Friday Art Cat: Ralph Hedley (1848-1913)



Ralph Hedley (1848-1913)


“Cat in a cottage window, blinking in the sun”, 1881. Oil on canvas.


I grew up with this image.  It was, and still is, in the downstairs loo of my parents’ house.  To me it symbolises happiness and contentment.  Also neatness – something cats can achieve so easily, when asleep or just sitting.  The curled tail is just so, perfectly placed, with its tip just floating, but always poised to wake and spring into action at a moment’s notice.

The British Artist Ralph Hedley was born in Richmond, North Yorkshire.  The family moved to Newcastle two years later where he was to stay all his life.  He became an apprentice wood carver for his father.  He was also interested in art and design, which he studied in the evenings in Newcastle.  In 1869 or 70, the enterprising young man set up a firm for wood-carving and architectural sculpture firstly with fellow apprentice James Wishart, then when Wishart died, continuing on his own.

He achieved “considerable distinction” as a wood-carver, doing “a quantity of decorative work in churches.  Hedley’s career as an artist also flourished. As well as producing lithographs, illustrations and cartoons, he established himself as a painter, first exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1878. His paintings generally had a strong regional flavour. As his Times obituary says, “His inspiration was for the most part drawn from homely aspects of Northumbrian life as he saw it among farm hands and seafaring folk.”

Northumbrians took Hedley to their hearts, and when he died in Newcastle at the rather early age of 63, he was primarily recognised “down south” as a good northern artist, a regional artist who had painted the people around him, had valued and brought out their worth, and was valued by them in return.  Nevertheless, he was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, and his Times obituary tells us that he had continued to exhibit regularly at Academy in London, “sometimes represented by three or four pictures.”

He painted with skill and feeling, and his later pictures of working people in particular were in an “atmospheric style,” and “reflect the influence of art movements in Paris and London” (“Ralph Hedley,” Laing Art Gallery).   They are not easily dismissed as “genre paintings,” at least not without remembering George Eliot’s remarks in Adam Bede about finding “a source of delicious sympathy” in the faithful rendering of everyday scenes.

It is the less surprising, then, that Hedley’s paintings now achieve prices that would have been far above the reach of their original buyers, even allowing for the massive inflation since those days. One, “Contraband”, which shows an inspector rummaging through a sailor’s trunk and apparently finding something suspicious in it, fetched £72,000 in 2006. One can hardly imagine what it might achieve now.

“A sign of bad weather”, 1883. Oil on canvas.

 “English bulldog and cat at rest in a stable”. Oil on canvas.

“Last in Market”, 1885. Oil on canvas.  (Yes I know it doesn’t have a cat in it, but it’s so lovely I had to include it.)


Sara Day

I am an artist who makes work of animals and people.

Three cats live with me – Maine coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio.

Commissions welcomed.

Instagram: Sardine.Art

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