The early career of James Meadows

According to his obituary in the theatrical newspaper, ‘The Era’ (May 17th, 1866), James Meadows was born in Dublin in 1798 during the Bantry Bay rebellion, when French revolutionary forces sought to land and join with Irish Nationalists. James' son, Edwin Lewis Meadows, records that James’ father, William Meadows, was believed to have been a volunteer member of the force destined to defend Ireland against the French invasion at Bantry Bay. He also mentions that one of William's daughters may also have had a theatrical engagement in England. Shortly after James' birth, the combined effects of rebellion and professional necessity drew the family back from Dublin to London via Liverpool, where three members of the family appeared at the Theatre Royal from December 1798 until January 1799. According to Edwin, who received the story from James himself, William and his family were short of money when they arrived in Liverpool. Whilst William, his wife and the elder children travelled back to London by coach, their faithful Irish nurse, Hannah, was left to travel on foot and to carry the infant James on her back from Liverpool to London.

James presumably spent his youth in London with his father William, trailing in and out of the theatres where his father continued to appear fleetingly, and his sister Margaret more regularly, in the first decade of the 19th century. However the most significant influence on the young James was his brother-in-law John Massey Wright, who married James’ sister Ann Meadows in 1809. This was an association which in due course would send James from the banks of the River Thames to the Bay of Bengal, and in between would form him for future success. It was John Massey Wright who drew the young James Meadows into the artistic life of Lambeth in his early years, when the family was living in the area, and who would have introduced him to the Scottish landscape and marine painter John H.Wilson (who shared his house with John Wright and Ann Meadows), Henry and Thomas Barker of the London Panoramas, and perhaps also to the Scottish landscape painter Patrick Naysmith who lived close by. A fuller description of this artistic circle is available on the page dedicated to John Massey Wright and Ann Meadows.

The London Panoramas, and the passage to India

John Massey Wright was one of the principal artists who worked under the direction of the rival Barker brothers who directed the Panoramas in Leicester Square and the Strand. Henry Barker was a successful panoramic artist, but his brother Thomas employed the artist Ramsay Richard Reingale as the artistic director of his Strand establishment. Eventually Thomas sold out to Henry, and the panoramas continued to flourish with a series of spectacular views of foreign lands but also of the contemporary Napoleonic battles. The greatest success of the series was, unsurprisingly, the portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo. According to the contemporary ‘History of the Old Water Colour Society’, published within a couple of years of the deaths of James Meadows and John Massey Wright, the young James was also a member of the company of panorama painters, and it was James who accompanied the Waterloo Panorama on its voyage to the British colonial capital of Calcutta.

One unresolved curiosity of James’ story is mentioned in his obituary, which states: “He was an officer of the ship Kent in 1818”. According to family tradition, James’ uncle and possibly also his father had served on Captain Cook’s final voyages. James would also have been inundated with stories of noble British tars defeating and defying Napoleon’s fleet. No doubt his father had told him of singing 'Rule Britannia' before Nelson, and he would be well-acquainted with the songs of Charles Dibden in praise of the navy, which James' father performed, and his brother-in-law accompanied. So it would not have been very surprising if James did succumb to patriotic fervour and join the navy. However his career as an officer on HMS Kent appears to have been short-lived, if indeed it ever really happened. Although HMS Kent had seen battle at the end of the 18th century, from 1812 she was permanently moored at Devonport as a training ship, where she remained until she was dismantled in 1881. Moreover, by 1819, James Meadows and the Waterloo Panorama were on the either side of the world.

The Panoramas had caught on as a fashion across the world almost immediately after their conception. The Barkers were regularly exporting their works to Calcutta from at least the end of the first decade of the 19th century, and in 1812 a notice in ‘The Calcutta Gazette’ announced the sale in Calcutta of Barker’s Panorama of Dover. The sale announcement appealed in particular to, “a person inclined to take it up or down the country, where it doubtless, from experience in Calcutta, will meet with a number of visitors”. In 1819, another announcement appeared in The Calcutta Gazette, announcing that, “The proprietor of the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo informs the public that it will be opened for inspection on Monday next.” Coincidentally, he had also confirmed that James Meadows had landed.

According to his obituary in ‘The Era’, James “passed several years in Calcutta, where he gained many friends and great renown as an amateur actor”. This description may be somewhat embellished, as James was recorded in a London art annual living and working in Pentonville in 1819. No matter how charming the young artist-turned-sailor-turned actor may have been, it is unlikely that James would have been able to survive financially for long in Calcutta simply on his renown. Moreover there is a distinct problem about dates. The chances are that James stayed long enough in Calcutta to recuperate from the voyage, and achieve his renown as an amateur actor, and then returned to London once his mission was accomplished.

The Pentonville art school, and family life in Essex

The records of the Royal Academy exhibitors in the early 19th century include three sets of entries for artists who signed themselves James or J.Meadows, of which two sets at least refer to William's son. The 'other' J.Meadows was a miniature painter, which was a genre which James also successfully experimented.

The first exhibit at the Royal Academy by James Meadows was 'A scene near Brighton' (where his father made his stage début) in 1816. At the time, James was living at 10, Hermes Street in Pentonville, the area between Clerkenwell and what is now King's Cross Station in London. In 1817 and 1819, James was still living at the same address when he was included in a list of contemporary painters, in 'The Annals of the Fine Arts', as a landscape painter. In 1821, he exhibited 'View on the road to Blackmoor', and was living at the corner of George's Place in Holloway, close to Pentonville. By the time that James exhibited his 'View of Sible Hedingham' in 1823, he had moved back to Pentonville and was living at 19, Rodney Street, close to Hermes Street.

Image: James Meadows

(Above) The earliest known self-portrait of James Meadows (reproduced by kind permission of Arthur Meadows). This portrait bears a resemblance to an earlier work by John Massey Wright, entitled ‘The Young Artist’ (see the John Massey Wright page for the link to the image).

(Below) The earliest known surviving painting by James Meadows. This painting shows a view of the interior of Baker's Farm in Sible Hedingham through the principal entrance. The Farm was home to his sister Mary and her husband Richard Johnson, and later to James' father, William Meadows. This painting probably dates from c.1823 when James painted a view of Sible Hedingham which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1823.(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

Image: Baker's Farm by James Meadows Snr

This succession of addresses in and around Pentonville reveals much about James’ own immediate family. Anne Meadows’ husband, John Massey Wright, was born and brought up in Pentonville, and Mary Meadows and her husband Richard Johnson were living in Holloway in about 1824 when one of their daughters was born. At the time, both areas were still considered rural retreats easily accessible from London, and Pentonville in particular had a strong artistic community, including many illustrators and caricaturists (such as Cruickshank) amongst its residents. John Massey Wright’s is known to have lived in Hermes Street in 1815, and at 17, Rodney Street in Pentonville from 1817 until at least 1827. In the ‘History of the Old Water Colour Society’, it is noted that Massey Wright was a well-connected teacher of art, in addition to his other commissions, and his young brother-in-law James Meadows almost certainly joined him in the Pentonville venture when he returned from India and eventually moved in next-door in Rodney Street. Massey Wright’s reputation was built partially upon his success as a figure painter and portraitist, and James undoubtedly benefited from his brother-in-law’s tuition.

Little remains of contemporary Pentonville, and although it was an increasingly populated area, it was still officially part of the parish of Clerkenwell. There was a chapel-of-ease in Pentonville but this has now disappeared. However the site of the chapel is well-known as the last resting place of Joe Grimaldi, 'the father of British clowns', who knew William Meadows from his days at the Haymarket, and who lived out his final years in Pentonville. Rodney Street is directly adjacent to the site of the former chapel, and to Grimaldi’s burial site. Nonetheless, when the time came for the young James Meadows to marry his bride Ann Cross (born c.1802 in Marylebone in west London) in 1824, they travelled to St James' Church on Clerkenwell Green.

Clerkenwell was known for a number of skilled trades with which the Meadows family became associated. On the one hand, there waere the cabinet makers, who were supplied with timber by James' brother-in-law, Richard Johnson. Then there were the watch and clock makers, and James' niece Mary Wright later married the man who was to bevome the head of their professional association. Finally, James himself may have been connected with yet another skilled trade, the silversmiths of Clerkenwell. The witness at his wedding to Anne Cross was Thomas Burwash, quite probably the same man who was a member of a family of distinguished late 18th and early 19th century silversmiths.

Image: Portrait of the mother of Anne Cross, by James Meadows.

Portrait of the mother of Anne Cross (mother-in-law of the artist), by James Meadows.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Lesley Hayward).

Following their marriage, James and Ann Meadows moved to Essex, William Meadows the actor is known to have friends near Braintree, and James painted the first family view of Sible Hedingham in 1823, (his sister Mary and brother-in-law Richard Johnson owned Baker’s Farm which became the last home of William Meadows the actor). The first child of James and Ann Meadows, William James (later known as William George), was born in about 1825 either in Epping or Moutnessing. The following three children of James and Ann were all born in the village of Mountnessing near Braintree: James in 1826, Alfred in about 1833, and Ann in about 1835. The parish of Mountnessing was a collection of scattered farms, and the most well-known local feature is the timber-framed windmill, built in the early 19th century. However the birth of Ann Meadows may well have coincided with the family’s move back to London from Essex, and her three younger siblings were all certainly born in the East End of London: Edwin in 1838 in Stepney, Frances in 1840 and Arthur in 1843, both in Mile End.

Image: Self-portrait of James Meadows

Portrait of a gentleman, possibly a self-portrait, by James Meadows, c.1825 (reproduced by kind permission of Lesley Hayward).

One possible reason for a move back to London in 1835 was a commission for James to illustrate a new exhibition at the Cosmorama at 209, Regent Street. The Cosmorama, founded in 1820 was one of the many « oramas » to emerge in the wake of the original Panorama where both James and his brother-in-law John Massey Wright had painted. Various descriptions have survived of this exhibition centre. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1830 wrote, « The season for Exhibitions is now approaching, when all the grand family of oramas will bloom forth to tempt the curiosity of the visitors who annually arrive at this vast metropolis, where all the powers of genius and art are constantly called into activity, and paronized accordingly. There are the Dioramas, the Physioramas, the Octoramas, and numerous others of the same tribe ; but of all these pleasing exhibitions, the Cosmorama of Regent Street … may be visited with the most satisfaction. » A history of London Show Houses described the Cosmorama as an upmarket « peep show » with fourteen miniature panorama oil paintings and exhibition cases, and a visitor’s guide to London from 1839-40 noted that the subjects changed every two to three months, (according to their popularity), which allowed the Cosmorama to maintain a cutting edge over some of its orama rivals.

James Meadows paintings for the 1835 exhibition do not appear to have fitted the « peep show » miniature panorama-model. The Cosmorama had a reputation for offering different spectacles to its rivals (it was later the venue for the Flea Circus), and the 1835 exhibition was one of the first – if not the first - of its kind, demonstrating the work of the innovative submarine salvage engineers, Charles and John Deane. For this exhibition, James Meadows produced twenty canvases illustrating the working of the appartus invented by the Deane brothers, and covering almost 1400 square feet, which accompanied other exhibits recovered by the Deanes from the wrecked HMS Royal George. These paintings (none of which survived) and the illustrations to the exhibition catalogue, are considered to be amongst the precursors of the Victorian fascination with submarine and aquatic life. (The details of this exhibition are drawn from articles by the Historical Diving Society in 2001 and the Journal of Historical Georgraphy in 2006).

The return to London also coincided with James Meadows return to the Royal Academy exhibitions. In 1839, James exhibited a painting entitled 'A native of Constantinople', and in 1840 and 1845, he exhibited two self-portraits, 'Portrait of the artist'. During this period the family lived at 5, Hope Place in Mile End. Although James is now renowned as a marine artist painting seascapes, in his earlier years he experimented successfully with both landscapes and portraits. This was probably the reason that he was such a good teacher for his student artist sons, at least three of whom specialised in landscapes.

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