The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields, 1833-1911
The Pandora's Box that is the Internet can offer up some dubious marvels. Alongside the more predictable shop front attractions, there exist vast subterranea of lesser-explored content, most of which, no doubt, is avoided for very good reasons. Some of it, though, merits more than a second glance. In particular, for the bibliophile who has reached the outer limits of available shelf space (and budget), the profusion of long out of copyright digitised ebooks, freely available via Project Gutenberg etc., offers the virtual equivalent of a mooch through the ultimate second hand bookshop. Quite often the neglected gems unearthed are discovered whilst in pursuit of a much better known work. This is not to say that the resulting finds always possess an intrinsic, consciously crafted virtuosity. In fact, as a rule, the more suffused they are with the type of protocols, authorial voices and emotional trappings which jar with our (post) postmodern sophistication, the more absorbing they are.
One such example of this type of dusty volume, now accessible gratis in the format of your choice, is a book published in 1912 entitled The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields, 1833-1911. Shields, an English artist of little posthumous renown, was in his lifetime an admired contemporary and good friend of such luminaries as Rossetti, Madox Brown and Holman Hunt. Unfortunately, unlike those of his better known associates, Shields' star has seriously nosedived over the passage of time, which in itself raises some interesting questions about how we experience, engage with and evaluate Victorian art today, compared with its contemporary audience's reactions. Although Shields' output might now be regarded as a stodgy combination of overly sentimental genre scenes and lugubrious religious tableaux, according to his obituary, his legacy was to have been one of "that wonderful circle of famous men which has left so deep a mark on Victorian literature and art," whilst a later admirer, the early twentieth century illustrator and designer, Frank Brangwyn, thought Shields was "one of the last of what you might call our serious artists."
Be that as it may, you would be hard pressed to glean any sort of critically informed understanding of Shields' artistic calibre per se from reading TheLife and Letters, but then, that isn't really its rationale. Instead, the book is more of a potted biography-cum-tragicomic elegy, informed by extracts from Shields' journals as well as swathes of letters that he both wrote and received. It was compiled and edited by Ernestine Mills (1871-1959), herself an artist as well as a Suffragette activist, who came to know Shields when she was a young girl and he was a figure with "towering brows...long, wavy hair and earnest, deep set eyes" whose "terrifying expression" could suddenly break out into a smile which "irradiated his whole face." Mills' obvious admiration for her subject sometimes veers into hushed veneration--that, and the text's occasional time-faded longueurs, can test the reader's resilience. Fortunately, there are enough instances of intriguing and evocative detail throughout to lend the fustier passages a reflected charm. In any case, it's always best not to get too precious about having to negotiate our ancestors' perceived quaintness, particularly when we remember E. P. Thompson's admonitions about posterity's enormous fondness for condescension. Yes, our forebears could be, by turns, tedious, elusive, comical and strange but that is also, no doubt, how we will seem to future generations.
When it comes to such works as Shields' Life and Letters, then, it is perhaps best to adopt a qualified attitude of just going with the flow. By doing so, the reader stands a better chance of developing a receptiveness to the priceless glimpses of just how grubby and anxious nineteenth-century England could be. At least, it was if you were Frederic Shields, whose London working class upbringing and early tribulations are so viscerally juxtaposed with his eventual maturation into the respected patrician artist. Indeed, we are left in no doubt that, as a young man, Shields had it tough. If not quite born into abject poverty, nevertheless he spent his adolescence eking out an uncertain subsistence in a range of trades that, to varying degrees, tapped into his artistic abilities. Thus, at one time or another, he worked as an apprentice lithographer, label and ticket designer, and itinerant portraitist, occupations which are all portrayed as confining, meagre and transitory. In order to cope emotionally with this grim existence, it seems that Shields soon developed an uncompromising Calvinism, which he grew accustomed to brandishing at himself and others for various perceived lapses in spiritual gravitas--including, early on in the book, a rather ungrateful reference to a childhood neighbour who had "thoughtlessly" sown "an evil seed" in young Fred by once taking him to see a pantomime, thus fostering an "overshadowing passion for the Theatre" which he battled all his life. This dour castigation was not all one-sided, as the letters he received from his father, mother and brothers testify. Clogged as they are with all manner of mawkish endearments and reciprocal entreaties to constantly monitor the soul, these joyless missives might also be seen as the cowed vernacular of a class who survived on the margins of so-called 'respectable' employment. Here we have the real-life correlates of Victorian fiction's 'poor but honest' bit-part players, the difference between fact and fiction being that, for these individuals, there was no likelihood of a satisfying dénouement in which the villain is undone and the inheritance rightfully restored. Therefore it is all the more admirable that Shields managed to negotiate his way out of this socio-economic dead end by means of talent and perseverance. It is during the throes of Shields' struggle to extricate himself from numbing penury that some of the most curious glimpses into his world can be found, via his diary entries. A typical one from 1858 reads:
Rose at 6. Prayer. To Withington for background, not the thing. Came back, found something nearer home, but by then the day so dull that I was only able to outline it. [To] Mrs. Donoghue - stayed some time arguing and exhorting her husband, very ill - doctor given him up. Exhorted him to flee to Christ for salvation, and not to give himself up to self-righteousness as he was doing - sick, and a Papist. Called for Amelia to sit for hair of girl - they had cut it - so floored again.
This, a not untypically exasperated litany of fleeting impressions and woes from the period, briefly brings the man to life, with all his absolutist faith and very human frustrations--particularly when we get to that magnificently despairing 'floored again,' at which point one can almost see Shields throwing his hands up in frustration as, once more, all occasions inform against him. Indeed, this combination of unshakeable religious superiority and a candid appreciation of his recurring bad luck becomes, in an odd way, an endearing aspect of Shields' letters and journals. Here he is meeting some more Pooterish misfortune in 1861:
Went to Moseley to sketch, very threatening, but the rain kept off, and I made two pencil sketches of heather and gorse. Rained pell mell on the way to Staley Bridge. [...] Waited an hour for a train, got off at Ardwick and forgot my sketching stool. Rushed back, past 10, but no use, someone had taken it.
The entry gives the impression that, rather than fume with uncharitable anger at this loss, Shields would have grumbled sadly all the way home, convinced that one unknown soul had been guaranteed eternal damnation for stealing a sketching stool. To counteract this kind of unholy recidivism, which he seems to have considered endemic, Shields petitioned hard for his contemporaries:
Prayer meeting for Missionaries, America, Jews, Religious liberty in Europe and East, and the destruction of all anti-Christian error. Had elderberry wine at Mr. Brown's - resolved to take no more. Decided to paint, 'Hide a stick in a little hole.'
It is in such tumbling passages of scattered observations, at once high-minded, self-castigating and bathetic, that one becomes attuned to Shields' idiosyncratic disposition. Here and there we catch intriguing vignettes of how that temperament coped with such mundane troubles as, for example, a common cold, for which the artist dosed himself up on a medicinal and spiritual permutation of "Paregoric and gruel, Ipecachuanha, hot water, mustard, Thomas à Kempis." As weird and wonderful as this sounds, such remedies are as nothing compared to the recommendations which Ford Madox Brown's son, Oliver, would later make to Shields as a cure for his insomnia:
A dose of Chloral Monday, Sour milk Tuesday, Laudanum Wednesdays, on Thursday a little Spirits (Irish Whisky is best for sleep-producing purposes), while on Friday you might modestly content yourself with fifteen to twenty-five drops of Chlorodyne.
Whether or not he tried such a stupefying course of treatment, Shields would later end up being addicted to chloral, that fashionable drug of choice for the Victorian aesthete, finally kicking the habit in the mid-eighteen seventies.
Whilst all this self-medication was going on, Shields was slowly but surely making a name for himself and starting to exhibit his work widely. In 1859 he received a commission to produce a set of wood engravings illustrating The Pilgrim's Progress, going on in 1863 to provide similar designs for Defoe's Plague of London (a.k.a. A Journal of the Plague Year), both of which significantly enhanced his reputation and brought him to the attention of Ruskin, Rossetti and their extended circle. His assimilation into such elevated company seems to have been both immediate and assured, if the book's many letters between Shields and his newfound friends are anything to go by, dealing with the vagaries of the nineteenth century art market, painting techniques and casual gossip.
In a book awash with such minutiae, the story of Shields' marriage in 1874 when he was forty to the sixteen-year-old Matilda Booth, known as Cissy, is a particularly poignant episode. Formerly a child model who had regularly sat for him and in whom he seems to have taken an intense, if strictly avuncular interest, Shields' teenage bride might ostensibly be seen as another example of those evanescent young creatures who drift through the biographies of so many Victorian notables. With their Little Nell-like fragility, they usually bewitch the grave patrician and reduce him to a fond old wreck. No such slavish devotion for Shields, however. Instead, he seems to have taken his self-appointed role as guardian of Cissy's spiritual and moral welfare very seriously, to the point where, by the time they married, he had become something of a martinet, continually disappointed with Cissy's alleged failings.
At the time of the marriage, Shields was living a sombre bachelor existence in Salford's Ordsall Hall, which, according to Ernestine Mills, was a "strange and lonely old house." These days, amongst weekend spook hunters, Ordsall Hall is known as a prime site for all manner of ghostly goings-on and, given its mediaeval origins, was no doubt similarly crammed with revenants in Shields' day. As such it would seem a particularly uncongenial location from which to embark on married life with a vulnerable young bride or, as Mills describes it in the Life and Letters, "a life of rigorous self-denial, intense religious devotion, seclusion from worldly frivolities of every kind, and a necessarily rigid economy in expenditure [which] could hardly have been ideal for a high-spirited, beautiful, but entirely uneducated child." Mills goes on to intimate that Shields had come under pressure from Cissy's parents to recognise that his interest in their daughter would, if it were to remain within the bounds of propriety, have to change now that she was a young woman and that therefore the relationship "must cease, or become a nearer one." She also suggests that, for Cissy, Shields represented a means of escape from her "monotonous home surroundings," in return for which she submitted to being placed on a somewhat desolate pedestal, to be both admired and moulded into his image of womanhood.
On hearing of the marriage, Shields' fellow artist Ford Madox Brown sent congratulations, avowing "I do now most heartily […] believe that the agreeable society of your wife (and let us hope children) will do much to alleviate the nervous troubles and anxieties you have suffered from." Such "nervous troubles and anxieties" as Shields endured at this time seem to have been mainly to do with a severe aversion to most noises. Whether this was a full-blown phobia or a side effect of his chloral addiction, it was, undoubtedly, a very real and distressing condition which Shields regularly mentioned in his letters. In 1865, even before his marriage and whilst he was still living in London, Shields had recorded his reaction to what must have been the cacophonous bustle of life in the capital: "I have counted as many as seven organs in a morning at Chelsea, with German bands. It was this infliction that had brought me so low--nothing else." Now, despite being hidden away in rambling old Ordsall Hall, noise pollution eventually caught up with him when the surrounding land was sold in order to build an oilcloth factory on it. Messy and noxious redevelopment ensued, and Shields woefully noted, "great cartloads of stinking oyster shells having been laid for […] foundations, and the whole vicinity on the eastern side, in a state of mire and debris of broken brick and slates, […] so painful to my eyes that I scarce ever go out in daylight." Unsurprisingly, Shields was soon looking for somewhere more congenial to establish a home and studio. Of his plans to visit one such potential location, he writes to Cissy, "On Monday I had arranged to go to see Watson's beautiful place, but he said there was a shrieking parrot behind him driving him almost to madness, and a stable underneath the studio where the horses are always ringing their chains, and where they kill pigs." With characteristic abruptness, Shields then ends the letter as the background noise overwhelms him: "There's an organ just begun to grind, driving me stupid before nine in the morning."
Galvanising letters from friends at this time indicate that even though Shields was gaining status as an artist, it still took quite an effort to nudge him out of the doldrums. Following a well-received exhibition of his work in 1875, Madox Brown wrote, "I do hope that after this you will give up gloomy thoughts and turn to enjoy life a little like a reasonable biped. Four-footed creatures never go about tormenting themselves when there is no reason, as we do. You owe it to your young wife to be uproariously jolly and hilarious on all occasions now." This was, perhaps, asking too much, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that Shields ever got round to being uproarious, jolly or hilarious. However, that is not to suggest that the artist was merely the cartoonish sum of his curmudgeonly tendencies, nor should the effect of his evidently troubled disposition on those close to him be underestimated, particularly in terms of his relationship with Cissy.
It is thanks to Mills' judicious and telling selection of letters from Shields to his wife during the early part of their marriage that we are given an affecting insight into their lives together. Whilst often strewn with endearments, these letters also usually contain some reference to how Cissy has saddened or irritated him. To take one seemingly slight but telling example from 1875, the artist writes to his "darling wife" from Blackpool, where he is working on a commission. Evidently this trip made him both homesick and irascible. After giving details of his progress, he looks forward to "Friday, [when] God willing, I may get back to my own dearest wife again," and requests Cissy to write to him before then as "I shall be disappointed if I don't hear from you." So far so affectionate, but just when all seems set for a tender conclusion, there is a sudden sting in the tail: "God bless you, my sweet one; what a shabby, short letter you sent this morning. Your loving husband, Frederic." In itself, perhaps it is an insignificantly grumpy way to sign off and we will never know whether the reprimand was justified, not having Cissy's side of the correspondence. More to the point, however, is how typical this is of the way that Shields regularly insists on introducing a sour note into even the most affectionate billet doux.
The correspondence continues in this vein once Shields packs Cissy off to Winnington, a finishing school in Brighton (proprietors the Misses Bell and Bradford) whilst he heads off for a tour of Italy. As he reaches Paris on the first stage of his journey, he writes to her with a familiar mix of devotion and choler:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when I am away from you I love you more and more, for I can think of your best things without being vexed at those rude little ways and sayings which so often cut me deeply when we are together.
One wonders what Cissy made of such remarks, how confused and upset she must have felt at being regularly cosseted and criticised in quick succession. We have, of course, to remember that we are dealing with different times and different intimacy protocols--even so, several of these letters leave as much of a bitter taste now as they must have done when first received and read. Perhaps Shields should be seen as someone who found it difficult enough to maintain his own equilibrium, let alone monitor his wife's spiritual and social welfare. Here was a man in pursuit of an ill-defined sense of composure that always seemed to be fractionally out of reach, so that he often projected his frustration at this dilemma onto the people and places he encountered.
Certainly throughout the Italian trip we come across instances of his tussles with a world that wilfully refused to live up to his expectations. On reaching Florence, for instance, he writes to Cissy of his hopes that "this thorough change will really do me good" before in the next breath maligning the local inhabitants as
these stupid and insufferable women who can find no other means of enjoyment in an evening (when one wants quiet after the day's work) except squalling enough to lift the roof off your head.[…] Nowhere can I get away from them, they are at it now, till I sweat with suffering.
Meanwhile, it would appear that Cissy had been doing some complaining of her own about the manner of her instruction. Shields reminds her that,
You must not think Miss Bell too severe, a mistress must often look hard, and hold things with a tight rein, when she does not feel anything but love to those under her care.[…] I pray you, my love, as you love me, show a pattern of submission and obedience to the rest.[…] Be humble, my dear, do just what you are told.
He then reminds her of her submissive duty to Christ "whose bride you shall be if you follow Him" before resorting to the usual side-swipe:
I wish you could learn to spell little simple words better than you do, for you spell worse than you write. I could make a dreadful list of your wrongly spelt words if I chose, from your letters, only I have not the heart to pull them to pieces, seeing how full of love they are, my darling.
Florence and all its commotion finally proved too much for Shields, who could get "no peace day or night, in any spot of the raving place" and where, even whilst voicing such despair, he could hear "a canary shrieking now enough to cut your head in two." To escape the racket, he travelled to Siena, Bologna and Venice, and it is in this last location that he again finds time to berate Cissy:
My Dearest Wife, I was disappointed to find only one little letter from you when I expected three or four. If I were to write so seldom to you I know well enough what you would think.
(Presumably that she had come off lightly for a change, but that probably isn't what Shields meant.) In the same letter we at least find him offering a measure of sympathy for some troubles that she had related. "I am very sorry that Miss Bell has been cross to you. I did not think she would so far forget herself, for she knows well how few have been your opportunities of knowing what is right to do." Meanwhile, the literary criticism does not let up:
Do you write your dictation better as regards spelling than when you write to me? I am sure you are trying, but your mind has been so neglected that for a long while you will have to be busy uprooting the weeds of ignorance.
For her part, Cissy seems to have had a pretty miserable time at Winnington and, from the evidence of Shields' responses to her letters, took great care to itemise the various instances of her tutors' mean-spirited behaviour. On this score Shields does at least administer a certain amount of concerned consolation without ever going so far as to offer to take her out of the establishment. By the time he leaves Italy and moves on to Switzerland, the arrival of a new teacher at Winnington seems at last to have alleviated Cissy's despair a little. Fastidious as ever, Shields seems cautiously pleased for her:
It is so good to hear that Miss Colebrook is kind to you, and that you are really making an effort with your lessons. How is it that everything dies?
This last sudden interjection, rather than being a typically morose observation from Shields, appears in fact to be a reference to the curiously high mortality rate which, Cissy had told him, was fast diminishing the school's stock of pets. Shields asks, "Who neglects or teases the pets?" before balefully remarking, "Someone is at fault." He does not then pursue his enquiries into these mysterious events--almost inevitably, the letter is cut short as Shields is once more reminded that wherever he goes, musicians of some sort will find him. "There's a German band positively just struck up--I must run away; who would have thought it here?" Exit Shields, fleeing down a Swiss mountainside.
Even after her husband returned to England in 1876, Cissy was forced to stay at Winnington whilst he resumed his search for a suitably soundproofed new home for them. He found it eventually in St John's Wood, London, but before they could move in, the property had to be renovated. In what must have been a Herculean effort to withstand the hammering, sawing and digging which ensued, Shields opted to stay and oversee the alterations. Meanwhile Cissy, disappointed at having to remain confined in the finishing school, writes to him about her toothache, to which he responds by assuring her that he too is suffering, having contracted a sniffle due to "sitting in cold rooms and looking after drains day after day." Finally, they move in together in 1877 and from then on we hear gradually less and less about Cissy, with Mills making only an obscure reference near the end of the book to Shields having suffered a subsequent "private anguish over which, as he would have wished, I draw the veil." The fact of the matter is that Cissy eventually left him in 1891. We can only speculate about whether the marriage fragmented abruptly, or slowly withered due to mutually accumulated unhappiness. However, what seems clear from Mills' respectful silence on the matter is that the eventual termination of his relationship with Cissy affected Shields deeply.
The passages recounting his troubled marriage are about as close as we get to the vulnerable underbelly of Shields the man, before Shields the artist swings back into view and we learn more about his growing reputation amongst contemporaries. Evidently he was in demand: in addition to his steady output of oils, watercolours and engravings, he also found time to design stained glass, most notably for the Duke of Westminster's Eaton Hall Chapel in Cheshire. He frequently lodged with Rossetti who, we are told, "would breakfast at noon upon eight eggs in a row" and was awarded, along with Ford Madox Brown, a joint commission to provide murals for Manchester's new town hall, a project which, after much prevarication, he eventually declined. Speaking of Rossetti, Shields shared with his friend and fellow artist a passion for William Blake which, as well as leading him to provide illustrations for the second edition of Alexander Gilchrist's landmark biography, also inspired a much remarked-upon drawing in 1880 of Blake's room as he imagined it to have been just after the great man had died, complete, as Mills puts it, with a "dimly seen vision of hovering angels." In his intense admiration for the latter-day sage, seer and prophet, Shields was one of a select band of nineteenth-century English artists (Samuel Palmer being another example) whose unyielding religiosity seems strangely at odds with Blake's antinomian brand of spirituality. Nevertheless, it is largely thanks to such admirers, whom some later commentators would say had fundamentally misunderstood their man, that Blake's reputation was kept alive in the years after his death.
If this identification with Blake's often heterodox aesthetic seems somewhat at odds with the strictures of Shields' Calvinism, his last and (for him) greatest commission was more in keeping with his rigorous piety: namely, the decoration of the Chapel of the Ascension in Bayswater, London. The brainchild of Mrs Emilia Russell Gurney, the wealthy widow of the former Recorder of London, the Chapel was conceived as "a place of rest for wayfarers, and for prayer and meditation, wherein body, mind, and spirit, oppressed with the hurrying roar of the city's life, might find repose." Designed by Herbert Horne and taking its stylistic cues from a renewed interest in Italian Renaissance architecture, the main building structure was completed in 1894 with an interior purposely designed to afford Shields the maximum amount of uninterrupted wall space on which to produce a large-scale cycle of religious paintings. Indeed, Shields saw the interior of the Chapel as his own three-dimensional canvas, informing Horne that "the paintings are not for the building, but the building for the paintings," an ethos reflected in the approach that he adopted of using massive blocks of slate, built into the walls, as the ground upon which to affix a series of oil murals. In effect, the building served Shields as a blank slate, for which his art was the animating spirit.
Mills describes the decoration scheme thus produced as "the literal interpretation of the Scriptures by means of large mural paintings enriched with elaborate and researchful symbolism." The studies for this scheme as displayed in Life and Letters show the murals to have been a highly competent--if often formulaic and essentially sterile--mix of Biblical scenes and religious allegories. Having said that, one has to concede that the impression produced by the black-and-white reproductions of these works, dispersed throughout an old book, may not be the same as their effect when seen in full colour in the Chapel itself. In any case, there is no doubting Shields' dedication to the task nor the devout tenacity with which he set about it, so that one might well appreciate why, in the estimation of an admirer such as Mills, "in the Chapel of the Ascension [Shields] has left a monument which stands alone in English--one might almost say in European--Art, as the achievement of one man in conception and execution from beginning to end."
All the same, by the time the Chapel was finally opened in 1896, substantial parts of the decoration had yet to be completed, which contextualises the scope of Shields' ambition in relation to the size of the project. After his patroness died later that year, financial backing to proceed with the work became more difficult to secure thanks to various concerns of Mrs Gurney's executors about the endeavour. It was only in 1910, twenty-two years after it had been commissioned and with the help of £3000 raised by a special appeal fund, that the Chapel of the Ascension was at last completed. Just a few months later, on 26th February 1911, Shields died in Surrey. In his will he left Cissy an annuity and donated the rest of his estate (a substantial sum) to missionary societies.
When it first appeared in the year after his death, The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields commemorated an artist who, in retrospect, was already something of an anomalous figure. A late photograph of Shields, included as a frontispiece to the book, gives a flavour of the figure who had once so daunted the young girl who would go on to become his biographer. Of a slender, wiry physique, he wears a thick woollen smock and sits, arms crossed, intensely concentrating on something just to his right, as if directing a withering look at some unspeakable organ grinder or German band which has just started up. Here is an artist who was born when the art world was still swathed in the grandiloquent Romanticism of Turner and Delacroix, and who died within a year of England's first Post-Impressionist exhibition. Not, one imagines, that Fred Shields would have been particularly nonplussed (or even 'floored') by such epochal shifts, immured as he was in the mores and humours of a Victorian world which seemed to linger about him like one of Ordsall Hall's more persistent apparitions. As for that other location so closely associated with Shields--and one, in the end, much dearer to his heart--if you go looking for the Chapel of the Ascension in Bayswater today, you won't find it. In the course of a German bombing raid on the night of 18 June 1944, amidst the kind of head-splitting uproar which would have sent Shields into paroxysms of aural agony, the building was almost completely obliterated, its last vestiges finally cleared away in 1969. Fortunately, and thanks in large part to the stalwart efforts of Ernestine Mills, the memory of Frederic Shields has just about escaped a similarly Lethean fate. --Mark Jones
 Who all, with sad concurrence, died of TB within a few years of each other.
 A fascinating place to visit and situated in the midst of what the tabloid press usually refers to as the 'notorious' Ordsall estate, the Hall these days boasts a 'Frederic Shields Gallery' in honour of its former resident.