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Essay on Alfred Worthington by Peter Lord

Alfred Worthington was the last of the artisan painters in Wales.  Painters of this kind were professionals, but self-taught or taught in a craft workshop rather than in an academy.  They flourished all over Europe and in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Initially they painted houses, carts, signs and occasional religious pictures and inscriptions for church and chapel, and sometimes portraits.  In Wales, from the late eighteenth century, the demand for portraits increased substantially, as a growing middle class imitated the life-style of the gentry.  Itinerant painters such as Hugh Hughes and William Roos, and subsequently resident painters such as John Cambrian Rowland - the first professional painter to live in Aberystwyth - made a living mainly as portraitists well into the 1850s.  However, conditions changed again as the result of the development of cheap photography by 1860.  The market for portraits was undermined and artisan painters diversified into landscape and still-life, as well as sometimes - like William Roos - colouring photographs or turning photographer themselves to earn a living.

 

Alfred Worthington was born in Dover in 1835 into the kind of middle class family that often provided the patronage for artisan painters.  His father was a naval lieutenant who had fought in the Napoleonic wars, and his mother had a small private income.  Alfred Worthington was given art lessons as a child, but this would be his only training, and he retained the fresh vision of a naive painter all his life.  His parent's circumstances seem to have been comfortable enough to indulge Alfred's interests, which included the sea, wild-life and photography.  He married Elizabeth Ashtell Godden in about 1862, probably after spending five years in Canada hunting and fishing.  He was a tall, well-built man, and he later photographed himself in his studio, dressed as a hunter.  However, he became ill as the result of an epidemic which killed one of his children, and on medical advice, moved to Aberystwyth to live.  He survived to the age of 89 and fathered fifteen children, so he seems to have been well advised.

 

Alfred and Elizabeth Worthington arrived in Aberystwyth about 1870, at the end of the decade which saw the establishment of a photographer in the High Street of every small town.  The demand for portraits was being met in Aberystwyth largely by Ebenezer Morgan, established in 1857, but in an expanding market Worthington went into competition, eventually building a studio in Terrace Road.  He advertised, like many others in the period, both as a photographic artist and as a portrait and landscape painter.  This combination was most successfully practiced in Wales by the Harris family in Merthyr Tydfil.  G F Harris took photographic portraits and painted portraits from life, but also painted over photographic originals printed on paper or on canvas.  Worthington did the same - a procedure not regarded as cheating since the objective was to produce the best likeness possible, not to demonstrate the drawing skill of the artist.  Only one traditional portrait by Worthington is known, that of Edward Lewis Pryse, Peithyll, one of the Gogerddan family of local gentry.  In 1875, following in the footsteps of Hugh Hughes, fifty years before, Alfred Worthington also painted a scene of The Gogerddan Hunt.

 

Both G F Harris in Merthyr, and another late artisan painter, James Flewitt Mullock who worked in Newport, produced landscapes and parlour pictures of sentimental and moralising subjects, as well as portraits.  Harris and Mullock, like Worthington in Aberystwyth, became respectable and well known local citizens, an important part of the life of the town.  However, unlike Merthyr and Newport, Aberystwyth not only provided Worthington with a market among residents, but also among a large number of visitors.  He gave up photography about 1900 and concentrated on painting land and seascapes.  Judging by the number of surviving pictures, the best-sellers were views of Llanbadarn Church and of Aberystwyth Castle.  As Hugh Hughes had done from the 1840s, Worthington reproduced these stock scenes for many years in his studio, probably copying from a single original or perhaps working from memory.  As a consequence, his views of Llanbadarn Church are well known for their consistently inaccurate drawing.  This must have been pointed out to Worthington since the building was so well known and only a mile down the road, but it does not seem to have troubled him.  The pictures vary in size from 4'6" across down to about 12", and Worthington sometimes used watercolour - though his strongest work was always in oil.

 

Alfred Worthington decorated a variety of domestic items such as fire screens, as well as painting pictures on canvas.  Some of these reflect the popular Victorian taste for all things Scottish, with stags in mountainous landscapes probably adapted from Landseer.  The manufacture of fire places and a variety of nick-nacks in slate flourished in Aberystwyth in the late nineteenth century and Alfred Worthington was employed to decorate them with scenes painted in enamel.  At one time there were five manufacturers, but Worthington worked in particular at Morris and Jones' works, though whether he was employed for a weekly wage by the company, or painted on a one-off basis for particular customers, is unclear.  Llanbadarn Church was again a common subject.

 

Much of Alfred Worthington's work reflects his love for the sea.  He bought fishing boats which were captained by his sons, three of whom died as a consequence.  Painters had found work for many years in large ports all over Europe.  Mariners from small ports like Aberystwyth often commissioned pictures of their boats as far afield as Naples, but artisans at home also took to painting in a simple two-dimensional style.  Alfred Worthington adopted a naive version of the more sophisticated style of painters such as James Harris of Swansea.  Scenes of Aberystwyth harbour, of ships entering the port in rough seas, of boats at sea and of wrecks, are among his best works.  They are energetic and vigorous, like the man himself - and unpretentious, too, in the best tradition of the artisan painter.  Alfred Worthington died in 1925.

 

Peter Lord, 1994