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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Joseph Syddall RA

Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2007

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Joseph Syddall R.A.

The bench-mark of an artist’s worth and indeed, the highest accolade that he or she could have bestowed upon them is election and acceptance into the Royal Academy.

Of the many thousands of artists who have excelled in their particular medium over the last two hundred years, only a chosen few of the masters of their art have been elected to this most prestigeous body of excellence and able to legitimately put the letters R.A. after their names.

`So rare is the artistic talent and interpretation of individual genius displayed by an artist of the Royal Academy'

So rare is the artistic talent and interpretation of individual genius displayed by an artist of the Royal Academy that at any given time there are only eighty RA’s. These are made up of artists who fall into one of the Royal Academy’s four categories of art: Painting; Printmaking; Sculpture; and Architecture - and only twenty of these are painters.

New members are elected only by the current membership and vacancies only arise when either a member dies or reaches the age of 75 and becomes a Senior Academician. Nominees must be artists under the age of 75 and professionally active in the United Kingdom. When proposed by an RA, the nominee’s name is written in the Nominations Book. This nomination must then be supported by a further six RA’s and once there is enough support for the nominee, they then become a Candidate. The newly elected Royal Academician donates a work, known as a Diploma Work, to the Royal Academy’s Permanent Collection.

As can be clearly seen from these stringent rules, artists of the Royal Academy are a very rare breed and you could probably count the number of Derbyshire painters who have achieved such high status on one hand, - and those from the village of Old Whittington on one finger!

That finger would point directly to Joseph Syddall RA, the son of a local master carpenter and joiner, who was born at 44 Church Street, Old Whittington in 1864.

Little is known about him and very few contemporary records survive; his life has never been documented, and so we have to rely on whatever fragmentary evidence still exists. We know what he looked like – in his early 30’s at least – from the self-portrait he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898; this shows a fashionably dressed, studious looking young man with hair fast receding at the temples, wearing a pair of wire-framed ‘pince-nez’, sporting a luxuriant walrus moustache and looking every inch the dapper and stylish dandy of his day. We also know what he thought of himself from this same pencil sketch which he titled, ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’.

The first ‘official’ recording of his name - apart from his birth certificate - is to be found in the Register of Attendance at Webster’s Whittington School, which was only a short two minute walk down the hill from his home.

An early indication of his burgeoning artistic talent is suggested by an entry in the Whittington School log book written during the Easter Vacation of 1878, and currently held at the Chesterfield Museum. This shows the results of an inspection of the art class between April 22nd & 25th 1878 which denoted that ‘Joseph Syddall, aged 14 years’, was a “Monitor”.

Upon leaving school the young Joseph went to work as a clerk in a local solicitor’s office in Chesterfield, but not before his talent had been noted by Miss Mary Swanwick who offered to fund a place for him at art school.

The Swanwicks of Whittington House were a prominent local family and their patriarch was Frederick Swanwick, the railway pioneer famously known as Chief Engineer to George Stephenson, who lived a couple of miles south at Tapton House.

Mary Swanwick was the Guardian for the Old Whittington Ward of the Urban District Council and Governor of Webster’s Whittington School Charity & Estates, along with Chairman and Chemist, Henry Twelves, & Johnson Pearson Esq.of Pearsons Pottery. Later she endowed the village with both land and money to build a new school, and generations of local children have subsequently enjoyed the benefits of the Mary Swanwick School at Old Whittington. The Swanwicks, Twelves, Pearsons, Greens, and Broomheads were the high society gentry of their day in Whittington and were later to play a major role in Joseph Syddall’s life.

Joseph soon left his job in the solicitor’s office and under Miss. Swanwicks patronage was sent to art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire to study under Sir Hubert von Herkomer. He rapidly established himself as a star pupil and was praised by the master for his excellent pencil drawing and sketching which eventually earned him a nomination to the Royal Academy and prompted von Herkomer to proclaim him “the best draughtsman in England”. His anatomical sketches were superb and his figures were imbued with such life and character that whilst still at art school he was commissioned to illustrate Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” when it was published in ‘The Graphic’ magazine.

Joseph returned to Old Whittington after art school, now a celebrated artist he converted part of the family home into a studio and earned a living by receiving portrait commissions and giving drawing lessons. He resumed his association with the local gentry, and along with the Broomheads, Alderman Pearson and the Swanwicks, became a member of Elder Yard Chapel in Chesterfield. He was also a regular concert-goer in both London and Chesterfield and never missed an opportunity to sketch the musicians and performers, fellow members of the audience, or even the staff. Hats were a speciality and he sketched compulsively on any material that was to hand, including the theatre programmes.

At art school he had met fellow artist Annea Spong and his drawing of her was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898. Other R.A. exhibits included a portrait of Miss Eric Byron (1904).

Whilst best known for his pencil drawings, Syddall also worked extensively in oils and pastels, and he was not afraid to experiment as is shown by his magnificent impressionistic painting in oils of Anna Pavlova. His work was seldom dated, and whilst his full signature was usually appended to his paintings, he generally applied only his initials to pencil drawings.

Joseph Syddall designed the war memorial which stands near the Revolution House at Old Whittington, and also the one which graces the town centre of Dronfield. Perhaps the most popular and immediately recogniseable of his many works is his pencil drawing of the Revolution House around 1900 which is still used today to illustrate local postcards.

Joseph Syddall left Chesterfield in 1920 and went to live in Hampstead with long-time friend Annea Spong with whom he remained for the rest of his life. He visited Old Whittington once a year and travelled extensively around the British Isles, painting scenes in places as diverse as County Wicklow, Robin Hood’s Bay – and Dronfield.

Tragedy struck towards the end of his life when five of his friends were killed in a German bombing raid which also damaged his Hampstead studio.

It is said that whilst he was alive Syddall never willingly parted with any of his own work. Fortunately for Chesterfield, following his death from heart failure at his Hampstead home on January 13th 1942, he bequeathed his remaining collection to Annea Spong, who in turn donated it to his home town. The Joseph Syddall exhibition is currently on permanent display at the Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery.

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