Absolutely Social Comedy: The narratives that inspired the Bristol School

At the very beginning of the 19th century, Bristol was one of only a small number of artistic centres outside London specialising in “genre” paintings.

These scenes of everyday life were often inspired by current affairs. Like Edward Bird, who had great success in London, the painters Edward Rippingille, Samuel Colman and Rolinda Sharples were keen to the actions of their contemporaries.

They were inspired by Dutch and Flemish art of the 17th century, and also in the satirical and moralising works by William Hogarth. The painters were witnesses to a rapidly changing British society.

Depictions of ordinary people stood alongside portrayals of the leisured classes, such as the The Cloakroom, Clifton Assembly Rooms. These pictures are often closely linked to novels of the period, in particular those of Jane Austen.

Oil on panel portrait painting of Edward Bird, by Edward Villiers Rippingille. R.A., 1817, oil on panel, K5950

Edward Villiers Rippingille, Portrait of Edward Bird, R.A., 1817, oil on panel, K5950

Here, Rippingille pays tribute to his friend Edward Bird, the founder of the Bristol School artists, who was highly respected by collectors and the artistic community. The artist is depicted in his studio, at his easel, and is dressed in the latest fashion. The first of the Bristol artists to enter the Royal Academy, he provided an unprecedented boost for genre painting. He organised the first outdoor sketching parties, for which the Bristol School was known. View full image.

Vintage painting of a 1800's family in a library.. Edward Bird, The Reading of the Will Concluded, 1811, oil on canvas, K498

Edward Bird, The Reading of the Will Concluded, 1811, oil on canvas, K498

Edward Bird depicts the moment when a family gathers in a richly furnished library to hear the reading of the will of a wealthy deceased relative. The numerous expressions of delighted beneficiaries contrast with those who have received nothing. The heir is the naval officer on the right, surrounded by his family. This subject, abounding with the details of everyday life, was particularly fashionable in contemporary paintings. View full image.

A painting by Edward Bird, A young man is getting ready to leave the family home to embark on a career in the capital. The father gives his son money and advice while the women prepare his luggage. Further up, a young boy indicates that the coach has arrived. The Departure for London, 1815, oil on panel, K6482

Edward Bird, The Embarkation of Louis XVIII at Dover, 1816, oil on canvas, K4105

When he produced this painting, Edward Bird already enjoyed a degree of celebrity. He was the historical painter to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the prince regent. The latter, the future King George IV, is depicted alongside Louis XVIII in the centre of this vast composition, which celebrates the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814. Bird was present on Louis XVIII’s return voyage to France after seven years in exile in England. He painted a counterpart to this composition depicting the arrival of the French King in Calais. View full image.

Edward Bird, The Departure for London, 1815, oil on panel, K6482
A young man is getting ready to leave the family home to embark on a career in the capital. The father gives his son money and advice while the women prepare his luggage. Further up, a young boy indicates that the coach has arrived. This theme, which became a stereotype of the Victorian novel, celebrates the importance of family ties. In this picture, Bird displays his interest in Greuze and in Dutch 17th century painting. View full image.

Edward Bird, Expounding the Scriptures, about 1819, oil on panel, K5765 View full image.

Edward Bird, Princess Caraboo, 1817, oil on panel, K4104
“Princess Caraboo of Javasu” poses in an exotic landscape. For ten weeks, this woman, who was none other than Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Devon, fooled the inhabitants of Bristol by speaking in a language she had invented and claimed to have been captured by pirates. The story created a great deal of interest and the picture by Bird was widely circulated in prints. View full image.

Rolinda Sharples, The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms, oil on canvas, 1818, K1075
Everyone of distinction in Bristolian society has gathered this evening at the Clifton Assembly Rooms. Rolinda Sharples shows how much attention the guests have paid to their hair and clothes. They had posed one at a time in her studio to create this large group portrait. As in a Jane Austen novel, the scene depicts the entertainment on offer to elegant society and, more specifically, the balls, which provided the ideal meeting places for forming future unions. View full image.

Rolinda Sharples, The Stoppage of the Bank, oil on panel, 1825-31, K1079
In 1825, a stock market crash resulted in the failure of many banks. Rolinda Sharples depicts the various reactions of the customers of a bank when they realise they are ruined. The action takes place in an imaginary street, but includes certain Bristol landmarks, such as the tower of All Saints Church in Corn Street. View full image.

Rolinda Sharples, The Artist and Her Mother, 1816, oil on panel, K1064
In this self-portrait, Rolinda Sharples focuses on her artistic vocation and profession as a painter, while paying tribute to her mother, Ellen. The latter, herself an artist, like the entire family, encouraged her daughter from the outset and acted as an agent promoting her work. While still very young, Rolinda exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution and was able to make a living from her art. View full image.

Edward Villiers Rippingille, Inn Scene, about 1820, oil on panel, K4197 View full image.

Edward Villiers Rippingille, The Recruiting Party, 1822, oil on panel, K497
In the centre of a village, an army recruitment officer attempts to persuade a young man to sign up. The assembled crowd appears to partly agree and partly disagree with the arguments relating to glory and a shining career doubtless put forward by the officer. Rippingille casts a critical eye on these promises, which can be discerned on the right of the composition where a forlorn veteran, demobilised at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, is begging for alms. View full image.

Edward Villiers Rippingille, John Whitmore Isaac, about 1829, oil on panel View full image.

Edward Villiers Rippingille, Harriet Isaac, 1829, oil on panel, K5505 View full image.

Samuel Colman, St James Fair, Bristol, 1824, oil on panel, K353
In this teeming scene of urban life, the artist drew inspiration from the success of Edward Bird and Rippingille. However, this depiction of St James Fair is imbued with the artist’s nonconformist religious beliefs. He contrasts the bookstall on the left, where the stall holder proffers a bible, with the frivolity or debauchery of the “profane” activities taking place during the fair. View full image.

Oil on panel portrait painting of Edward Bird, by Edward Villiers Rippingille. R.A., 1817, oil on panel, K5950
Vintage painting of a 1800's family in a library.. Edward Bird, The Reading of the Will Concluded, 1811, oil on canvas, K498
A painting by Edward Bird, A young man is getting ready to leave the family home to embark on a career in the capital. The father gives his son money and advice while the women prepare his luggage. Further up, a young boy indicates that the coach has arrived. The Departure for London, 1815, oil on panel, K6482