James Meadows' career evolved from portrait painting, and his current reputation is based upon landscapes and seascapes. However, his contemporary reputation was established in another genre, as a 'scenic painter' in London's 19th century theatreland.
James merits an entry in a recent scholarly account of scene painting, "A Biographical Dictionary of Scenographers, 500 B.C. to 1900 A.D." by Robin Thurlow Lacy (published in 1990, and referenced on Gooogle books). From the glimpses available on the web, and from other sources also available on the internet, it is possible to build a more detailed picture of his activities which explain why the theatre journal, 'The Era', recorded James in their almanack as a 'scenic painter'.
According to Lacy's book, James "flourished" between 1844 and 1853, notably as the scene painter at The Surrey Theatre in Southwark, and Sadlers Wells Theatre in Islington. However he also appears to have developed a strong relationship with the managers and companies of The Lyceum Theatre, where his son Alfred is also reputed to have later been employed as a scene painter.
James is mentioned as the principal scenic artist for 'The Seven Castles of the Passions', which was performed at The Lyceum on the 24th October, 1844. Interestingly, one of the trio of artists responsible for the set is also listed as Meadows 'JR'(junior). Although Alfred is more often associated with The Lyceum, Meadows Junior in 1844 most probably refers to Alfred's eldest brother, William, then aged about 19. An entry in The Fine Arts Journal in 1847, concerning the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, reveals that, "The scene painter is Mr W.J.Meadows, the son of Mr Meadows, of The Surrey". The playbills of London's theatres in the 1840s and 1850s always included detailed descriptions of the cast's costumes, and often of the scenery. Although descriptions of the latter could be quite extensive, they did not always run to mentioning the artists. Nonetheless, several 'family firms' of scenic artists are identifiable, so a 'Meadows & Sons' approach would not be surprising.
James' association with The Surrey Theatre appears to have been well-established by the mid to late 1840s, as an entry in the diary of the great actor-manager William Charles Macready mentions, "Mr. Meadows, the artist of the Surrey Theatre, called, and I went over with him the scenes of ' Hamlet,' writing out a plot for him. " Macready's interpretation of Hamlet was considered one of the greatest performances of the role. Macready managed Covent Garden, and later the Princess' Theatre, in Oxford Street, where Macready performed 'Hamlet' in 1845. Macready retired from the stage in 1851.
By the time of the 1851 census, James and his family had moved from Mile End to Clapham Old Town. Given his association with The Surrey Theatre, it is likely that James moved his family south of the river for professional reasons in the 1840s, after the birth of his youngest child Arthur who was born in Mile End in 1843.
The Surrey Theatre was in Blackfriars Road, by St George's Circus, in Lambeth. It began life as an acting school (including the future Mrs Charles Kemble amongst its' pupils), and at various times became a circus. In the 1840s, productions of Charles Dickens' dramas were produced at the theatre,including 'A Christmas Carol' in 1844. Ira Aldridge, the first successful black actor, also appeared here at the same time. In 1848, Alfred Bunn took over the management of the theatre, and it gained a reputation for 'rough-and-tumble' melodrama.
Image: Self-portrait of James Meadows
Self-portrait, by James Meadows.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Joan Audrey Meadows).
Even if James' family and professional life was centred on the South Bank of the Thames in the later 1840s and the early 1850s, his greatest works as a scenic artist were created at The Lyceum Theatre, between the Strand and Covent Garden, in the heart of London's theatreland. From 1847-1855, the theatre was managed by the contralto Madame Vestris and her husband, the actor-manager Charles Matthews the Younger. Charles Matthews the Elder, a renowned actor-manager in his own right, had seen William Meadows perform in Dublin in 1794 and commented favorably on his performance (see the Early career of William Meadows). Whether this had any bearing on James Meadows engagement is unknown, but it is certain that his family background would have endeared him to his fellow scene painter, William Roxby Beverley, one of the leading lights and revolutionaries of 19th century scene painting.
William Beverley (c.1814-1889) was born into a theatrical family. His father managed the Durham circuit of theatres, and four of his brothers and sisters all took to the stage. William started by acting in low-comic roles, before moving on to stage design. From 1847-1853 he was the scene painter of The Lyceum, before moving to Covent Garden in 1853, and then spending the remainder of his career from 1855-1885 at Drury Lane. He was the first artist to use transformation scenes with folding and descending scenery, renowned for its spectacular beauty. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest influences on pantomime, and many of the most famous scenes of today's shows are direct descendants of Beverley's original creations, from Aladdin's cave to Cinderella's coach.
James Meadows prominence as a scenic artist resulted from his partnership with Beverley at The Lyceum, under the management of Matthews the Younger; three second-generation representatives of theatrical families whose forbears first trod the boards, and maybe even crossed paths, fifty years earlier, when William Meadows appeared in the earliest pantomimes with Grimaldi at The Haymarket. Amongst the productions for which Beverley and Meadows produced the scenery were:
'The Tragedy Queen', 'The Golden Branch', and 'Box and Cox' in January 1848; 'Theseus and Ariadne' in March 1848; 'Charles XII', 'The Island of the Jewels', and 'A Practical Man' in Fabruary 1850; 'King Charming, or The Blue Bird of Paradise', first performed in December 1850 and a long-running success in 1851; 'The Game of Speculation', and 'The Prince of a Happy Land' in December 1851; and 'A Strange History' in March 1853.
The final member of the quintet that ensured the success of The Lyceum, was the curious and colourful herald of arms and playwright, James Robinson Planché (1796-1880). Closely connected to the Court by family and professional associations, he was nonetheless a prolific and successful playwright for sixty years. A long-standing friend of Madame Vestris, he was "playwright, librettist, general advisor and superintendent of the decorative departments" at The Lyceum from 1847-1852. His 'Extravaganzas', at The Lyceum included 'Charles XII', 'The Golden Branch', 'Theseus and Ariadne', 'The Island of the Jewels', 'King Charming', and 'The Prince of a Happy Land', were amongst the highlights of the Christmas seasons. (One of Planchés earlier original creations, in 1837 for Vestris and Matthews, was 'Puss in Boots'). The Extravaganzas were 'sophisticated fairy tales' for adult audiences, but they are widely acclaimed as representing the first flourishing of the pantomime. Much of the success of these productions was due to the scenery which supported them, and even today they are considered masterpieces of stage scenery.
The success of Planchés productions hinged upon the effects wrought by Beverley, Meadows and their assistants. 'The Island of the Jewels' was considered by one contemporary critic to be rather boring, until the final scene when the leaves of a palm tree fell away to reveal a fairy bearing a jewelled coronet on each branch. This was the first example of a transformation scene. 'King Charming' ran for over 180 nights, starting on Boxing Day 1850. A first-hand description of the show by Thomas Hailes Lacy, the theatrical publisher,('Home sketches on both sides of the Channel, being a diary', published in 1852), mentions: " I called into The Lyceum and witnessed a burlesque or extravaganza called 'King Charming'. There was some very excellent dancing introduced into the course of the evening, but the sceneary and machinery were beautiful in the extreme; indeed I never saw anything in this way to equal them." Another critic in 'The Sporting Magazine', wrote of 'The Prince of a Happy Land', that Beverley and Meadows scenery was "surpassingly beautiful", and that "Beverley, Meadows and their assistants have wrought wonders".
The link below to the on-line collections of the University of Worcester allows us to read descriptions on pages 3 and 4 of the scenes which James created with Beverley for 'Theseus and Ariadne' which opened at The Lyceum on March 2nd, 1848. 'The Theatrical Times' critic wrote, " ... 'Theseus and Ariadne', or 'The Marriage of Bacchus', met with the most brilliant reception on Monday evening. ... C.Matthews was magnificently placed upon the stage, every attention being bestowed upon scenic effect and illusion. The Temple of Bacchus was a splendid truimph of art, and spoke highly for the exquisite talent and tastes of Messrs.Beverley and Meadows. " A lengthy review in The Times on 25th April, 1848, extolling the merits of the production, noted: "The scenery, by Mr W.Beverley and Mr J.Meadows, surpasses, if possible, anything hitherto done for the decoration of burlesque. Mere magnificence is common enough, but here magnificence is combined with the best taste, and with truly classical feeling. The Cretan port, the bird's eye view of labyrinth, and the departure of the galley, are specimens of high scenic art."
'Theseus and Ariadne', The Lyceum, March 2nd, 1848
The second link below to the on-line collections of the University of Worcester also allows us to read a description on page 4 of the scenes which James Meadows created with William Beverley for Charles Matthews own original creation, 'A Strange History', in March 1853, one of their final co-productions.
'A Strange History', The Lyceum, March 29th 1853
In 1852, Planché left The Lyceum to enter 'semi-retirement'. In 1853, it was the turn of William Beverley to leave, and move around the corner to Covent Garden for a season, before making his final move to Drury Lane in 1855. Vestris and Matthews gave up the management of The Lyceum in 1855, and so the revels now were over for the band which had made The Lyceum such a success.
The departures of Planché and Beverley may have been the spur for James Meadows' change theatres. The final creations by James Meadows so far identified are all linked to a theatre further from Clapham, but closer to James' earlier homes. In January 1853, whilst still working at at The Lyceum, James assisted the scenic painter Fenton in the production of the scenery for 'Whittington and his Cat' at the Sadler's Wells in Islington. Meadows and Fenton also collaborated once again in December of the same year on the scenery of 'Tom Thumb', at the same theatre. Both of these productions belonged to the theatre's pantomime repertoire and seasons. Finally in January 1854 James collaborated at least one more time with Fenton at Sadler's Wells on the production of the scenery for (the rather unseasonal) 'Midsummer Night's Dream', followed by the Christmas Pantomime, 'Harlequin Tom Thumb' (as recorded on the playbill in the on-line collection of the University of Kent).
Image: James Meadows
(Above) James Meadows, probably in the 1860s; (Below) Ann Meadows née Cross, probably in the mid-1850s.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Lesley Hayward).
Image: Ann Meadows née Cross in the 1850s
In 1856, the family had moved back to the East End, no doubt partly encouraged by the final geographical shift in James' professional centre of interest, and was living at 18, Beaumont Square in Mile End, close to Stepney Green. By the time of the next census in 1861, James and his family were living at 12, Coburn Street in Bow. It is to this later period of his life and career that James Meadows owes his reputations as a marine painter. From 1855 until 1863, James exhibited 21 paintings at the Royal Academy, all of which depicted ships or coastal scenes. The scenes depicted included the mouth of the River Thames; Dover, Pevensey and Beachy head on the south coast, Scarborough on the north coast, and Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.
James' concentration on his career as an marine rather than a scenic artist may nonetheless have been strongly influenced by his back-stage friendships in the theatreworld. William Beverley was also a prolific and successful watercolour marine artist, including many scenes of Scarborough and the Yorkhire coastline of his childhood. James' and William's greatest contemporary, the scenic artist Clarkson Stanfield, who had a very similar family and career path to both artists, also specialised in marine art. Perhaps the three of them all knew that their "rough magick" as scenic artists would turn to dust and disappear, but that their artistic posterity might be guaranteed by scenes of both tranquility and excitement of the every-day Victorian world of the sea.
Image: Sussex seascape 1859
A coastal scene by James Meadows Snr. Dated 1859, this may be a companion piece to another similar painting of trawlers off the coast at Rye.
(Reproduced from a private collection, by kind permission of the owner).
James Meadows died of diabetes on 5th May, 1863 at his home in Coburn Street, and his funeral took place at the local parish church, Holy Trinity, Mile End. According to one obituary, it appears that he was buried in this churchyard. His death was commemorated in the obituary list of notable persons linked to the stage, as a "scenic painter", in the later editions of 'The Era Almanack." Nonetheless, it is for his marine paintings that James Meadows is most remembered, and so his gamble, at least, paid off.
Despite his death in 1863, there was a posthumous postscript to James'life and career. In 1866, two paintings by James Meadows were exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts in Dublin, where James Meadows was born. No doubt this was quite simply in order to raise funds for his widow. The exhibition catalogue gave the contact address as 115 Grafton Street, close to Stephen's Green in the city centre. Both the 1850 Dublin City Directory and the The Dublin Street Directory of 1862 indicate that this was the professional address of, amongst others, Thomas Cranfield, "printseller, carver, gilder and photographer" (1862). Cranfield must have acted as the Meadows family agent for the exhibition. An example of Cranfield's photographic work is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and appropriately this depicts the London-born actor-manager John Lawrence Toole, who began his career in Dublin before making his reputation in London.
Examples of James Meadows' marine paintings are now sought after, and there are examples of his work in the collections of the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and in the British Government Art Collection ('Seascape', 1861; and 'Shipping off Yarmouth', 1858). The links below will allow you to browse a few examples of James' work which are currently displayed on the web.
James Meadows in the Government Art Collection
James Meadows on Artnet
Information regarding James Meadows' contemporaries can be found on Wilkepedia, with extensive entries for Planché, Madame Vestris and Charles Matthews. The links below provide more details of the life of William Beverley; the history and development of British pantomime, including an article on The Lyceum; and access to two excellent sources of information, the on-line catalogues of Victorian playbills at the University of Kent and the University of Worcester.
The biography of William Beverley
The history of pantomime
Theatre Collections, The University of Kent
The Victorian Plays Project, The University of Worcester
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