See paintings by John Callcott Horsley
John Callcott Horsley was from a family of well known artists and musicians. His father was William Horsley (1774-1858), a successful composer and musician who founded what later became the Royal Philharmonic Society. His grandfather was John Wall Callcott (1766-1821), composer and once pupil of Joseph Haydn. His great uncle was the landscape painter Augustus Wall Callcott (1779-1844). His brother-in-law was the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859).
Horsley began his studies at the famous Dr Henry Sass’s Academy, traditionally a preparatory school for the Royal Academy. It was at the RA that he met Thomas Webster and the two artists became life long friends. He was exhibiting there from 1839-1896, mostly historical subjects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was rector of the RA from 1875-1890 and treasurer from 1882-1897. He organised the RA’s Old master winter exhibitions in later life and spent time on research and practical arrangements for these exhibitions. He earned the nick-name ‘Clothes-horsely’ when he protested against the use of naked models in life drawing classes. He is credited as the designer of the first Christmas card, commissioned in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.
In 1846 Horsley married Elvira Walter and they had three sons, all of whom died of scarlet fever. After Elvira’s death in 1852, he re-married Rosamund Haden the daughter of the famous surgeon Charles Haden (1786-1824). They went on to have seven more children, although two died in infancy. It is from Rosamund’s diaries, now in the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, that we get such a vivid picture of social life in Cranbrook. She was a supportive wife and travelled with her husband on a working visit to the Midlands shortly after their marriage in 1854. She was also a talented needlewoman and made costumes for some of his models.
The Horsley’s were regular visitors to Cranbrook and occupied lodgings there until an opportunity arose to purchase their own place, ‘Willesley’ in 1861. The house was enlarged by the architect Richard Shaw (1831-1912), who was influenced by Jacobean style. Shaw’s signature features, tall chimneys and cosy inglenooks, appealed to Horsley. He too had a fondness for seventeenth century art and history, which is apparent in his paintings.
Horsley died in 1903 but the artistic tradition continued in his family. His oldest son Walter became an artist and his youngest son Gerald was an architect. Another son, Victor, was a surgeon, known for his pioneering work in neuroscience.