by Giada Gelli, Collections Student
Do you remember last year’s series of posts about the artistically talented Doyle family? We talked about John Doyle (the father) and his sons Richard, James and Henry and now it is the turn of Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-1892) whom, I have to confess, is my favourite of them all.
If after reading this post, or any of the previous ones about the Doyle family, you feel like seeing some of their works with your own eyes, you have not only one but two options. You could access Doyle family materials held here at the National Library, or you could have a look at an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland where illustrations of Richard and Charles Doyle, among other artists such as the great Harry Clarke, are on display until 25 March 2012.
But why is Charles Doyle my favourite of the Doyle brothers? It has nothing to do with the fact that he is the father of famous crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle. I am not a great reader of crime novels, though I admit some fascination for some of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures! It is in fact very simply because his art tells us the story of a guy with an amazing imagination and a brilliant sense of humour, who is not afraid to show his viewers a darker, more sinister side of his personality.
I find Charles’ drawings extremely honest, witty and capable of instilling a sense of wonder for what is natural and what is supernatural.
His acute observations of the natural world are a pleasure to the eye: plants, flowers, mushrooms and birds (rumour has it that he was terrified of birds!) are realistic elements drawn by the hand of an expert naturalist, but projected in a fantastic, whimsical world which confuses and enriches the senses.
However, his life’s hardship and disappointments are reflected in his artistic output. Unlike his other brothers who gained fame, success and wealth through their art (think of Richard, illustrator for Punch magazine, or Henry, long-term Director of the National Gallery of Ireland), Charles worked all his life as a civil servant and was never capable of making a living out of his work as an illustrator. He didn’t live in glamorous London nor travel the continent in search of talent for a burgeoning art gallery; instead he lived a humble, strictly Catholic life in Edinburgh as the father of a big family who always struggled to make ends meet. As a result of life’s difficulties perhaps, he developed an alcohol addiction and consequently a deep depression. Apparently for these reasons he retired early from his job and spent the last years of his life institutionalised in various Scottish asylums. There his depression just grew worse, and he eventually developed epilepsy and died, reportedly of heart failure.
There are many grey areas in his biography, especially regarding the reasons why he was institutionalised, but in 1978 TV producer Michael Baker tried to shed more light on Charles’ life in his book The Doyle Diary: The last great Conan Doyle mystery. This is an excellent read and it also features a full reproduction of Charles’ 1889 sketchbook (a real gem), drawn during his internment in Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum and only a few years before his death.
His world of fears and nightmares, regurgitated with such mastery on paper, has been compared by critics to the likes of Henry Fuseli and Richard Dadd, while some more hallucinatory and threatening atmospheres found in works like ‘Meditation, Self-portrait’ are unique to his tormented style. As a matter of fact, even his more playful fairy drawings have a very particular style, which has been impossible to compare to anyone else’s work yet. It seems a shame that Charles Altamont Doyle has not reached the significant fame that I reckon he deserves. I believe many illustrators and graphic artists know of his genius, but as many of his works are still in private hands or unknown to the larger public, the extent of his talent is still a mystery to us.