Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Nettleship, John Trivett

NETTLESHIP, JOHN TRIVETT (1841–1902), animal painter and author, born at Kettering, Northamptonshire, on 11 Feb. 1841, was second son of Henry John Nettleship, solicitor there, and brother of Henry [q. v.], of Richard Lewis [q. v.], and of Edward, the ophthalmic surgeon. His mother was Isabella Ann, daughter of James Hogg, vicar of Geddington and master of Kettering grammar school. Music was hereditary in the family, and Nettleship was for some time a chorister at New College, Oxford. Afterwards he was sent to the cathedral school at Durham, where his brother Henry had preceded him. Having won the English verse prize on 'Venice' in 1856, he was taken away comparatively young, in order to enter his father's office. There he remained for two or three years, finishing his articles in London. Though admitted a solicitor and in practice for a brief period, he now resolved to devote himself to art, in which he had shown proficiency from childhood. Accordingly he entered himself as a student at Heatherley's and at the Slade School in London, but to the last he was largely independent and self-taught. His first work was in black and white, not for publication, but to satisfy his natural temperament, which always led him to the imaginative and the grandiose. It is to be regretted that none of the designs conceived during this early period was ever properly finished. They include biblical scenes, such as 'Jacob wrestling with the Angel' and 'A Sower went forth to sow,' which have been deservedly compared with the work of William Blake. Nothing was published under his own name, except a poor reproduction of a 'Head of Minos,' in the 'Yellow Book' (April 1904). But the illustrations to 'An Epic of Women' (1870), by his friend, Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy [q. v.], are his; and his handiwork may likewise be traced in a little volume of 'Emblems' by Mrs. A. Cholmondeley (1875), where his name erroneously appears on the title-page as 'J. J. Nettleship.'

These designs reveal one aspect of his character, a delight in the manifestations of physical vigour. He was himself in his youth a model of virility. As a boy he was a bold rider in the hunting field. When he came to London he took lessons in boxing from a famous prize-fighter, and more than once walked to Brighton in a day. He accompanied a friend, (Sir) Henry Cotton, on a mountaineering expedition to the Alps, for which they trained together bare-footed in the early morning round Regent's Park. It was this delight in physical prowess and in wild life that now induced him to become a painter of animals. His studies were made almost daily in the Zoological Gardens; and for twenty-seven years (1874-1901) he exhibited spacious oil pictures of lions, tigers, etc., at the Royal Academy and for most of the period at the Grosvenor Gallery. Though always noble in conception and often effective in grouping and in colour, these pictures failed somewhat in technique and were not simple enough for the popular taste. At one time more than a dozen of them were exhibited together in the Corn Exchange at Gloucester; but a scheme for purchasing the collection fell through, and they are now dispersed. In 1880 Nettleship was invited to India by the Gaekwar of Baroda, for whom he painted a cheetah hunt as well as an equestrian portrait, and was thus enabled to see something of wild animals in their native haunts. In his later years he took to the medium of pastel, and, painting his old subjects on a smaller scale, acquired a wider measure of popularity.

Nettleship was far more than a painter. His intellectual sympathies were unusually wide. In 1868, when only twenty-seven, he published a volume of 'Essays on Robert Browning's Poetry,' which was probably the first serious study of the poet, and has passed through three editions with considerable enlargements, of which the latest is entitled 'Robert Browning: Essays and Thoughts' (1895). The book brought about an intimate friendship between the poet and his critic. Another book that shows both his mature power of literary expression and his opinions about his own art is 'George Morland and the Evolution from him of some Later Painters' (1898). Here there are touches of self-portraiture. Among the books illustrated by him may be mentioned 'Natural History Sketches among the Carnivora,' by A. Nicols (1885), and 'Icebound on Kolguev,' by A. B. R. Trevor Battye (1895).

Aiter a long and painful illness, Nettleship died in London on 31 Aug. 1902, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. He married in 1876 Ada, daughter of James Hinton [q. v.], the aural surgeon; she survived; him with three daughters, the eldest of whom was married to Augustus E. John, and died in Paris in 1909.

A memorial tablet in bronze, designed by Sir George Frampton, with the aid of two brother artists, who were born in the same town. Sir Alfred East and Thomas Cooper Gotch, has been placed in the parish church at Kettering.

[Personal knowledge; Sir Henry Cotton, Indian and Home Memories, 1911; Graves's Royal Academy Contributors.]

J. S. C.