Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Arthur Severn

Nationality: English
Date of birth: 1842.08.14
Place of birth: London
Date of death: 1931.01.23
Place of death: London
Category: painter


Arthur Severn was a watercolour painter. He was the son of Elizabeth and Joseph Severn, the painter and friend of John Keats. His brother Walter (1830-1904) was a landscape watercolour painter and his sister Mary (1832-66) a portrait painter and the wife of the archaeologist Charles Newton. In 1871 Arthur married Joan Agnew, a cousin of John Ruskin.


Arthur studied in Paris and Rome. He specialised in landscape and marine paintings, in which he experimented with the effects of light and weather. He was an active exhibitor, showing in London at the Royal Academy, Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Dudley Gallery, Fine Art Society and Grosvenor Gallery, as well as at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, Leicester Gallery and Manchester City Art Gallery. He was a founder member of the Arts Club in 1863. In 1882 he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the following year of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. He also exhibited in Paris, receiving an honourable mention in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle. His works include High Tide in Brighton (Cardiff).

Arthur Severn's first recollections of Whistler were at the home of his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden where he and George Du Maurier were looking over some Liber Studiorum engravings, and then at Arthur Lewis' parties on Campden Hill at which Whistler used to sing 'in argot French, imitations of what he had heard in low cabarets on the Seine when he was at work there.'

According to Arthur Severn, in 1862 Whistler painted The Last of Old Westminster y039 from his brother Walter's rooms in Manchester Buildings, overlooking the Thames at Westminster Bridge. However, Kelly's London Postal Directory for 1862 lists Arthur, Walter and Mary as all living at 83A Ecclestone Square, off the Begrave Road, London S.W. No-one was actually listed as living at 11 Manchester Buildings until 1864, when John Baldry Redman, a civil engineer, lived there. However, Kelly's Directories were not entirely accurate, and indeed in 1863 they brought out a second edition to remedy errors, so Walter Severn might have had rooms or an office there (GUW #12745). Arthur described how 'It was the piles with their rich colour and delightful confusion that took his fancy, not the bridge which hardly showed'.

Arthur Severn, who admiringly described the oriental interior of Whistler's home in Chelsea in the early 1860s, also held the work of Whistler in high esteem. However, he and his wife were also very close to Ruskin. On 25-26 November 1878, at the request of Ruskin's solicitors, Arthur Severn brought to the Whistler v. Ruskin trial, a painting attributed to Titian, Vincenzo Catena's Portrait of the Doge Andrea Gritti, acquired by Ruskin in 1864. Arthur also enlisted witnesses on Ruskin's behalf, including William Powell Frith (#12001) and during the trial looked up references in Modern Painters for the defence. Yet he believed Whistler's paintings to be 'carefully painted and generally very beautiful and true in colour', and considered Ruskin's criticisms to have been unjust and destructive. It is significant that he himself was never a witness on Ruskin's behalf. He told the Pennells that Whistler remained courteous to him throughout, understanding the difficulty of his position.

The 1881 census showed Arthur and Joan Severn to be living with Ruskin at Hawkshead.


UK census 1881; Sharpe, W., The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, London, 1892; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 ; Who Was Who, 1929-1940, London, 1941.; Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Gravers, 8 vols, Paris, 1954-61; Birkenhead, S., Illustrious Friends: The Story of Joseph Severn and his Son Arthur, London, 1965; Johnson, J., and A. Gruetzner, Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940, Woodbridge, 1980; Merrill, Linda, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in 'Whistler v. Ruskin', Washington and London, 1992 ; Powell, Cecilia, 'Joseph Severn', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.