Hampshire:- R.H.C. Ubsdell (1812-1887)

Virtually forgotten for over a century, due to the efforts of his great great great grandchildren, brought together by genealogical research, the work of Richard Ubsdell will shortly be published in a two volume work:- ‘Hampshire:- Discovering the 19th Century World of R.H.C. Ubsdell’

This book follows the journeys Ubsdell made as he walked around Hampshire in the 1840s and uncovers the stories behind the people and places in his paintings.

Portsmouth Museums will be holding an exhibition to mark the Bicentennial of his birth and Winchester Cathedral Library will be exhibiting their collection of Church Watercolours, many of which are by Ubsdell.

Richard Henry Clements Ubsdell rose from poverty to prosperity and social standing by his skill as an artist and talent as a businessman.

He was born in the pub in which his father was a waiter.  He and his younger brother Daniel became portrait painters, specialising in miniatures; tiny watercolours on ivory which had their heyday before photography.

Richard married Mary Ann Pennal in 1833, when she was 19.  They had four children by 1839.

To support his growing family Ubsdell took every opportunity to build his reputation as an artist, for example by lecturing on art to the Literary & Philosophical Society and, by introduction, making contact with the rich and titled members of the Royal Yacht Squadron on the Isle of Wight.

He painted beautiful watercolours of items recovered from the Mary Rose.  Between 1840 and 1846 he walked the length and breadth of Hampshire seeking portraiture work.

As a by-product he painted over 100 watercolours of the Hampshire Churches he passed on his travels. These he sold to the Bishop of Winchester and Sir Frederic Madden.

The council paid him to create illuminated addresses on vellum for visiting dignitaries. In painting miniatures, and collecting images of people for a series of paintings of gatherings at significant events, he painted many famous people, including  Jane Austen’s sailor brothers and Jane’s niece Anna Lefroy. He also painted the Courts of Queen Victoria and Louis Philippe of France. His miniature of Anna Lefroy captures Anna in the pose of a writer, Anna having recently inherited the manuscript of ‘Sanditon’ (Jane’s last unfinished novel) and in the process of writing her continuation.

Many of Ubsdell’s images were subsequently used by more famous artists, lithographers, and the publishers of the illustrated London newspapers.

By 1857 Ubsdell was an early photographer, and with his two sons created a library of local landmarks as stereoscopic images on glass slides. (Most probably these would have been sold to the London Stereoscopic Company who were rapidly expanded their catalogue of images.)

In 1859 he moved from his small studio in Portsmouth High Street to an impressive art and photographic studio and gallery overlooking Governor’s Green in Portsmouth.  Here he made his fortune in the craze for photographic visiting cards known as Carte-de-Visite.

By the late 1860s Ubsdell had become the paramount artist in Portsmouth and its hinterland. Life then became a matter of personal fulfilment. He started an ascent through the various ranks of the Freemasons and in 1870 was elected a borough councillor, where amongst other things he sat on the Sanitary Authority who were at the time constructing and improving Portsmouth’s sewers.

Sadly, his wife and children all died before him, his daughter Lavinia not yet two.  He himself died of cancer of the tongue aged 75, perhaps caused by bringing watercolour brushes to a point in his mouth.

Ubsdell is represented by pictures in the Royal Collection, The National Maritime Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, Winchester Cathedral Library, Portsmouth Museums & Record Service, Chawton Cottage & The National Trust Property Uppark, as well as in many private collections yet to be discovered!

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