A Good English School Portrait of an Italian Chief Cantor Priest by Arthur Edward Clabburn c.1900

Origin: English
Period: Late Victorian
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1900
Height: 36”
Width: 28”

The oil on canvas of good size depicting a stern looking Italian priest in his plain black cassock and biretta hat seated in an ornate ceremonial carved walnut armchair clutching a large bound leather religious tome, shown three quarter length, the whole on an ebony ground surviving from the zeniths of the Victorian period and signed for A.E. Clabburn and dated to 1900 lower left.

The condition of the painting is unrestored, uncleaned and unframed and is in as found order. It is dirty and would probably benefit from a clean but we always love pictures that show their age. There are some small areas of loss with flaking, particularly to the edges of the canvas and there is a good deal of craquelure to the surface especially around the area that surrounds the sitters face. There are four or five small holes present. The painting is decorative as is but could be extensively cleaned, restored and framed is so desired.

The picture is very well executed, the skill in the level of detail is apparent even in this order, particularly to the veins in the sitters hands (of whom we do not know). The carving to the walnut chair is of a high level and the priest is also wearing some rather nice rings.

The reverse also provides us with some leads as to the pictures historic trail. There is an ink stamp for Reeves & Sons London to the centre and there is also a mid-20thC sticker to one side of the stretcher which reads ‘Cantor’ and the number ‘2474’ in chalk. Reeves and Son were one of the most prominent colourmen in London. W.J. Reeves & Son, Reeves & Sons, 1819-1890: By 1819 William John Reeves was 65 and the business became W.J. Reeves & Son, when his son, James Reeves (1794-1868), was taken into partnership. The word cantor on the reverse refers to a priest who prays and sings chants. If you have ever heard a Gregorian chant sung with power and anointing, then you know how beautiful and absolutely incredible the song of a cantor can be.

In the book British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections by Christopher Wright, turning to page 241 we can find the entry of ‘CLABBURN, A.E. Working 1889, London, Ealing, Local History Centre St Mary’s Church, Ealing Interior 1889 List 2004 inv.no.L4.’ This date ties perfectly in with our picture dated just a year later, to 1900.

Arthur Edward Clabburn was born in the hamlet of Thorpe, on the outskirts of Norwich, Norfolk, on 7 April 1849, to a prosperous family of local businessmen, manufacturing silk shawls. In his late teens he joined the army, and was commissioned as an Ensign in the 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment of Foot on 16 Oct 1868, being promoted to Lieutenant on 5 March 1870. He travelled extensively with the regiment, serving in Hong Kong, Singapore, Mauritius and Natal. On 3 Jul 1872 he was placed on the half pay list, retiring from the service on 24 Mar 1875 (just short of his 25th birthday), when he "received the value of his commission". Under an army restructuring a few years later, in 1881, the 75th Regiment became the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders and some sources refer to Arthur having served in this regiment.

Arthur's father's friendship with the artist Frederick Sandys had probably spurred Arthur's own artistic interests, and he spent the remainder of his life trying to make a career as a freelance artist. According to a letter Arthur's daughter Ethel James had published in The Times, Sandys used to take young Arthur to visit his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti at his house at 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were often present. Arthur had a few pictures shown at Royal Academy summer exhibitions while he was in the army, and his 1877 "Portrait of a Fisherwoman" was sold by a Norwich auctioneers in 2012.

Arthur’s marriage to Rosey de Pearsall seems to have been a happy one, and they produced six children over a period of sixteen years. Economically, their life was probably rather "hand-to-mouth", with an uncertain income dependent on whether or not Arthur had been paid for any art commissions, probably supplemented by a small army pension. The only other sale of his work we know of is a picture of the interior of St Mary's Church at Ealing (now at Ealing Public Library in west London), which he sold in 1891. His descendants possess three of his pictures; a portrait of his wife, a crayon drawing of his sister Lucy Clabburn and a portrait of his eldest two daughters, painted shortly before his death.

The census records show them at a variety of addresses in Kent and south London, but in 1901 disaster struck and Arthur was diagnosed with stomach cancer; he died on 17 November that year, aged only 52, at 108 Sarsfeld Road in Balham, south London meaning that it is quite possible that this picture was the last picture ever completed by Arthur Clabburn. Rosey was left with no income and with six children, ranging from Ethel, the eldest (22), though Charles (20), Adèle (16), Walter (12), and Dorothy (9) down to Viva (6).

See: http://johnbarnard.me.uk/Arthur&RoseyClabburn.html for further details of Arthur and his family, with thanks to John Barnard.

This canvas is almost electrically and musically charged and has a rather wonderfully ethereal quality to it… Miserere mei, Deus!