Edmund Bristow was a British painter of animals, still life and genre subjects. His rusticated portrayals of Victorian rural life served a baying aristocratic clientele, eager for his canny observations.
The son of a heraldic painter, Eton-born Bristow was destined to become an artist. Honing his draughtsmanship early, at the age of just 15, the Countess of Rosslyn became his first willing patron. Soon after, various nobles followed suit including the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, and Princess Elizabeth.
Bristow’s introverted wit underpinned his muddy countryside ensembles - with animals often used as a conduit for emotion. Typically, Victorians disguised their feelings under a veil of starched aloofness, communicating only within certain unsaid, yet understood, parameters. Dogs, cats, donkeys, horses and particularly monkeys are somewhat easier to read in Bristow’s works than the figures which fill his cottages.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer RA (1802-1873), another master of animalistic nuance, lauded Bristow as the best horse painter of his generation - high praise indeed. It’s said that Bristow offered Landseer advice and also inspired one of his works. The Royal Academy beckoned and in 1809, he debuted with ‘A Smith Shoeing A Horse’. Prince Albert acquired one of his works for the Royal Collection Trust.
Aside from his traditional genre scenes, he seemed to carry a fondness for capturing human nature through the medium of monkeys. His furry friends are often dressed in familiar attire while undertaking tasks beyond their mental capabilities. One monkey tinkers with alchemy, another drinks with friends, a third takes part in a duel. The press referred to these works collectively as a kind of ‘monkey-rama’, for which he was particularly known.
But it was the popularity of these witty depictions that led to malaise and ultimately the artist’s withdrawal. During an exhibition, well-known art collector George Agar-Ellis was so taken by his pictures that he requested multiple commissions. Bristow felt bound to comply and soon found himself churning out works for needy patrons rather than painting for pleasure. He exhibited infrequently beyond this point, becoming ever more cantankerous as the years passed. It said that refused to sell a work to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for fear of another patronage.
Towards the end of his life, he retreated to the confines of his home in Windsor where he remained in relative obscurity. Following his death, the national art press generally agreed that he could’ve become one of the greatest artists of his generation but was held back by an eccentric personality.
Although, as one writer explained, it was, in part, the fault of his aristocratic patrons who were demanding to say the least.
“That he never rose above a comparatively humble level of achievement was, perhaps, due as much to ignorance among his clientele as to want of power on his own part.”
Bristow exhibited numerous times at the Royal Academy, British Institution, and the Society of British Artists.
Born in Eton, Berkshire, England.
Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘A Smith Shoeing A Horse’. He exhibited seven works between 1809 and 1829.
Died in Eton, Berkshire, England.