Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brockedon, William
BROCKEDON, WILLIAM (1787–1854), painter, author, and inventor, was born at Totnes on 13 Oct. 1787. His father, who was a watchmaker, was a native of Kingsbridge, where and in the adjoining parish of Dodbrook his family had been occupants or owners of garden mills since the reign of Henry IV. This son, who was an only child, was educated at a private school in Totnes, but he learned little in it. His father was quite capable of supplying the deficiencies of school teaching as then understood, and under his instructions his son acquired a taste for scientific and mechanical pursuits. So great was his proficiency in mechanics that he was able to conduct the business during the illness of nearly twelve months which ended in his father's death in September 1802.
Brockedon was proud to acknowledge his obligations to his father, whose 'natural talents,' as he wrote to a friend in 1832, he had 'never seen surpassed,' adding that 'whatever turn my own character may have taken, if the world thinks kindly of it, it grew under his instruction and advice, and the impressions made upon me before I was fifteen.'
After his father's death, Brockedon spent six months in London in the house of a watch manufacturer, to perfect himself in what he expected to have been his pursuit in life. On his return to Totnes he continued to carry on the business for his mother for five years. In a letter written to his friend, Octavian Blewitt, in November 1832, he says: 'I recollect with much pleasure the hand I had in making the present parish clock in the church at Totnes. An order was given to my father to make a new church clock a short time before the accident by lightning which, in February 1799, struck the tower, threw down the south-east pinnacle, and did so much damage to the church as to require nearly three years to repair it. This accident prevented the clock being put up until the summer of 1802, during my father's last illness.... I remember when the clock was making that I was set to do some of the work, though only about thirteen years of age, particularly cutting the fly-pinion out of the solid steel.'
During the five years in which he carried on the watchmaking business for his mother he devoted his spare time to drawing, for which from childhood he had as great a taste as he had for mechanics. Archdeacon (then the Rev. R. H.) Froude, rector of Dartington (father of Mr. J. A. Froude), encouraged him to pursue painting as a profession. The archdeacon liberally aided Brockedon's journey to London and his establishment there during his studies at the Royal Academy. Brockedon found another generous patron in Mr. A. H. Holdsworth, M.P. for Dartmouth, and governor of Dartmouth Castle.
This was in February 1809. From that time his career must be considered under three heads: 1, as a painter; 2, as an author; 3, as an inventor.
1. For six years he pursued his studies in London as a painter with little interruption till 1815. In that year, immediately after the battle of Waterloo, he went to Belgium and France, and had the benefit and gratification of seeing the gallery of the Louvre before its dispersion. From 1812 to 1837 he was a regular contributor to the exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the British Institution. In these twenty-five years he exhibited sixty-five works, historical, landscape, and portraits—thirty-six at the Academy and twenty-nine at the British Institution (Graves, Dict. of Artists}. The works he exhibited in 1812 were portraits of Governor Holdsworth, M.P., and of Samuel Prout, who was, like himself, a Devonshire artist. He next exhibited 'a more ambitious work, of which artists of name spoke with approbation,' a portrait of 'Miss S. Booth as Juliet' (Cunningham, 'Town and Table Talk,' Illustr. News, 1854), pictures on scriptural and other subjects, portraits of Sir Alexander Burns, Sir George Back, now in the library of the Royal Geographical Society, and some interesting landscapes of Alpine and Italian scenery. He also painted the 'Acquittal of Susannah,' presented by him to his native county and now in the Crown Court of the Castle of Exeter; 'Christ raising the Widow's Son at Nain,' which he presented to Dartmouth church as a mark of respect to Governor Holdsworth, and which obtained for him the prize of one hundred guineas from the directors of the British Institution; and, about the same time, 'Christ's Agony in the Garden,' which he presented to Dartington church, a picture, he says in a letter to Blewitt, 'associated with my grateful recollections of Mr. Froude's friendship; and I mention it, trifling as it is, as one public testimonial of my desire to acknowledge his exceeding kindness to me.' Another large picture, representing the 'Delivery of the Tables of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai,' was presented by him to Christ's Hospital in 1835, and placed by order of the governors in their great hall. Another picture, painted at Rome in 1821, the 'Vision of the Chariots to the Prophet Zechariah,' excited so much interest that, by permission of the pope (Pius VII), it was exhibited in the Pantheon. At the same time Brockedon was elected a member of the Academies of Rome and Florence. In compliance with a law of the Florentine Academy he presented it with his portrait painted by his own hand. Brockedon's portrait is now a conspicuous object in the Uffizi of the Florence Gallery near those of Reynolds and Northcote.
2. Brockedon was meanwhile earning for himself a reputation as an author. In 1824 he made an excursion to the Alps for the purpose of investigating the route of Hannibal, and the idea of publishing 'Illustrations of the Passes' occurred to him. During the summers of 1825, 1826, 1828, and 1829, he was led in the course of his journeys to cross the Alps fifty-eight times, and to pass into and out of Italy by more than forty different routes. The result was the publication, in 1827, of the first part of his 'Illustrations of the Passes of the Alps by which Italy communicates with France, Switzerland, and Germany.' The work, containing 109 engravings, was issued in twelve parts, from 1827 to 1829, forming when complete two royal quarto volumes, and was gratefully dedicated to his earliest patron, Archdeacon Froude. The drawings, which were entirely by Brockedon's own hand, were done in sepia, and were sold in 1837 to the fifth Lord Vernon for 500 guineas.
In 1833 he published in one volume his 'Journals of Excursions in the Alps, the Pennine, Graian, Cottian, Rhetian, Lepontine, and Bernese.' He also edited Finden's 'Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron.' In 1835 he edited for the Findens the 'Illustrated Road Book from London to Naples,' with thirty illustrations by himself and his friends Prout and Stanfield. In 1836 he wrote for 'Blackwood's Magazine' 'Extracts from the Journal of an Alpine Traveller,' and he subsequently wrote the Savoy and Alpine parts of Murray's 'Handbook for Switzerland.' His next work, published in folio in 1842-4, was 'Italy, Classical, Historical, and Picturesque, illustrated and described,' with sixty engravings from drawings by himself, Eastlake, Prout, Roberts, Stanfield, Harding, and other friends. In 1855, in conjunction with Dr. Croly, he wrote part of the letterpress of David Roberts's 'Views in the Holy Land, Syria, &c.,' Croly writing the historical, and Brockedon the descriptive portions.
3. During all these years Brockedon's love of art and literature was divided with his love of mechanical and scientific pursuits. As far back as 1819 his taste for mechanics led him to turn attention to the mode of wire-drawing then in use. Brockedon invented a mode of drawing the wire through holes pierced in sapphires, rubies, and other gems. He patented this invention, and visited Paris in connection with it; but, from the facility of violation, it was not a source of profit, though now the mode universally adopted. In 1831 he invented and patented, in conjunction with the late Mr. Mordan, a pen of a novel form called the 'oblique,' from the slit being in the usual direction of the writing. He next turned his attention to the preparation of a substitute for corks and bungs by coating felt with vulcanised india-rubber. He took out a patent for this invention in 1838, and in 1840 and 1842 enlarged its scope by other patents for retaining fluids in bottles, and for the manufacture of fibrous materials for the cores of stoppers. This invention led to his forming business relations with Messrs. Charles Macintosh & Co. of Manchester. About the year 1841 he submitted to them his patents for a substitute for corks, through which he was interested in their business till 1845, when he became a partner, and retained that position till his death. In 1843 he patented an invention for the manufacture of wadding for firearms; another for condensing the carbonates of soda, potass, &c., into the solid form of pills and lozenges; and for preparing or treating plumbago by reducing common black lead to powder, and then compressing it in vacuo, so as to produce artificial plumbago for lead pencils purer than any that could then be obtained, in consequence of the exhaustion of the mines in Cumberland, and especially valuable to artists because free from (diamond) grit. The invention was first worked for him by Messrs. Mordan & Co., but at his death in 1854 the plant and machinery were sold by auction, and bought by one of the merchants connected with the lead industry at Keswick. In 1844, 1846, and 1851, he patented inventions for various applications of vulcanised india-rubber. In 1830 Brockedon took an active part in the formation of the Royal Geographical Society, and was elected a member of its first council. He was afterwards the founder of the Graphic, an art society. On 12 June 1830 he was elected a member of the Athenæum. It had been resolved to commemorate the opening of the new club house in Pall Mall by adding 200 members to the list, 100 being elected by the committee, and 100 by the club. Brockedon was one of the hundred elected by the committee. On 18 Dec. 1834 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In February 1837 he lost his mother, for whose happiness he made the most loving provision from the moment when his improved prospects enabled him to do so.
He married in 1821 Miss Elizabeth Graham, who died in childbirth on 23 July 1829, in her fortieth year, leaving two children, Philip North, born at Florence on 27 April 1822, and Mary, married to Mr. Joseph H. Baxendale, the head of the firm of Pickford & Co. The son, who was educated as a civil engineer, became the favourite and confidential pupil of Mr. Brunel, and gave the brightest promise of future eminence in his profession, but was carried off by consumption at the early age of twenty-eight, on 13 Nov. 1849. On 8 May 1839 Brockedon married, as his second wife, the widow of Captain Farwell of Totnes, who survived him, and by whom he had no issue. Brockedon never recovered from the shock of his son’s death; his health and spirits declined visibly. For several years he had been a sufferer from gall-stones, and in July 1854 a succession of paroxysms of unusual severity ended in an attack of jaundice, under which he rapidly sank. He died on 29 Aug. 1854, in his sixty-sixth year, at 29 Devonshire Street, Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and was buried in the grave which contained the remains of his first wife and his son in the burial-ground of St. George the Martyr, in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square.
Mr. Peter Cunningham, in announcing his death in the ‘Town and Table Talk’ of the ‘Illustrated London News,’ said that ‘English artists were mourning the loss of an old friend.’ There were few of whom this could have been said with more perfect truth, for it would have been difficult to find any one who was more beloved by a large circle of friends at home and abroad, or who was more regretted by his professional contemporaries, many of whom had reason to cherish his memory with affection as that of a man ever ready to show kindness to others, and never likely to forget it when shown to himself.
[MS. Letters, Brockedon and A. H. Holdsworth, M.P., to Octavian Blewitt, 1832-7, quoted by W. Pengelly, F.R.S., in Trans. Devon Assoc. of Literature, Science, and Art, 1831, p. 25; Blewitt's Panorama of Torquay, a Descriptive and Historical Sketch of the District comprised between the Dart and the Teign, Lond. 1832, p. 271; Cunningham's Town and Table Talk in Illustr. Lond. News, 2 Sept. 1854; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, edited by R. E. Graves; Algernon Graves's Dict. of Artists who have exhibited in the principal London Exhibitions of Oil Paintings, 1884; Bennett Woodcraft's Alphabetical Index of Patentees of Inventions, &c., 1854.]