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Paul Braddon – what happened after Ladywood?

🕔08.Mar 2013

A curious thing happened to me on the way to Dunedin.  And a washed-out first day in the New Zealand/England Test Match – yes, the one I’d travelled 12,000 miles to see – offers an unexpected opportunity to share it with you.

I was actually driving back to Dunedin from Queenstown, where England had played and embarrassingly lost a so-called warm-up match, and decided to take the State Highway 1 route that would take me along the locally celebrated ‘Presidential  Highway’ linking the two near-neighbouring towns of Clinton and Gore. And it was in Gore – or, more precisely, in the town’s unexpectedly impressive Eastern Southland Art Gallery – that the curious thing happened.

Not the gallery’s main collections. My guide book had said they were good, and an additional reason for visiting Gore was to see its collection of paintings by Ralph Hotere, the much admired Maori artist who had died just the previous week. Before I even saw a Hotere, however, I found myself in a room of no fewer than 58 historic watercolours, all depicting extremely English buildings and locations – and all by an artist born in Ladywood, Birmingham.

Now some of you may already be saying: oh yes, that must be Paul Braddon; there are several of his paintings around the West Midlands.  And you’d be dead right. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has one for a start – of Soho House, the 18th Century Handsworth home of Matthew Boulton, and on display, I think, in the house itself.  I’ve seen it, and so must also have seen the name ‘Paul Braddon’, but I have to confess it didn’t stick, and I knew nothing whatever about him until I encountered the remarkable exhibition in a place about as far distant from Birmingham B16 as it’s possible to get.

The exhibition was entitled ‘Haunts of Dickens’ and it was admirably curated, displayed and subsequently toured by Dunedin’s public library and art gallery, from a previously almost forgotten bequest by the philanthropic book collector and founder of Reed Publishing, A H Reed. The 58 ‘Haunts’ divide into two unequal groupings: some relating to Dickens personally and many more depicting places featuring in his novels.

The former group includes, for instance, his birthplace in Portsmouth, his homes in Rochester and London, and the Keep in Rochester Castle, where he would have preferred to have been buried “without pomp”, rather than with pomp unbounded in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The illustrated novels include The Old Curiosity Shop, with the shop itself in Lincoln’s Inn, the “small, rat-infested dreary yard” known as Quilp’s Wharf on the south bank of the Thames, and the ‘Last Home of Little Nell’ in the Shropshire village of Tong, which proves to be a rather fine-looking house, rather than the fake grave in St Bartholomew’s churchyard that credulous American tourists find so appealing.

The 58 or possibly more paintings may make the Dickens’ series of Haunts the largest that Braddon produced, but it was far from the only one – others including Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Burns, the essayist Charles Lamb, and the late-18th Century actress, Sarah Siddons. And Haunts were only one strand of his prolific output. Dudley Museums Service, for example, has a set of no fewer than 30 watercolours of Old Dudley, including the castle and priory, St Thomas’ Church, the old town hall, and the demolition of the same in 1860.

I am wholly incompetent to attempt any serious assessment of Braddon’s work. I suspect the paintings are of no exceptional artistic merit, but certainly to me they’re appealing, often charming – the more so when the places portrayed have the additional merit of contemporary recognisability – and they are works that, purely personally, I would much rather own and enjoy looking at each day than I would a Ralph Hotere.

So, if any of you out there have the odd Braddon you’re getting a bit bored with …   No, this isn’t an appeal.  Well, not that type, anyway.  The blog has two principal purposes.  The first is to try to find out, if only to satisfy personal curiosity, why someone born and known, apparently throughout his life, as James Leslie Crees chose to invent and paint under the name ‘Paul Braddon’.

The second is to note that next year is the 150th anniversary of Crees/Braddon’s birth – he/they died, incidentally in 1938 – and it would surely be a shame, in both senses of the word, if 2014 ended with Braddon and his oeuvre of almost entirely British paintings being less well known in his own place of birth than he and they are in the South Island of New Zealand.

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