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The Hillingford Chronicles

Robert Alexander Hillingford is usually categorised as a ‘military painter’ or ‘costume realist’ but neither label does him or his work justice. I think his paintings, which so successfully combine historical authenticity with histrionic spectacle, might be more accurately described as – to borrow a late 19th century literary term – ‘Theatrical Realism’.

Although born in Georgian London (in Clapham on January 29th, 1825) Hillingford grew up in Bourbon France where his army officer father was stationed at the British garrison at Boulogne. It was here that he received his first lessons in drawing from the expat English artist George Stubbs (not to be confused with the equine painter of the same name). In 1839, following the death of his father, Hillingford’s mother married Sir Robert Hugh Kennedy the former Commissary General of His Majesty’s Forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War.

‘Othello recounting his adventures to Desdemona and Brabantio’ by Robert Alexander Hillingford

No doubt, by the age of sixteen, Robert Hillingford had a choice to make; follow his father and illustrious stepfather into the army or pursue his artistic studies. Choosing the latter, he moved to Germany and enrolled at the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf. The Academy was at this time one of the most important art schools in Europe and here Hillingford would study under its most influential professor, the great Romantic painter, Karl Ferdinand Sohn (1805-1867).

In 1845, after completing his training in Düsseldorf, Hillingford moved to Italy, travelling through Venice, Florence, and Naples before settling in Rome where he was welcomed into ‘der Deutsche Künstlerverein’, a clique of young (predominantly German) painters living and working in the capital. This German Art Society congregated daily at the city’s Antico Caffé Greco where Hillingford would have mixed with all the great luminaries of the mid-19th century Romantic movement then resident in Rome, including the composers Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. It is just such a scene that was captured by Hillingford’s friend Ludwig Johann Passini (1832-1903) in his painting of 1856; ‘Artists at the Caffe Greco in Rome’.

‘Artists at the Caffe Greco in Rome’ by Ludwig Johann Passini

Hillingford’s own paintings from this period are gloriously energetic celebrations of the Eternal City and the customs of the peasants of the Campagna Romana, and in fact he seems to have been as enthusiastic about their traditions as any native Italian.

During this period Hillingford began an affair with one of his models – the already married – Chiara Cervi (1819-1856), a relationship that produced two illegitimate sons. When Chiara’s husband died the couple were finally free to marry, but sadly Chiara herself passed away twelve months later. This left Hillingford, still a young man aged just thirty-four, unum-parens caring and providing for their two young sons and Chiara’s three children by her previous marriage. The solution – a not uncommon one at this time – was for Hillingford to marry Chiara’s eldest daughter, 18-year-old Theresa Maria Cervi (1841-1906). It is my belief that Theresa Maria would become the model for various important female characters in her husband’s subsequent pictures including Desdemona (in the painting of Othello, above), Joan of Arc, and Cordelia. As the daughter of an artists’ model and the young wife of an artist, it makes perfect sense.

Theresa Maria Hillingford as Desdemona, Joan of Arc, and Cordelia 

According to an article on the artist in a 1975 edition of The Connoisseur magazine, a studio photograph (now apparently lost) of Robert Hillingford showed him to have had “a striking head, with beaklike nose and peaked beard”, adding that “The principal figure in (Hillingford’s painting) ‘The Buccaneer’s Tale’ demonstrates this rather well”. In other words, Hillingford himself can also be glimpsed in some of his paintings. I think that both Robert and Theresa Maria are to be seen in his painting of ‘Emperor Francis I visiting the Studio of Benvenuto Cellini’. No doubt it would have amused Hillingford to depict himself as the great Italian artist and polymath, and who better to recreate the Empress Maria Theresa than his own wife Theresa Maria!

‘Emperor Francis I visiting the Studio of Benvenuto Cellini’ by Robert Alexander Hillingford

In 1864, Hillingford returned to England with his young Italian family and set up a studio in South Kensington. That same year he exhibited at a major London venue for the first when two of his Italian paintings – ‘The Wedding Ring’ and ‘The Choir of Santa Maria Novella, Florence’ – were shown at the British Institution. Hillingford made his Royal Academy debut shortly afterwards with the first of many Shakespearean scenes. ‘Petruchio’ garnered considerable attention and was praised in The Art Journal. Naturally, over the years, all the important painters of the period were reviewed by the Victorian art world’s most influential magazine but only a few were deemed worthy enough to be the sole focus of the Journal’s recurrent essay, ‘British Artists: Their Style and Character’.

In his 35-year career as a critic, James Dafforne had assayed the work of Reynolds, Constable, Lawrence, Frith, Redgrave, and Turner but in 1871 it was to Hillingford that he dedicated the article. In it, Dafforne applauded the artist’s “clever”, “striking”, “powerful and effective” work, pronouncing his pictures to be the “most agreeable and pleasing examples of genre painting”, but also lamented Hillingford’s enormous popularity with buyers which, he concluded, meant he sent too few paintings to the major London exhibitions:

“This artist is evidently not wanting in patronage. Still, we would suggest to him whether it would not be to his interest to show himself more than he has hitherto done in the London galleries. There is no fear that he would be unable to hold his own among his compeers.”

Because Hillingford had already begun building a roster of prominent patrons whilst still in Italy, upon returning to London, he didn’t need to rely on the Royal Academy and the other exhibitions venues to find buyers for his work. In fact, by 1871, his client list contained some of the wealthiest art collectors of the century, including Thomas Baring of the famous banking dynasty, the King of Württemberg, the Russian socialite Prince Michel Kotchoubey, and many of the newly monied industrialists of Manchester and Halifax.

As I have already illustrated, although Hillingford scored early successes with scenes of the Peninsular War and Cromwellian pictures, an appraisal of his entire oeuvre shows his choice of subjects was actually quite broad. For every painting of Napoleon, Wellington, and the English Civil War there are many Shakespearean subjects, scenes from the novels of Walter Scott, Bulwer‐Lytton, and Oliver Goldsmith (typically the ubiquitous ‘Vicar of Wakefield’) and significant moments in European history.

His early Italians pictures aside, Hillingford was unquestionably most comfortable when painting history and his work has always been commended for its verisimilitude with reviewers invariably praising his commitment to historical correctness. He was certainly a keen antiquarian. Like fellow Theatrical Realist painters John Seymour Lucas RA (1849-193), Edwin Abbey RA (1852-1911), and William Quiller Orchardson RA (1832-1910) Hillingford owned a large collection of historical costumes and in 1881, along with the great explorer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), he was a founder member and first vice-president of the Kernoozer’s Club (Connoisseur’s Club), a Victorian society of collectors of arms and armour. Crucially, however, Hillingford’s commitment to historical accuracy always came second to his ultimate artistic intentions. As Hillingford himself was quoted as saying…

“The cut of a coat should never be allowed to intrude or assert itself on canvas to the detriment of the rendering of a scene as a whole.”

In other words, ‘don’t expect me to paint every military collar and Shakespearean cuff with precise accuracy, and especially if they get in the way of the composition’! Like so many great artists before him, what preoccupied Hillingford most about his “costume paintings” was not the costumes but the overall impact of the painting itself.

Robert Alexander Hillingford died in Fulham in 1904 and was buried in the family mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery. Today, we should remember him not only as a fine painter but as an enthusiastic chronicler of momentous events in European history, both factual and literary. We regularly stock works by Hillingford which can be viewed via our online Gallery.

by Gavin Claxton

© Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2023

Images courtesy of Hamburger Kunsthalle, Christie’s, Kunsthaus Lempertz.