Celebrating Portsmouth’s forgotten artist

121814_UBSDELL_25/5/12''Self portrait of Richard Henry Clements Ubsdell c1833.''Portsmouth City Museum havce mounted and exhibition of Ubsdell's works.
121814_UBSDELL_25/5/12''Self portrait of Richard Henry Clements Ubsdell c1833.''Portsmouth City Museum havce mounted and exhibition of Ubsdell's works.

From broken bones to new beginnings

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He painted a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother and artefacts from the Mary Rose as they were brought up in 1836.

He even presented four watercolour paintings to Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra of the celebrations in Portsmouth of their marriage, which today are still owned by the Royal Collection Trust.

Yet Richard Ubsdell is not a name known by many – despite him being one of Portsmouth’s top artists.

Now a new exhibition aims to change all that, bringing him and his work to wider attention.

Ubsdell was born in the city in the same year as literary giant Charles Dickens and so it’s his bicentenary in 2012 too.

Displayed using special lighting that’s designed to resemble candlelight – so as not to damage any precious artefacts – his art and letters feature in a special exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum.

The idea behind re-discovering Ubsdell’s work came from Chris Brindle, Ubsdell’s great-great-great-grandson.

Chris says: ‘I started a book when my mother died because she had all these stories.

‘At the funeral I thought ‘‘I’ll never hear these stories again’’, so I started looking on the computer.

‘Well my mum used to say that one of my great-great – she wasn’t sure how many greats – grandfathers was in the Royal Academy of Art. Clearing out some things, there was this piece of wood with an image on it.

He adds: ‘It was a work of art by Ubsdell. You could hardly see anything on it, so I threw it away.’

Thanks to some extensive research through distant cousins and visiting auction houses, he found that Ubsdell was a prominent artist in Portsmouth.

He achieved great success through his talent and also his ability as a businessman and local councillor.

Now Chris has published his book, Hampshire: Discovering the 19th Century World of Portsmouth Artist R H C Ubsdell, and has helped the museum put together the exhibition on Ubsdell’s life.

Chris says: ‘It’s a look at the stories behind all his known pictures and what happened to them.

‘I tried to look it all up on the computer and one of the first things I did was find the Ubsdell family tree.

‘I started tracing the works of art and some of his works came up. He had a lot in Portsmouth.

‘He was very interested in Portsmouth and Portsmouth history, and he liked to show how Portsmouth and Hampshire were changing.’

A contemporary of Dickens, Ubsdell walked throughout Hampshire between 1840 and 1846 looking for portraiture work. While on his travels, he painted a number of churches.

He was also involved in capturing momentous occasions in the city, such as the celebrations for the royal wedding of Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra in 1863.

Ubsdell also painted members of Jane Austen’s family.

He painted a miniature of her brother Charles and her niece Anna, who grew up with Jane at Steventon and inherited and tried to finish her final novel, Sanditon.

It was when looking further into Ubsdell’s history that Chris came down to Portsmouth to look in the Portsmouth City Museums records.

He says: ‘I met John Stedman and he started pulling out these boxes and boxes of his work for me to look at. There were watercolours of churches and it was just amazing.

‘The museum had bought them in 1933 and they’d remained together pretty much intact.

‘There were all these beautiful watercolours and there were various artefacts brought up and they allow you to see the progress of his work.’

Ubsdell started out as a copyist, and would reproduce pictures and documents for customers. He later became a well-known portrait painter in the area.

Chris says: ‘If you wanted a portrait doing you would go to him. He had a steady stream of military people and navy officers coming to see him for portraits.

‘I think he’s been forgotten, but it’s just what happens over the generations.

‘You know about your parents and you know a little less about your grandparents, but you don’t much more beyond that.

He adds: ‘Only a few artists are still well-known and they are the really iconic ones.

‘I hope the exhibition will show that he’s a part of the city and people can access the history of the city through his work.’

Museum archivist John Stedman says: ‘I was aware of him for a number of years but I knew very little about him, apart from the fact he painted church watercolours.

‘Having been introduced to him, it seemed to me that he was an important local artist and we had an opportunity to bring his work to the people of Portsmouth – particularly with this being his bicentenary year.’

Before Chris began research into Ubsdell’s life and purchased examples of his work, John believes they wouldn’t have been able to showcase such a wide range of paintings.

He says: ‘Most of his work isn’t actually known. We only have one of his portraits and I think the main reason is because quite a lot of his pictures were destroyed in the bombing of the Second World War.

‘They were in the Guildhall or the Portsmouth Museum on the High Street, both of which were destroyed.’

Speaking about what Ubsdell was like during his lifetime, John says: ‘He was very well-known then and he was an astute businessman. He advertised his activities well.

‘I don’t think any other Portsmouth portrait painter did what he did.’

John adds: ‘We want to find more of Ubsdell’s work. There must be a lot of work by him in private hands.

‘He has very distinctive features in his work and we want anybody to come forward who thinks they might have aan Ubsdell’