Oakley RWS, Octavius (1800-1867)

Oakley RWS, Octavius (1800-1867)
Oakley RWS, Octavius (1800-1867)

Octavius Oakley RWS was an accomplished British painter of portraits, figure subjects and landscapes. He exhibited for over 30 years at the Royal Academy and was elected a member of the Old Water-Colour Society. Highly regarded during his day, various nobles sat for him including Prince George, Princess Augusta of Cambridge, and the Duke of Devonshire. His works are held in numerous public collections.


Royal Academy, Royal Watercolour Society, Birmingham Society of Artists, Brighton Art Society, Liverpool Academy of Arts, Royal Manchester Institution, Royal Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street).

Public Collections

National Portrait Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, V&A, British Museum, Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham Art Gallery, Yale Centre for British Art.



Born in Bermondsey, Surrey to William Oakley, a wool merchant, and Mary Oakley (nee Smith).

Worked for a textile company in Leeds.


Lived in Derby, Derbyshire.
Stayed at Chatsworth House where he painted the Duke of Devonshire.

Invited to various country seats in Derbyshire. The Earl of Shrewsbury became his patron.


Debuted at the Royal Academy with two portraits. He exhibited 30 works over 34 years.


Married Maria Ann Moseley in Derby, Derbyshire, who died in 1833.


Painted Lord Melbourne.


Painted the Duke of Rutland.


Lived in Derby, Derbyshire.


Married Mary Ann Bernard in Leamington Priors, Warwickshire.
Lived in Leamington, Warwickshire.


Lived in Leamington Priors, Warwickshire. Occupation recorded as 'artist'.
Produced a portrait of the artist Thomas Baker (1809-1864).


Lived at Bentinck Street, Manchester Square, London.


Elected an Associate of the Old Water-Colour Society.


Elected a member of the Old Water-Colour Society.


Reviewed in the Birmingham Gazette following an exhibition at the Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham.

“Nos. 177 and 205, Octavius Oakley. Two clever pictures, by one who ranks deservedly high in the profession. The first is entitled Interrupted Happiness, and represents Savoyard boys with organ, hurdy-gurdy, guinea-pigs, and white mice, disturbed whilst in the act of plying their eleemosynary craft upon the door steps of some noble town mansion. Their disturber is a livery servant, who appears at the door with cane in hand, But whose countenance is expressive of too much genuine bonhomie to permit its exercise on the shoulders of the artless-looking urchins, whose glances of arch innocence would disarm a bolder man than this gentlemanly Jenkins, and so he is re-treating with a half smile upon his face. A little wench on some errand, with a milk-can in her hand, is loitering to look at the guinea-pigs, and a younger child is stooping over the white mice and regarding them with curious delight. The drawing and colouring are admirable, and altogether it is a picture of touching interest and attraction. No. 205 is a homely subject, and represents a brace of birds hanging against a wall; fish upon a platter; a jar, and a sprig of red-berried holly, all rendered with exquisite truthfulness, and with the force and vividness of oil.”


Published in Howitt’s Journal ‘The Conversazione’.


Lived at Somerset Street, Portman Square, London.


Lived in St Marylebone, London.


Exhibited ‘Harvest Girl’ at the Liverpool Academy of Arts.


Lived in St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands.


Lived at Chepstow Villas, Bayswater, London.


Died in Kensington, London. Buried at Highgate Cemetery.

Obituary published in the Derbyshire Advertiser.

“We announce with extreme regret the death of Mr. Oakley, an event which took place on Friday evening last, the 1st instant, at his residence in London. Mr. Oakley was in early life for many years resident in Derby, and was highly esteemed, not only for his great artistic talent as a painter in water colours, but for his gentle and refined nature, which won for him friends wherever he went. His life-like pictures of gipsies, organ-grinders, and rustic figures, as well as his more important compositions, are highly valued by all true lovers of art, and perhaps no artist was ever more happy in portraiture. In our own town and county his works abound, and now that he is no more will be increasingly appreciated. Mr. Oakley was one of the oldest, and certainly one of the best members of the Old Water Colour Society, and has for a great number of years been a constant contributor to its exhibitions. He died at the age of sixty-six after a protracted and painful illness, and will be long and lovingly remembered by his numerous friends. He leaves a widow and two daughters to mourn his loss.”

Biography published in ‘A History of the Old Water-Colour Society’ by John Lewis Roget, 1891.

“One new Associate only, Octavius Oakley, was admitted at the annual election on the 4th of February, 1842. He became a Member two years after, and remained one until his death in 1867. Oakley's clean, smooth, and highly finished drawings of rustic figures were familiar for many years to frequenters of the Gallery, more especially those of the class which had earned for him the sobriquet of 'Gipsy Oakley.'

As his baptismal name indicates, he was one of a large family. His father was a wool merchant of London, much respected and, in 1800 when his eighth child was born, wealthy also. The boy received a good general education at the school of the Rev. Dr. Nicholas, at Ealing, and as he was intended for the medical profession, it was proposed to apprentice him to Aston Key, the surgeon. But this design was frustrated by his father's misfortunes. On the opening of the foreign ports, after the peace of 1815, the value of wool suddenly fell, and Mr. Oakley having a very large quantity in stock, was in consequence a serious loser. The event had an influence on the son's career. His medical studies being commenced under less favourable conditions than those above mentioned, a distaste for the profession, which he had evinced from the first, was so obviously strengthened, that the father was induced to alter his plans for the son's future, and young Oakley was sent to a cloth manufacturer's near Leeds, to gain a practical knowledge of that branch of industry, with a view of his engaging in the wool trade.

In both these schemes, however, the boy's natural bent was studiously ignored. It was the old story, so often repeated in these pages. He had shown the artistic faculty from an early age, being never so happy as when employed with his pencil. But the practical father considered this a waste of time, and to escape punishment the young artist would take refuge in the privacy of his bedroom, and save up candle ends, that he might draw when others were, and he ought to have been, in bed and asleep. On one occasion an elder sister ventured upon an expostulation, which was afterwards regarded by the family as prophetic. 'Who knows,' said she, but some day he may be glad to earn his bread by his pencil?' And so it turned out. But for the present her brother Octavius was packed off to the north country.

Being of somewhat elegant appearance, and comparatively slight in physique, the 'fine London chap' met at first with small consideration from the brawny Yorkshire lads among whom he was thrown, and he had to show his pluck in a pugilistic encounter with the village bully before he was able to gain their respect. In the want of sympathetic companionship, however, his love of art was a double solace to him, and in time it proved a means of securing the friendship and the interest also of those about him; for he used to make pencil likenesses of his acquaintance, and eventually, acting on the advice of a young lawyer in whom he found the most congenial spirit among them, he began to turn his talent to account, by receiving payment for his portraits. As sitters became more numerous, practice developed his talent, and in fulfilment of the prophecy he at length bade adieu to the wool business, and set up as a professional artist.

How he acquired his skill in water-colours, tradition does not say; but he painted portraits in that medium, which were greatly reputed for their individuality. His early patrons doubtless afforded ample material for the delineation of character, much of his first professional limning being employed on the shrewd features of Yorkshire farmers. He used to relate in after times how one of his sitters, on being shown his half-length likeness, expressed his dissatisfaction at the curtailment of his manly figure by exclaiming Eh! mon, but I want t' whole carcase.'

It was, however, by a more aristocratic class of sitters that Oakley was destined to be chiefly employed as a portrait painter. The talent and taste displayed in his early productions gained him the support of several noblemen and persons of influence; and when he took up his residence at Derby, about the year 1825, he was invited to stay at Chatsworth, where he painted the Duke of Devonshire and many of his distinguished guests. This led to his spending much of his time at the different country seats in Derbyshire. The Earl of Shrewsbury, one of his patrons, thought so highly of his talent that he offered to give him introductions at some of the foreign courts if he cared to go abroad. But Oakley preferred to live quietly at home with his young wife (he had by that time become a married man), and pursue his placid art among rural surroundings; for, successful as he was, portrait painting in high life was not the branch of art most congenial to his taste. He had a love of nature which inclined him to prefer pure landscape and rustic figures of children of the soil. Moreover, he had already conceived his fancy for gipsies, and was making a spécialité of the study of their picturesque life. He was now well known amongst them, and they would often pitch their tents purposely near to his house.

During his residence at Derby he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and had seventeen portraits there between 1826 and 1832. Among these are (in 1829) Lord Melbourne and the Hon. Mr. and Mrs. Lamb, and (in 1831) the Duke of Rutland. He also painted Prince George and Princess Augusta of Cambridge, and diverse persons eminent in the literary and scientific world; among the latter Audubon the naturalist and Spurzheim the phrenologist.

The premature death of his wife led to the breaking up of his home at Derby. Being then unsettled, he came to London, and sought for a time the companionship there of his brother artists. In 1836 he settled in a pleasant villa at Leamington, in the Holly Walk, and there took up again the position of a fashionable portrait painter. He also continued to study his gipsy figures from life, his wandering acquaintance following him into Warwickshire. They were not immaculate neighbours, but he rarely suffered from their predatory habits. In or about 1841 he was induced by several of his artist friends, among whom Cattermole, Stone and Charles Landseer are named as influential with him, to remove to London, where, as we have seen, he was elected Associate by the Water-Colour Society in the following February. He was made a full Member on the 10th of June, 1844.

While sending rustic studies to Pall Mall East, he at the same time resumed the exhibition of portraits at the Royal Academy. He had thirteen there between 1842 and 1860. Among them (in 1844) was a likeness of Lord Auckland; and the last (in 1860), of Mrs. Octavius Oakley,' indicates that the painter had married a second time. From 1842 to 1848 he lived at 3 Bentinck Street, Manchester Square; from 1849 to 1861 at 30 Somerset Street, Portman Square; and from 1862 to the time of his death, at 7 Chepstow Villas, Bayswater. That event occurred at the last-named residence, on the 1st of March, 1867, when he was in his sixty-seventh year. The second Mrs. Oakley survived her husband. One of his daughters married Mr. Naftel, a Member of the Society. To another, Mrs. Mark A. Bourdin, the writer is indebted for many of the facts above narrated.

Oakley's exhibits at the Water-Colour Society number in the whole 210, from 1842 to 1867, those of the last year being posthumous. No exhibition, either in summer or winter, during that period was without from two to sixteen of his works. The rustic figures were not confined to gipsies, but these had frequent companions in gleaners and fisher-boys; and on his coming to reside in London, the Italian organ and image boys supplied him with models as well suited to his pencil as had been the Bohemians of the rural districts. He also painted landscape subjects and fragments, of picturesque character and detail. Many both of these and of the figure subjects were studied in the Channel Islands, Guernsey and Sark. None of his works went to Paris in 1855; but ten were among the Manchester Treasures in 1857, and three in the London International Exhibition of 1862. His remaining works were sold at Christie's on the 11th and 12th of March, 1869, in two hundred lots, with forty-two by other artists.”

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