in their assertions, provided any sources, apart from repeating each other, thereby creating a mystery persona for Joseph which may, or may not be strictly accurate. The assumptions are correct in that nothing seems to be known of his childhood or for any degree of certainty who his parents were or exactly where he was born and that he married five times.
All that is known about Joseph’s early life is that he appears to have lived with or at least had a close relationship with his godmother, an elderly, affluent woman, one Mrs Elizabeth Meek of Norwich, who, for a guess, helped him financially to pursue his career as an artist.
By 1825, Joseph was living in London, although quite what led him there is unclear, but it would be a fairly safe guess that it was to pursue his career in art and seek his fortune or was he already trying to escape from his past?
It was in the October of that year when he was to meet and marry wife number one, Eliza Vining,[ii] who was nineteen and therefore under the legal age of twenty-one and as such would have needed her father’s consent, which was duly given. Joseph stated he was a Joseph Paul, Esquire from Dover, Kent on the marriage register, so was this true and if so, what was his connection to Norfolk and his godmother, had his parents perhaps died and he had been raised by her or was this to be a little white lie?
Joseph and Eliza soon produced five children, Eliza (1826-1910) who later married a local fishmonger named Thomas Bush; Joseph Meeke (1828-1891) who left England to become a tea planter in Upper Assam; Pauline Emma (1829-1908) who married an army officer, William Appleton; Napoleon (1831-1861) who became a plumber, but who also dabbled in art as an ornamental painter, but who died aged thirty, and last, but not least, Caroline (about 1835-1906) who married a draper, Richardson Taylor.
After the birth of their second child, Joseph and Eliza left London and travelled to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where their second daughter Pauline was born, followed by Napoleon.
The youngest of these children, Caroline, consistently stated she was born at Ware, Hertfordshire, as to what they were doing there is unclear unless they were on their way back to London, and although there is no trace of a birth or baptism for her anywhere, however, it does appear likely that she was telling the truth, because, in the parish register of nearby Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, there is a burial entry on 14 July 1835 for Joseph’s first wife, Eliza Paul, along with one for a baby, Josephina, aged one month.
Given these entries, it seems highly likely that Caroline was the surviving twin.
With the tragic death of Eliza, this would have left Joseph with five children, all under ten years old to raise alone, but this was not an end to the matter, questions were being raised about Eliza’s death and as such an inquest[iii] was held at nearby, Hoddesdon.
Joseph, described as a local portrait painter, was suspected of foul play, the allegation having been made by Eliza herself. Described as a very anxious and excitable person, she told a witness just before her death she thought Joseph was trying to poison her, surely this could not be true?
She was in her confinement at the time which would seem to correspond with the burial of Josephine and so she must have been one of the two children Eliza was carrying. After the inquest, it was concluded Joseph was innocent of any charges as there was no tangible proof of him having murdered her, but instead that she had died of natural causes. The surgeon believed, given her condition, that she had become confused and stated the cause of death was simply a ‘Visitation of God’ and on that note the case was closed, Joseph was a free man.
Do join me next week to find out more about his life and four more wives, more confusion about his artwork, oh, and some more suspicious deaths and even an exhumation!
Click here for Part 2
Click here for Part 3
[i] British Paintings of the Sixteenth Through Nineteenth Centuries
[ii]London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: DL/T/090/018
[iii] Hertford Mercury and Reformer 30 June 1835
View of Beaumond Cross, Newark, Nottinghamshire, Joseph Paul (1804–1887) (attributed to) Newark Town Hall Museum and Art Gallery