John Henry Alphonse Da Costa was a British painter of landscapes and portraits in oil and watercolour.
Da Costa’s early years were quite astonishing as he found himself sent to Paris at the age of 11 to study with two of Europe’s most accomplished draughtsmen - Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. Sir John Everett Millais had provided the catalyst by encouraging the young lad to pursue a career in the arts, and before long, Da Costa fulfilled his potential by becoming an artist of some repute.
Born in Teignmouth, Devon, Da Costa’s father was a man of considerable means with an income derived from overseas property. It seems the family moved to Jersey when John was around two years old and stayed for some time. This is probably how they connected with Millais who is descended from a prominent Jersey-based family. It’s unclear how Millais saw the fledgling works of the young lad, but it was presumably around 1876 when he was ten. By which point, Millais was widely known across the United Kingdom and beyond.
During his time in Paris, Da Costa honed his drawing skills under the tutelage of Boulanger and Lefebvre - both masters of figure work. He undoubtedly laboured intensely, studying classical sculptures and copying the Old Masters.
From here, he moved to Newlyn, Cornwall, where he worked for several years in a studio on a hill. He was considered a rising star of the ‘Newlyn School’ but his approach was different to that of his peers, such as Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947). He didn’t quite fit the scene, although the press lauded his exhibited works. In 1890, while living with his mother Mary, who was a widow by this point, he debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Evening Celebration’.
“Mr John da Costa, a young artist, who has made startling progress of late years, has a very strong study - Evening Celebration. There are half-a-dozen figures in the picture and they have been graphically and thoroughly drawn in deep tones. The faces are lit by the candelabra by the side of the surpliced miniator; and the solemn hush that pervades the sombre interior of the sacred edifice is duly emphasised.”
Press Report (1890)
In 1892, his second work was shown - a landscape titled ‘A Pastoral’. But this time, it was received less favourably and probably ‘skied’ - e.g. hung high out of public view. Da Costa was struggling with his identity - in the UK, critics felt he was too French, while in France, he was too English. Although, that said, the Salon hanging committee did treat him well compared to their London counterparts.
Reports from this early period refer to Da Costa’s perfectionism resulting in a reduced output. Critics mention how he would work on canvases until near completion but then destroy them. With one reporter referring to how disappointing this was - that he would deprive the public of new works which were more than adequate.
Before too long, the developing painter moved to the capital and began to establish himself as an accomplished portraitist. One who could capture a sitter’s unique characteristics, while also conveying their natural beauty. In essence, his results were often quite flattering but also naturalistic.
“He is an actualist in details; but, unlike some of its supporters, he does not permit realistic accidents in his model or his scene to mar the unity of his original conception. He idealises by omission of the unbeautiful and by selection rather than by any falsification of existing facts”.
Gleeson White, Magazine Of Art (1898)
The Glen Walker Sisters
In 1895, Da Costa produced his most celebrated work - a portrait of the four ‘Glen Walker Sisters’. Shimmering in sumptuous drapery, they cut a fine form. Three are standing to create a pyramidal structure, while the fourth is seated. He was compared with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and lauded by the critics - in the UK, France and US. It was probably at this point that he began to gain traction across the Atlantic.
“The portrait of the four misses Walker, by M.John da Costa, an Englishman who paints in America, is a remarkable work, which testifies to a happy brilliance, an ease and a virtuosity which marks the influence of Mr. Sargent.”
Press Report (1895)
Two years after depicting the four ladies, he married one of them - Elizabeth Glen Walker ‘Lillie’, daughter of William Glen Walker. Perhaps smitten by his own work.
Success In Paris
Aside from his success in the UK and US, Da Costa’s career was also flourishing in France where he’d been exhibiting in Paris at the Salon de Artistes Francais - winning medals in 1903 and 1907. In a somewhat begrudging manner, one French critic in 1908 seems to finally accept the English artist:
“Mr. Dugdale, Mr. Shanks, Mr. Bigelow-Tilton, Mr. Whiting, Mr. White, Miss Neilson-Gray, Mr. William Carter, Mr. John da Costa. To these artists, to their works, what can the French school oppose?”
He was also compared, once again, to Sargent.
“Here again is a very curious portrait of Mr. Seymour-Thomas, Miss Mildred Lee, great-granddaughter of Washington, and portraits of young girls by Mr. John da Costa, who has greatly benefited from Sargent's study.”
Between 1905 and 1910, he travelled to the US at least four times, probably for portrait commissions.
Illustrations & Draughtsmanship
Underpinning John Da Costa’s masterly handling was his well-honed draughtsmanship, which stemmed from his Parisian training. In around 1905, he put this to use when producing numerous illustrations for ‘The Graphic’ magazine, mostly to accompany short stories. These, combined with his portrait opportunities, provided a secure income and he commenced work on a new house in Chelsea, London.
By 1915, an impressive building on the corner of Mulberry Walk and Old Church Street became both a home and studio. He lived here with his wife, Lillie, and the pair had a daughter.
Chelsea Art Club
This remarkable property also became the location for occasional meetings of the Chelsea Art Club where Da Costa mingled with some of London’s artistic glitterati - Augustus John, William Orpen, Walter Sickert and Alfred Munnings to name but a few. Life was good, he’d taken up fly-fishing and fencing.
In 1930, having separated from Lillie, he married his second wife Grace Bonner who was referred to as his model, which she later denied. He died six months after his wedding at the age of 64.
John Da Costa exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Salon de Artistes Français, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Rome, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Baltimore. He was a member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters. His works are held in numerous public collections including at the Wellcome Collection, London, Royal Academy, and Penlee House Gallery & Museum.
Born in Teignmouth, Devon, England to John Da Costa and Mary Da Costa.
Registered as living with his family at St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands. Four servants at the same address.
Studied in Paris under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre.
Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Evening Celebration’. He exhibited a total of 16 works.
Exhibiting with an address of Belle-vue House, Newlyn, Penzanze, Cornwall, England.
Married to Elizabeth Glen Walker, daughter of William Glen Walker.
Exhibiting with an address of 59 Glebe Place, Chelsea, London, England.
Exhibiting with an address of 9 Sussex Villas, Kensington, London, England.
Honorable mention at the Salon de Artistes Francais.
Running an art school in Kensington, London, with Theresa Norah Copnall.
Produced an illustration for The Graphic.
Travelled to New York, USA aboard the Carmania.
Bronze medal at the Salon de Artistes Francais.
Travelled to New York, USA aboard the Caronia to visit Mrs Camboume Payntor.
Travelled to Boston, USA aboard the Saxonia.
Travelled to New York, USA aboard the Lusitania.
Birth of daughter Elizabeth.
Married to Grace Bonner, of Strawberry Hill, Middlesex, England.
Died in London, England.