John Sturgess was a British painter, illustrator and lithographer of sporting scenes and equestrian subjects.
Rearing up, kicking dust in rebellion, unwillingly tethered. Sturgess painted horses with character. Some fight their constraints, aiming to eject their starched riders. While others droop wearily over troughs, forlorn and exhausted.
Raised on the Gumley Hall Estate in Leicestershire, the stables were an integral part of his upbringing. His father, Benjamin, was a groom so he possibly worked as a stable boy - mucking out, sweeping, and assisting with feed. As such, he would’ve witnessed the power of these beasts first-hand, diminutive in their presence. Cold mornings punctuated by the clatter of shod hooves.
These formative experiences stuck and his enthrallment translated into carefully observed sketches. One can imagine him sitting to draw, studying the muscles, paying close attention to the nuances of expression. Every horse has unique characteristics, not only in form but also in temperament.
Before long, young Sturgess had developed into a promising equestrian draughtsman and was sent to study under John Frederick Herring Senior (1795-1865). Herring was established, one of the finest horse painters of his generation, well-admired by the aristocracy. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Like Herring, Sturgess placed less emphasis on figures. Riders were a necessary inclusion, yet rarely comprised the subject itself. In hunt scenes, the narrative is focused on the horses, with each given its own identity. Some trot diligently, while others buck and rear. There’s nearly always a disobedient member of the party.
With portraits, he captured these humanistic qualities with advanced appreciation. There’s often a wildness in the eyes as if it could gallop across a windswept moor, unshackle itself, and dash for freedom. This is contrasted with his portrayal of humans, which are generally detached and trapped within their tightly attired formality.
The Victorian press wrote glowingly of his evident skill with tack. Saddles, stirrups and harnesses were meticulously rendered. Those who knew the equipment admired his technical nous.
Around 1875, he undertook a ten-year stint for the Illustrated London News. Producing numerous works for publication in black and white - such as race winners and scenes. These were regarded as some of the finest ever produced. He was prolific - working tirelessly, not only for the paper but also for galleries and patrons. In 1884, he debuted at the Royal Society of British Artists with ‘A Miss Is As Good As A Mile’.
Remaining in London for the rest of his life, Sturgess continued to elevate his standing until ‘writer’s cramp’ forced him to down his brushes. His legacy is one of diligence, painstaking observation and mastery of expression. Those early experiences on the Gumley Hall Estate formed the nucleus of an accomplished career.
He’s buried in a family plot at Hampstead Cemetery with the epitaph: ‘Awake, awake, put on thy strength, put on thy beautiful garments.’ Isaiah (51:17; 52:1, 11).
Royal Hibernian Academy, Royal Society of British Artists.
Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, Government Art Collection.
Born in Leicester to Benjamin, a groom, and Alice.
Raised on the Gumley Hall Estate, Leicestershire.
Trained under John Frederick Herring Senior (1795-1865).
Married Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Harrison. The pair had seven children.
Residing in Leicester with his wife, Eliza, and children.
Produced numerous illustrations for the Illustrated London News.
Residing in Sydenham, London with his wife, Eliza, and children.
Debuted at the Royal Society of British Artists with ‘A Miss Is As Good As A Mile’. Price £63.
Praised in ‘The Artist’.
“In ‘Racehorse and Coverside’ (Bentley) are some excellent illustrations by Mr. John Sturgess the well-known horse draughtsman. These illustrations are produced by Mr. John Swain's process of photo-etching, and retain much of the artist's characteristic work. We believe artists are more largely indebted to Mr. John Sturgess admirable drawing of horses than to any other living artist.”
Residing in Hampstead, London with his wife, Eliza, and children.
Residing in Hampstead, London with his children.
Died in Hendon, London.
Obituary published in The Western Press, Bristol.
“Little notice seems to have been taken of the death of Mr John Sturgess, the artist who stood at the forefront of those who could draw the horse. He was a pupil of John Herring; I believe he was his last surviving pupil, and he did credit to his master. He painted well, but it was not in colour that his most memorable work was done. He was for years a black-and-white artist par excellence when horses were in question. Some of the most striking placards with equestrian figures came from his studio. He supplied the illustrated papers with some of their finest pictures of successful racehorses, for example, and his work was always welcome. But some four years ago he was seized with writers' cramp; his ability to draw failed suddenly.”
Obituary published in The Irish Times.
“The death is announced of Mr. John Sturgess, a pupil of Herring, and probably the last of those who possessed that distinction. A capable painter of horses, he was better known as a black-and-white artist, his pictures of winning horses being for many years features of the Illustrated London News and of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. His portraits of winners of the Derby, drawn from the life, and with severe accuracy of detail, make an exceptionally long series. Mr. Sturgess was seized with writer's cramp a few years since, and his power of working was thus unfortunately brought to an end long before his death.”
Obituary published in The Observer.
“One of Pinner's most distinguished residents d passed away last week in the person of Mr. John Sturgess, who resided at Springfield, Hatch End. Deceased, whose fame as an artist and painter was known far and wide, succumbed, to the great regret of his many friends, to paralysis. The deceased was a pupil of Herring, and probably the last of those who possessed that distinction. A capable painter of horses, he was better known as a black and white artist, his pictures of winning horses being for many years a feature of the ‘Illustrated London News and of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.’ His winners of the Derby, drawn from life and with severe accuracy of detail, made an exceptionally long series. His range was admittedly limited. He was not a figure artist, and he fully recognised the fact; but he knew a horse thoroughly, and his knowledge was delightfully demonstrated in his work.
His imagination, too, was remarkable. Sometimes, of course, he was called upon to illustrate important events, but it was his usual practice to choose his own subject. He had been accustomed to show his galloping horses in the long accepted style, with fore and hind legs outstretched, but when instantaneous photography taught what the action of a horse really is, he adapted himself to the new requirements. One fault which used to be found with the hunters and coach-horses was, that they were too well bred, but the grace and beauty of the thoroughbred powerfully appealed to his artistic instinct, and he apparently had hard work to coarsen his animals. His detail was always accurate in the matter of harness, too, and was most appreciated by those who understood it best.
As a painter he produced a number of excellent portraits of horses and as sporting scenes, and had the honour of painting a Derby winner presented to the King by a number of His Majesty's friends when Prince of Wales. He had also executed paintings for the late King of Spain. The deceased was seized with writer's cramp a few years since, and his power of working was thus unfortunately brought to an end long before his death. Simple-minded, earnest, and strictly conscientious, he will be sadly missed.”