Completed North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 19th C, Portraits: British 20th C 21 Does anyone have any information about the artist, G. W. Fish?

GMI_OLD_7_02
Topic: Artist

Does anyone have any information about the artist, G. W. Fish? We don't have any information on our database and Google is not throwing up anything obvious. All we have on file is a copy of the council minutes and a thank you letter for when the painting was acquired.

British and Irish paintings in Public Collections (ed. Christopher Wright, Yale U. P., 2006) says he was active in Birkenhead in 1893–1894.

Any information at all would be much appreciated.

Gallery Oldham, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

Edward Stone,

The artist has been amended to 'George William Fish' and the dates for the artist have been changed to '1876–1930 (?)'. A painting description may be written in due course.

These amends will appear on the Your Paintings website by the end of July 2015. Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.

20 comments

Martin Hopkinson,

The signature suggests that the artist is George W Fish. I will check if this portrait was exhibited at the Society of Portrait Painters or the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. For even as early as this Churchill was a famous man and a portrait, if submitted, would surely have been accepted and hung.

Martin Hopkinson,

The other places to look are the catalogues of the Manchester Autumn Exhibitions in Manchester City Art Gallery and Manchester Central Library. Photocopies of these are in the library of the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art in Bedford Square, London. This library is at present closed and will not reopen until the summer

Nicholas Waters,

The artist lived at 22 North Road, Devonshire Park, Birkenhead in 1893 and in that year he exhibited one painting at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Bruce Trewin,

You beat me to it, Nicholas. British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections: An Index of British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections
edited by Christopher Wright, page 338, lists G. W. Fish as Birkenhead, Cheshire, 1893 to 1894

Osmund Bullock,

The artist was George William Fish, born Birkenhead 1876 - birth was registered in the first quarter, and one (unconfirmed) genealogical source says he was born 22nd February. He was christened on 6th April at Walker Street Methodist Chapel (now Tranmere Methodist Church). His father, Edward Duncombe Fish, was a prominent Liverpool stockbroker who came a cropper in the financial crisis of the mid-1890s: on being posted as a defaulter on the Stock Exchange on 31st Dec 1895, he (the father) almost certainly killed himself (though the inquest returned an open verdict) by jumping off a train in the Mersey Tunnel. His mutilated body was found on the tracks next day, and one newspaper reported that when the police broke the news to his family, they were in the middle of a New Year's party.

George was living with the family in Tranmere (Birkenhead) in 1881 & 1891 (at North Rd). By 1901 his widowed mother had moved to Accrington, where 25 year-old George - "Artist - own account" - was living with his two elder brothers and sister, all unmarried. By 1911 all were still living together, but back in the Wirral at Hoylake: on the census return George's name has been entered but then crossed out - presumably he was unexpectedly absent on census night. His profession and other details are not given, however, nor does he seem to have been recorded anywhere else.

Johnson & Greutzner's 'British Artists 1880-1940' - which lists exhibiting artists at most important British venues, including Manchester, Liverpool and the (Royal) Soc of Portrait Painters - gives just two exhibited works for 'G W Fish', both at the Walker, Liverpool (1893-94). He was only 17/18 at the time, and one cannot but wonder if the shock of his father's suicide two years later, and the family's subsequent reduced circumstances, played a part in his unfulfilled early promise.

It has proved impossible to pin down anything of George's later life, though he may well be the George Fish who died aged "55" at Barrowmore Hall Sanatorium, Gt Barrow (nr Chester) on 21/3/1930; but that is far from certain.

This portrait was on display when Churchill was invited to open a travelling exhibition of works from the Russell Coates collection at Oldham Corporation Art Gallery on 2nd Oct 1902. It does not seem to have been part of the exhibition, however - it is just noted in a contemporary newspaper report (with the artist's name slightly wrong) as being on show in a different part of the Gallery.

Gallery Oldham,

Thank you all very much, in particular Osmund!

I was hoping for a full name and dates, but the biography is fabulous, thanks. I'll print the attachments and put them in the near-empty artist file.

All your work is much appreciated (again), thank you.

Martin Hopkinson,

both his exhibits in Liverpool were watercolours
1893 no 569 Entrance to the old quarries, Storeton 16 guineas

1894 no 485 A bright corner in the wood 5 guineas

He does not seem to have exhibited with the Society of Portrait Painters

Why did Churchill agree to sit to him?

Martin Hopkinson,

It is possible that the portrait was painted at the time of his election as a Conservative MP for Oldham. Was it used to illustrate an article on the rising young politician in a journal of the day? Was Fish an acquaintance of Churchill's lawyer friend F E Smith, another man who was born in Birkenhead? A historian knowlegeable about Churchil and Smith might be able to tell us when this close friendship began

Osmund Bullock,

It certainly seems highly likely that's why it was painted, though not necessarily immediately - but we know it was hanging in the Corporation's art gallery by Oct 1902. Churchill had won one of the Borough's two seats at the General Election exactly two years earlier (having stood unsuccessfully for it in the previous year's double by-election). The Oldham Council minutes and letter may clarify: what's their date, Rebecca? And does it say if it was a commission by the Council, or a gift from someone - perhaps even the artist himself?

I like the idea of there being a connection via FES & Birkenhead, but sadly it doesn't work: Churchill & Smith were only introduced after FES had followed Churchill into the Commons in 1906. See: http://www.winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-139/cover-story-the-friendship-between-churchill-and-fe-smith .

Accrington, where George Fish was certainly living by early 1901 (and perhaps before), is 20 miles and more from Oldham. But shortly after winning his seat - the election was held over several days - Churchill did make a major speech there on the evening of 6th October 1900, in support of a fellow Conservative candidate. However, he'd already made three more speeches the same day, at Barnsley (8 am!), Cudworth (11 am) and at Morecombe in the afternoon, so he clearly wasn't hanging around anywhere long. I daresay, though, that after his Accrington one he dined and stayed at least one night locally - his next speech (at Carlisle) wasn't till the Monday. Moreover, there had been much talk in the papers in the summer of 1899 that Churchill had been invited to stand at Accrington, though in the event he decided to have another crack at Oldham. If George Fish were something in the local Conservative party they might well have met - there's certainly a good chance he heard the speech, anyway, which was packed.

Of course Churchill may never have actually sat for him. Though I'm inclined to think it's a work taken ad vivum, there is the possibility that it was based on a photograph.

As a way of getting closer to the artist via the circumstances of the commission, it would seem (as Martin and Osmund have considered) that Oldham is the connection. What is known from Your Paintings is that the portrait was a gift presented by R F Ware in 1903. Ware is a significant person in this story. He was the Oldham Conservative Association's Organizing Secretary and Registration Agent and no doubt well known to Churchill. In the Churchill Archives at Churchill College Cambridge, there are a few letters from Ware to Churchill, regarding (according the web catalogue) local matters and office accommodation. Perhaps the commission for the portrait was intended by Ware to hang in the Conservative Association offices, to promote the career of the rising young politician.

Osmund Bullock,

The puzzling thing about that, Barbara, is that (as one of the stories I attached above shows) it was already hanging in the Oldham Corporation Art Gallery on the evening of 2nd Oct 1902 (as reported by the Manchester Courier & Lancashire & General Advertiser the following day).

Actually, re-reading the article (and particularly the paragraph I highlighted), the tone does perhaps suggest the portrait was a new arrival. The answer may be that Ware and the Conservative Association loaned it for the occasion of Churchill's appearance to open the Russell Coates exhibition (and made sure the local paper new about it); and that it was popular enough for Ware to translate the temporary loan into a permanent gift. Which, to be slightly cynical, may have been what he had intended all along: a portrait of the Conservatives' young lion hanging in a public gallery would be worth ten hanging in the constituency office.

He must have been exceptionally annoyed when Churchill crossed the floor to the Liberal benches the following year!

I am not sure cynicism features. Ware's motives seem straightforward. He could quite simply have been acting as a good secretary and agent for the Conservatives by ensuring that an attractive portrait of Churchill was visible for the high-profile event of the opening of the loan exhibition in October 1902. Then shortly after, he formally presented the portrait to the Gallery. What isn't known is when the commission took place ( it had to be sometime after Churchill's election in autumn 1900) and how long Ware and/or the Conservative Association had the portrait.

Gallery Oldham,

Thank you all for the further information and discussion.

Osmund:
The extract from the council minutes is dated December 10th 1902.
There is a copy of a thank you letter to the donor, R. F. Ware, dated Jan 6th 1903.

Thank you to Oldham. Their information confirms that Ware presented the portrait to the Gallery and that he was thanked early in January 1903. So the portrait must have stayed in the Gallery once the loan exhibition closed.

Andrea Kollmann,

Two small remarks: Churchill seems to have liked this painting, as he asked for photographs of it in 1947, according to the letter shown here: http://churchill-collector.com/signed-photograph/

He also seems to have liked the heavy chair he sits in, a family heirloom: his father sat in it for a portrait painted by Edwin Arthur Ward in 1886. Churchill also sat in it for a painting by E.A. Ward made around 1900, in a photo series made around 1902, in photos made in 1949.

Photo: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/496xn/p02hf85k.jpg

Portrait of Churchill by E. A. Ward: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/daughter-history-mary-soames-legacy-churchill-l14316/lot.54.html

At Chartwell: http://www.art.com/products/p14060854-sa-i2844947/william-sumits-winston-churchill-holding-cigar-seated-in-study-at-chartwell-wearing-zippered-jumpsuit.htm

Portrait of Churchill’s father by E.A.Ward: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/lord-randolph-henry-spencer-churchill-18491895-seated-at-218568

Gallery Oldham,

Thank you Andrea.

I have added your information to our file.

Fascinating, Andrea. Suggests Fish must have travelled to Churchill's residence (not at that point Chartwell of course) to paint the portrait. Also worth noting that Fish's portrait of c.1902 is not listed in the ODNB and it does seem to be a noteworthy early image of the young politician and, as a major oil painting, an important addition to the Churchill iconography. There don't seem to be any recorded oils (other than a portrait of him as a child) before the considerably less interesting portrait by Ambrose McEvoy of c.1911-16 (NPG)

Given that there is no more information forthcoming about the artist, I propose to close this discussion. Real progress been made with the initial query. Thanks to Martin's first comment, the artist's name on Your Paintings should be amended to George W. Fish, or even George William, for the sake of completeness. Osmund discovered the year of Fish's birth was 1876, as well as other details of his life. Fish lived in Birkenhead and Accrington, exhibiting a few works in 1893/94 in Liverpool and was still a fairly young artist when R.F. Ware of the Conservative Association of Oldham commissioned him to paint this portrait of Churchill. Unfortunately, there is no trace of the artist after Churchill's portrait was placed in the Oldham Corporation Art Gallery (by 1902). There is still more to find out about the commission and about whether the oil was painted from a photo or ad vivum (here I tend to agree with Osmund that it is from life but we can't rule out a photographic model).

As I noted earlier, the main interest of this work is its status as an addition to the Churchill iconography which can now be highlighted. It is a major oil portrait of Churchill that is not listed in the ODNB. And since there don't seem to be any recorded oils (other than a portrait of him as a child) before the less interesting portrait by Ambrose McEvoy of c.1911-16 (NPG), the portrait by Fish gains an enhanced position.

Gallery Oldham,

Thank you for the summary of the thread, Barbara. Yes, I am happy to close the discussion.

It has been a very helpful discussion. Many thanks to all of you who have contributed.

Best wishes, Rebecca

Osmund Bullock,

I have a bit more to add. Andrea, that is a brilliant observation about the chair - something I'd entirely missed. I wonder if it travelled north with him, or if Fish visited Churchill down south - as far as I can discover he had no country place at the time, just a London flat (in Mount St).

Barbara - of course you're right, Ware was merely doing his job as the constituency secretary/agent, and doing it well. I wasn't remotely suggesting he did anything wrong, merely observing that his motives stemmed (as they do for all of us) at least in part from self – or at least party – interest.

Barbara is surely right, too, in identifying Ware as the 'significant person in this story', and it is worth looking at his life a little. Robert Frederic Ware had from 1893 been a professional political agent. And funnily enough, on the subject of self-interest, one of the letters (of June 1904) in the Churchill Archive Barbara drew our attention to is from Ware to Churchill asking for his help in securing a job with the North Lonsdale Unionist Association (Unionist was at the time effectively synonymous with Conservative): he felt the candidate he was stuck with at Crewe (apparently his job after Oldham) had no chance of being elected, and he wanted out. Despite having defected to the Liberals the month before, Churchill was, surprisingly, able to assist, and three weeks later Ware was in the job at Ulverston - there is another letter in the archive from him thanking Churchill for his help.

Ware was born in Liverpool in 1861, and from at least 1890 had been active in Conservative politics in Toxteth. Formerly an insurance clerk, in early 1893 he was appointed agent at Accrington; and for the next eight years there he was highly - often aggressively - active in the Conservative cause. In the early summer of 1901 he became local agent & secretary at Oldham, where Churchill had been elected as the junior member 8 or 9 months earlier. He was equally active there for the next three years, but seems to have left at about the same time that Churchill finally went over to the Liberals (but retained his seat till the next election). The circumstances under which Ware went are not clear, but perhaps he was too closely associated with Churchill to survive. The Oldham Conservatives had become increasingly disenchanted with their MP's Free Trade (and other) views, and had formally expressed "no confidence" in him well before he crossed the floor. Unlike Churchill, however, Ware stayed loyal to the party: he remained agent at Ulverston until around the end of the decade, but by the 1911 Census was unemployed. He moved to Macclesfield soon afterwards, and continues to appear for a while in newspaper reports of meetings of Cheshire Conservative groups, but no longer in an official capacity. He died in 1919.

So we have a couple of things there that may be the link: (a) Liverpool, where George Fish's father worked and was active in numerous sporting, social and scientific societies – the mourners at his funeral suggest that his father also had connections with the local corporation; and (b) Accrington, where Fish was living by March 1901, his residence overlapping with that of Ware for several months at least. There is no evidence that our artist Fish was involved in politics, but it does seem pretty likely that it was Ware who organised the commission – perhaps around the time he moved to Oldham in 1901 to work for Churchill. Immediately after his election in Oct 1900 Churchill had been on a long lecture tour of Britain, Ireland, America and Canada, and I very much doubt he'd have had time to sit before his return early in early 1901. I would suggest that, with the other evidence of its completion by Oct 1902, the portrait's date could be shifted slightly to "c1901-2".

Oh, and it may or may not be relevant that both Ware and (from May 1901) Churchill were freemasons, though Churchill’s lodge was in London. Could the artist have been one too, I wonder?