Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Furse, Charles Wellington
FURSE, CHARLES WELLINGTON (1868–1904), painter, born at Staines on 13 Jan. 1868, was fourth son of Charles Wellington Furse (1821-1900), vicar of Staines, principal of Cuddesdon (1873-83), rector of St. John the Evangelist, Westminster, and canon of Westminster (1883-94), and from 1894 to his death in 1900 canon and archdeacon of Westminster. The father was eldest son of Charles William Johnson (d. 1854) by his wife Theresa, daughter of the Rev. Peter Wellington Furse of Halsdon, Devonshire, and he assumed the surname of Furse in 1864 on succeeding to the Halsdon property. William Johnson, afterwards Cory [q. v. Suppl. I], was Archdeacon Furse's only brother. The artist's mother, Jane Diana, second daughter of John S. B. Monsell, vicar of Egham and grand-daughter of Thomas Bewley Monsell of Dunbar, archdeacon of Derry, was his father's first wife, and died in 1877, when he was nine years old. Of her ten children, the eldest, John Henry Monsell Furse (b. 1860), became a well-known sculptor; and Michael Bolton Furse, fifth son, became bishop of Pretoria in 1909.
At an early age Charles showed a talent for drawing. During a long illness in childhood he read Scott's novels, and drew illustrations of the scenes which appealed to him. Later, he went to Haileybury, where he remained till he was sixteen. In the ordinary work of the school he displayed no special capacity, but continued to draw pictures of hunting scenes for his amusement. On leaving Haileybury he joined the Slade school, then under Alphonse Legros [q. v. Suppl. II], and speedily made his mark. He won the Slade scholarship within a year of entrance, and became a favourite pupil of his masters. Unfortunately, at this early stage, symptoms of consumption which was ultimately to prove fatal showed themselves, and he was forced to spend a winter at St. Moritz. His most intimate friend at this time was a fellow-pupil, now Sir Charles Holroyd, with whom he spent his holidays on the borders of the Lake district or near Maidstone, sketching and reading. From the Slade school he went to Paris, where he studied for some months in Julian's atelier, among not very congenial company. On returning from Paris he studied for a short time under Mr. (now Prof.) F. Brown at the Westminster School of Art; but at the age of twenty-one he set up for himself.
He had already exhibited at the Royal Academy (1888) a large figure entitled 'Cain'; but his first real success was a portrait of Canon Burrows (Royal Academy, 1889). This, and a head of his uncle, William Cory, shown at the Portrait Painters in 1891, secured his recognition as an artist of distinction. His father was now a canon of Westminster; and Furse lived at his house in Abbey Garden, renting a studio close by. Success appeared cei-tain, but in the pursuit of his art he was hindered by frequent attacks of illness. He thought much about the principles of his art, and constantly discussed them, as well as literary questions, with his friends, among whom were prominent W. E. Henley [q. v. Suppl. II] and the group of men connected with the 'National Observer.' He read widely, but by predilection in the older literature, especially that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He occasionally wrote on artistic matters, gave lectures on great artists at Oxford University extension meetings in 1894 and subsequent years, and took part in debates at the Art Workers' Guild.
Although really independent and original, he was during early life unconsciously attracted by the merits of other painters. Thus he passed through several phases, at one time being influenced by Frank Holl, at another by Whistler, again by the Japanese artists, and above all by Mx. J. S. Sargent. The study of Tintoretto and Velasquez is also evident in many of his works. It is true that he assimilated rather than copied other styles; but it was not till near the end of his short life that he worked himself free of all these influences, and developed a noble and spontaneous manner of his own. Delighting in country life and in every variety of sport, he seldom painted landscape pure and simple, but introduced it habitually as a background or a setting for his figures. Horses were his special study; and in his equestrian portraits the animal is, from the artistic point of view, as important as the man. A whole group of portraits of masters of hounds attests his peculiar skill in this direction. His excellence as a portrait-painter naturally led to his talent being employed chiefly in this line; but in the treatment of his subject he was always anxious to place it among suitable surroundings. In such pictures as the large portrait of Lord Roberts, that of 'Sir Charles Nairne,' and the 'Return from the Ride,' the accessories, studied with great care, form an essential part of the work.
In 1894 he became engaged to Eleanor, sister of Samuel Henry Butcher [q. v. Suppl. II], and her sudden death shortly afterwards was a blow from which it needed all his elasticity to recover. In the following year he was advised to winter in South Africa, and arrived at Johannesburg shortly after the Jameson Raid. He painted a picture of 'Doomkop,' choosing the moment when the British column was approaching the Boers in ambush. This picture was shown by the artist to President Kruger, but has since disappeared. He had some thoughts of volunteering for the Matabele war, but gave up the idea, and returned to England (1896). Two years later he accepted a commission, obtained for him by his friend, Prof. F. M. Simpson, to execute decorative paintings to fill four pendentives under the dome over the staircase in the Liverpool Town Hall. The remuneration was inadequate, but Furse undertook the task for the sake of the opportunity which it afforded of work on a grand scale and of a kind different from anything he had hitherto done. In making his designs he deliberately adopted the manner of Tintoretto, and, while eschewing the realistic reproduction of modern industrial and commercial conditions, adapted them to a treatment at once poetic and vigorous. These paintings, which were his chief occupation for nearly three years, are perhaps 'the most notable, though not the most popular, of all his works.
Meanwhile the state of his health had compelled him to pass a winter at Davos, where (in Feb. 1900) he became engaged to Katharine, the youngest daughter of John Addington Symonds. He married in October of the same year, and with his wife passed the following winter also at Davos. In 1901 they removed to a new house which he had had built for him on the high ground near Camberley. Here he took the greatest interest in laying out a small plot of land in formal eighteenth-century fashion, and speedily turned a sandy waste into a beautiful garden. Intensely happy in his marriage and a settled life in congenial surroundings, he worked harder than ever, and in these last three years produced some of his meet successful pictures — the 'Return from the Ride,' 'Lord Charles Beresford,' 'Diana of the Uplands,' 'Cubbing with the York and Ainsty.' These works showed that he had at length found himself. But all the time the disease from which he suffered — tuberculosis — was making progress. He passed the winter of 1902-3 at Davos, spent the spring of 1903 in northern Italy and Spain, and took a studio, for the sake of his portrait-painting, in London. In the same year he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. Never sparing himself, and still full of hope and enthusiasm, he gradually grew weaker, and died on 16 Oct. 1904. He was buried in Frimley churchyard. He left two sons, Peter and Paul, the second of whom was born three days before his death. In person Furse was tall and somewhat stout in later life, but muscular and vigorous. His features were rounded, the face oval, the eyes small but very keen, the complexion pale. He was a keen sportsman, a good shot and whip, and played most games well. His movements were quick, and he painted rapidly, with a fierce concentration, never hesitating to rub out his work over and over again if it did not satisfy him. His untiring energy, width of interest, and intellectual vitality showed themselves in his conversation. He liked nothing better than a good argument, but could listen as well as talk; and his criticism, though keen, was entirely free from jealousy and malice.
Many of his most notable pictures were exhibited in the gallery of the New English Art Club, of which he was an active member from 1891 to his death. He joined in the foundation of the International Society, and was a member of its council. He exhibited also at the Portrait Painters and the New Gallery. A collection of his works, 53 in number, was shown at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1906. The 'Return from the Ride' was bought after his death under the Chantrey Bequest; 'Diana of the Uplands' was purchased by the trustees of the National Gallery. Both these pictures are now at the Tate Gallery. The larger 'Lord Roberts' (unfinished) has been lent by Mrs. Furse to the same mstitution. The best likeness of Furse extant is a photograph reproduced in the illustrated catalogue of the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition (1908). The same volume contains a selection from his writings (two articles were previously published in the 'Albemarle Magazine,' Aug. 1892, and the 'Studio,' i. 33), with a number of letters and the reports of some of his lectures.
[Memoir by Mr. D. S. MacColl, prefixed to the catalogue above mentioned (1908) ; private information.]