John Le Capelain 1812-1848

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John Le Capelain


Studies of cattle

This article by Jonathan Voak was first published in the 1990 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

"Mr Le Capelain leaves a name behind him which will not soon be forgotten in the world of art", reported the Jersey Times on the artist's premature death at the age of 36 on 17 October 1848. Today his work is little known outside his native Island of Jersey, his reputation being based on the quality of his watercolours, predominantly of the Jersey coast.

Thought to be of only local interest, Le Capelain was in reality part of the art establishment and followed current trends. Although a Jersey artist, his work should also be considered in the wider context of the British School of Watercolour Painting in the early 19th century.


John Le Capelain was born on 5 October 1812. There is some doubt that he was born in the island, as his name does not appear in the parish registers, although strangely, his younger sister's does. Nevertheless, references to the artist in local newspapers frequently refer to him as a Jerseyman and until evidence is found to the contrary this need not be disputed.


John's father, Samuel Le Capelain (1788-1850) was a Jerseyman but he had an English mother, Elizabeth Anne Pinckney (1782-1851). Never marrying, John shared his parents' home at 1 Hill Street, St Helier, for most of his life. The site, on the corner of Hill Street and Church Street, is now occupied by the Registry Office built in 1931. [2] The family home was a substantial three-storey granite house in the vernacular style. John's studio was in the attic and is likely to be the subject of an oil painting by the artist of a studio which corresponds with the architecture of 1 Hill Street as it appears in early photographs.

He also shared his home with his younger sister, Elizabeth Anne, born on 9 December 1813, as well as his grandmother, Elizabeth Le Capelain (1761- ) and Aunt Esther Le Capelain (1786- ), both of independent means.

Samuel Le Capelain, the artist's father, was a printer and lithographer and based his business at home. He is known to have collaborated with the little-known artist and lithographer, J Neel on two lithographs of local scenery, titled St Aubin's Bay from near Beaumont and Moulin de la Perelle near St Catherine Bay, Jersey. Neel traced his own drawings onto lithographic stone from which Samuel took the prints, in 1832. Samuel clearly played a vital role in his son's development as an artist, although it is surprising that John received no formal art instruction. At home John was taught the rudiments of print-making and had some success with drawing, printing and publishing local scenes. Something of a prodigy, he was barely 17 when he executed a watercolour of Gorey Castle which was lithographed and published in Moss's Views of the Channel Islands

His role was a reproductive one and any pioneering work was put towards simulating the appearance of oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. It is surprising that Le Capelain succeeded in capturing local attention so early in his career considering the general state of the arts in Jersey at that time. Giffard, writing in 1838, observed that the wealthy in the island who comprised the potential patrons of the arts, reflected "a total apathy in all that regards literature, science and the belles lettres" and continued - "An attempt was made, some time ago, to establish a literary and scientific institution. It met, however, with the success which might have been expected; and an exhibition of paintings, which was opened in the summer of 1832 under the auspices of that society, created little interest, and met with indifferent encouragement'".

London warehouse


Seeking further patronage and a wider reputation, Le Capelain was inspired to travel. He was attracted also by the prospect of foreign lands, in common with many intrepid artists of the early 19th century, and was no doubt frustrated by the limited number of views and aspects in the island. From the mid-18th century Britain developed a fervent interest in landscape, which led to a demand for illustrated guide books, particularly of the Lake District, North Wales and Scotland. Coupled with improved transport conditions after 1770, the number of travellers increased and, being compact and convenient, watercolours offered the ideal travelling medium for the artist and tourist alike.

Aesthetic theorists, such as William Gilpin and Joseph Farington, directed artists and amateurs to the best views and their theories became the subject of conversation in fashionable society. Although not having the geographical advantages enjoyed by artists on the mainland, particularly access to the most popular beauty spots, Le Capelain was far from isolated.

Ferry services to and from Jersey were excellent. England was within 15 hours sail and France could be reached in four or five hours. Ferries to Southampton and Weymouth ran three times a week and more regularly to Saint Malo, Granville and Guernsey.

The first evidence of the artist working in England derives from a pencil sketch inscribed '18 Sept 1838, at Hamble'; considering the proximity of France and the other Channel Islands this was unlikely to be his first journey abroad. The few other English views are undated but include a pencil sketch of an 'Elm near Bath', three others inscribed 'Thames' and a moody wash interior view of a wagon warehouse in Bishopsgate Street, London. It is possible that Le Capelain was in London as early as 1833, when he exhibited a watercolour of Mont Orgueil at the second exhibition of the New Society of Painters in Watercolours in Bond Street. The Hill Street address is given in the catalogue.

He exhibited only twice in London, the second occasion being in 1842 at the Royal Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street, when he submitted a watercolour of Granville Harbour. He again gave his Jersey address. There are several other sketches and watercolours of Normandy and Brittany, in particular Saint Malo, Dinan and Mont Saint Michel.


The artist could be found in Scotland during the summer of 1841, exploring the sublime heights of Sgurr nan Gillean, a summit of the Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, at over 3,000 feet and, in 1843 sketching Inverness. George Balleine, the Jersey historian, recalled three other Scottish views titled Sunrise over the Clyde, Rainstorm on Loch Ness and A Highland Storm. A drawing in the region of Banc-Y-Ffordd, a village near Newcastle Emlyn, now in Dyfed, is the only evidence that he worked in Wales.

Although Le Capelain never found fame outside the island and had to rely on local patronage for his watercolours, his scenes were often reproduced in print form, which enhanced his reputation and provided a small income. Bound souvenir volumes of local scenery published in England, such as Harwood's Views of Jersey, 1845, often included his compositions. More unusual was a commission which he received to paint ten views of Rio de Janeiro from sketches taken on the spot by Edward Nicolle. These were bound and published in Liverpool around 1848.

The commission for which he is best remembered was for a series of watercolours of Jersey which were presented by the States of Jersey to Queen Victoria in commemoration of her visit to the island on 2 and 3 Septembe, 1846. Bound in red morocco, they were presented the following year by a deputation of four States Members. The series comprised 26 watercolours; one frontispiece, six of the Royal visit and 19 of local scenery. Subsequently lithographed by Day and Hague, lithographers to the Queen, the series was published in 1847 in book form by Philip Faile under the title The Queen's Visit to Jersey. The Queen was inspired by the island and, from the Royal Yacht anchored in Saint Aubin's Bay, wrote that she had "never seen a more beautiful deep blue sea" and agreed with Albert that "this fine Bay of St Aubin, in which we lie, really is like the Bay of Naples". She also sketched the Jersey coast from the Royal Yacht and these are preserved with Le Capelain's watercolours in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

It was only in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries that a coherent school of watercolour painting, with its own institutions and exhibiting societies, emerged. It is also clear that the rise in status of landscape painting and the development of a school of watercolour painting are intimately connected. Indeed, the essential quality of watercolour is its ability to capture light and atmosphere in translucent washes of fresh colour. Le Capelain grasped the essential quality of the medium in his mature work and demonstrated a certain spontaneity in application.

This encouraged in him a more subjective approach to art which aimed to create an impression rather than an accurate topographical record of a scene. The emerging Romantic movement which developed more quickly in Britain than elsewhere is closely related to the growing interest in watercolour as a medium ideally suited to landscape. It is no coincidence that the landscape painter Turner was the greatest exponent of the Romantic movement in Britain and also the greatest watercolourist.

Les Marais


To accompany the watercolours commemorating the Queen's visit to Jersey Le Capelain composed the following passage which described his inspiration and recalled the mood of the great Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley:

"The effect of scenery is so much influenced by the atmosphere, that a short description of its effects on that Island ought not to be omitted in this work. Surrounded by the sea, Jersey is almost every night shrouded in a mist which the rising sun in dissolving tinges with prismatic colours. From the eastern coast is best seen the splendour of sunrise - the cold, white light of dawn silently creeping up the dark and starry sky, extinguishing their pale fires amid its rosy and increasing light - blinds of golden brightness fret the clouds; the sun is near - is up; a stream of light dances over the pale blue sea and sparkles on the wet and pebbly beach: as the mists disappear each object becomes more defined, and everything shines in dewy freshness. As the day advances, the sea - true mirror of the sky - reflects its deeper blue; left bare by the receding tide, large tracts of sand and rocks of varied hue have quite changed the aspect of the scene: from the sun's warm rays the green, cool valleys offer delightful retreats, - narrow winding, and well wooded, they abound in scenes of perfect sylvan beauty. Branching in every direction, shady lanes, lined by graceful elms, lead to every part of the Island. Along the western coast the glowing colours of the setting sun are reflected from each rocky headland and sandy bay, blending their rich hues with the pearly tints of the rising moon. During the equinoctial gales, the storm-swept sea shivers its wild waves into glittering fragments along the rocky coast, whilst dark grey clouds cast their driving shadows over sea and land. In the drawings these various effects of sunrise, noon, sunset, twilight and storm are given."

Le Capelain's early works are frequently tempered by a subtle even light and often depict shipping becalmed in a morning mist. The palette of cool greens, greys and blues is offset by warm umber brush strokes compounding rigging and hull and there is little variation in his compositions, which usually figure lobster pots, buoys and sea birds carefully placed to give the illusion of depth. His early manner is in the tradition of marine painting traceable back through William Anderson, the Clevelys and Samuel Atkins to the van der Veldes who made their home in England in 1673.

Being of scientific mind, even the artist's most ethereal scenes are underpinned by a love of technical accuracy applied particularly to the details of shipping. His Sketchbook contains many meticuious studies inscribed with the names of vessels such as Cobo and Crusader, known to frequent local waters. There are also some lively wash drawings of local subjects which show enormous confidence and virtuosity. Le Capelain's early watercolour Part of Gorey Harbour during the Oyster Fishery, dated 1833, heralds his later work in its confident handling of the sails and rigging, the use of gum arabic to strengthen the tone of the figures, and scraping out, a manipulative trick new to the 19th century, used to create highlights, suggest the spume and spray of the sea and delineate rigging.


He quickly mastered the latest technical advances and his handling of the medium grew more confident. Through experimenting with running washes into each other and painting on damp paper, he came to depict convincingly more complex and extreme atmospheric effects. The sky dominated his compositions increasingly and he widened his range of colour and strengthened his tone.

Turner was one of the first artists to realise that colour can communicate directly, independent of subject matter. He took great pains to analyse its effects and even its scientific theory and produced many abstract studies of intrinsic quality neither intended for exhibition nor as preliminary sketches. Le Capelain, like Turner, was interested in the sciences and experimented with colour combinations; he produced abstract colour studies in watercolour virtually indistinguishable from those of Turner. Significantly, art itself was then perceived as a branch of scientific knowledge. There is a spiral diagram in Le Capelain's Sketchbook which explains the relationship between colour and light.

In his late work Le Capelain adopted the blue and gold palette of Turner and a stipple technique based on colour theory. This was achieved by the assiduous application of minute flecks of colour relentlessly modified and broken to effect continuous transition. The technique is particularly evident in the watercolours presented to Queen Victoria. The vortex composition and repoussoir trees of Turner also became characteristic of Le Capelain, notably in his view of Les Marais towards Grouville Bay, c 1845.

At the outset of the 19th century watercolour artists started to form societies to bring greater recognition to a medium previously considered only for amateurs and not acceptable for exhibition. The societies gave unity, strength and publicity to the rapidly increasing number of artists, amateur and professional, practising in the medium. They were nearly all based in London, which represented a lure for artists such as Le Capelain, who were able to see the work of the leading watercolourists of the day including J M W Turner, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Shotter Boys, William Callow, Clarkson Stanfield, Anthony Vandyck, Copley Fielding and the Varley brothers. Close parallels can be drawn between Le Capelain's work and some of his contemporaries, especially that of Turner and the lesser-known Alfred Herbert and Henry Barlow Carter.

Living and working for most of his life in Jersey, Le Capelain would have studied the art of his contemporaries more frequently in reproduced rather than original form. Great advances were made in print-making methods during the early 19th century and the invention of lithography was quickly adapted to the imitation of the watercolour in published form. It is no coincidence that the pioneers in this field, James Duffield Harding, Samuel Prout and Thomas Shetter Boys, were also leading watercolourists. Heath's Picturesque Annual was one of many similar publications which Le Capelain may have seen. There were many bookshops, printers and print sellers close to home. Among them, Philip Falle in the Royal Square boasted that "all publications published in London etc, are to be found in this establishment." Hill Street also was close to the Public Library in Library Place.

Rowing boat

Royal commission

The Jerseyman's watercolours impressed the young Queen sufficiently to attract her commission for a series of views of the Isle of Wight. It was while working on these that he developed tuberculosis of the lungs which treatment in France failed to check. He died at his home in Hill Street on Thursday 17 October 1848, a few days after his 36th birthday. The Reverend G Balleine conducted the funeral service at 12 o'clock the following Saturday at the Town Church after which the funeral procession moved to the New Burial Ground in Green Street. Surprisingly Le Capelain's grave is unmarked.

The artist's death settled a hostile dispute between doctors about the cause of his illness. The family doctor, George Hooper, diagnosed tuberculosis in August 1848. However, an opposite opinion and Le Capelain's apparent improved health after a change of air in France raised false hope. The post-mortem examination vindicated Doctor Hooper and confirmed that he had been a "victim of a disease which as yet remains beyond the resources of science".

Local newspapers printed tributes to the artist and a public meeting was called to consider a lasting memorial. The meeting chaired by Doctor Brohier was held at the British Hotel. The chief resolution was to open a subscription to erect a monument to the artist's memory and purchase some of his works with a view to establishing a Le Capelain Gallery. Prior to their purchase it was decided to hold a full public exhibition of his pictures in the Royal Square in December 1848. Opened by the Lieut-Governor it was favourably reviewed by the local newspapers and around £210 was raised. Two oil paintings and 16 watercolours were selected and Sir John Le Couteur, Mr Le Sueur, Mr Le Bailly and Mr Gabourel were given custody of the pictures and responsibility for deciding where to place them. Unfortunately the sum raised was insufficient to implement the project for the Gallery, which was abandoned despite Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's agreement to be joint patrons. Eventually the collection found its way to the present Town Hall, built in 1872, where it remains to be viewed by appointment.

Octavius Rooke, writing in 1856, sharply criticised the States of Jersey for not providing the financial support to establish a museum of which the nucleus would have been Le Capelain's pictures. Rooke's attack attracted the attention of the widely-read Athenaeum periodical which printed the following extract:

"It is to be regretted, however, that there is not a little more enthusiasm on the subject of the fine arts. The visitor will see in the Square a very high house, the highest in the Square; this house contains a collection of very beautifully executed drawings by Le Capelain, who was an Island artist, and one of whom the Islanders must justly feel most proud, for he has succeeded in delineating those misty effects peculiar to Jersey with wonderful accuracy: they are, perhaps, more sketches than finished drawings, but they are true to nature and I know no higher praIse. Now this collection is positively shut up, together with many other interesting things forming the nucleus of a museum, in the aforesaid tall house, and is invisible to the public for the want of twenty-five pounds a year, which sum, the States refused to grant; and thus the money already spent in forming the collection is wasted, and the curiosities and pictures are handed over to dust and cobwebs, instead of forming one of the principal objects of interest in St Helier's."

Notes and references

  1. Editor's note: Evidence has been found to the contrary. John Le Capelain was born in London in early October 1788, and baptised there at the end of the month, two days after his father and mother married, also in London. See Jean Le Capelain
  2. The Registry Office is no longer there and the building forms part of States offices
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