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William John Caparne (1855-1940)

Biographic Notes:

The Artist

William John Caparne was born at Newark-on-Trent in 1855, the son of a music professor and with several other family members involved in horticulture. He was educated at the local Magnus Grammar School, where he did well both academically and as an oarsman. Between 1874 and 1876, after a brief spell as a draughtsman, he studied art at the Slade School and National Gallery, London, the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux Arts, Paris.

In 1877 he was appointed assistant drawing master at Oundle School and opened a small private drawing class in the town. A year later he became engaged to Louisa Jane Atkins and they were married at Oundle in 1879. Their daughter Louisa Winifred was born the following year, when Caparne also became Art Master at Oundle School.

Although there is a record of Caparne submitting work for exhibition in the mid 1870s (and receiving a bronze medal) it is not until the 1880s that we get indications of any specific artistic tours. In 1882 he visited the Channel Islands, Scilly Isles and North Wales; he also exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Thereafter, almost every year up until 1912 (when he held his first solo exhibition) saw him painting in various parts of Europe, the UK and, in the early years at least, regularly submitting works for exhibition. The exhibiting, however, stopped after 1896 when the Royal Academy refused to hang two of his landscapes and Caparne seems to have responded by effectively withdrawing from the normal routines of English art. By this time he was highly involved with the horticultural world, particularly as an Iris breeder and committed to the artistic challenge of depicting every variety of Iris and Daffodil in cultivation. He continued to exhibit his plant portraits to audiences at horticultural gatherings which he seemed to favour above the RA dominated mainstream.

Among his horticultural friends and acquaintances Caparne’s art was sought after and highly respected. His friend, the Iris champion Professor Michael Foster commissioned illustrations, as did numerous growers and customers, including the Hoog family in Haarlem, Holland and E.H. Wheedon in Guernsey.

In trying to assess his art, earlier writers on Caparne were somewhat limited by the information available. Whatever survived from the large body of work which was known to have existed was dispersed and not available for collective appraisal. Some of it was known to have been lost and the condition of some of the surviving work was unprepossessing, due to indifferent storage and handling in the past. Earlier writers did not have the benefit of knowing the scope of Caparne’s European tours, or the fact that he knew and visited Monet at Giverny. Knowing that he admired the writings of Ruskin, favoured the art of Turner, loved music and poetry and carried the works of Keble with him on tour, would all have helped inform opinion about this remarkable man’s art. Yet, even without these insights the works speak for themselves as unique and dynamic portrayals of nature – a nature held in awe by the artist and revered above almost everything else.

The Horticulturalist

Horticulture was always part of Caparne’s life. His paternal grandfather was a successful nurseryman and seed merchant, also prominent in the civic affairs of Newark-on-Trent. Two of his father’s brothers, Robert and Thomas were also involved and Thomas, (‘Uncle Thomas’ to William John) was apparently a key player in forming the future interests of his young nephew. He took the young William John to Midlands horticultural shows and also provided the land for William’s first garden. Thomas left England for America in 1884 and died there in 1925, when his obituary described him as a retired nurseryman and artist. One wonders whether Uncle Thomas encouraged William John in more than just horticulture, as flowers and art were to become his own life passions.

By 1884 Caparne was advertising as a ‘Bulb and Seedsman of Benfield, Oundle’ and in 1886 he designed and set out the Sanatorium Gardens in Oundle. His skills as a botanical artist had earned him commissions to illustrate Irises for Professor Michael Foster in the early 1890’s but then twin disasters struck Caparne. His wife Louisa died and he left the post of Art Master at Oundle School. After the death of his wife in October 1894 and his departure from Oundle at the end of 1895, he went briefly to Devon moving from there to Guernsey in August 1896. He had visited the island at least twice previously to paint and now, accompanied by his daughter (who had just finished her education) Guernsey became his permanent home.

Caparne had links with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) before he moved to Guernsey. In May 1896 he presented a Short Paper on Iris and later in the same year exhibited at the RHS Drill Hall in Westminster. By 1898 he was advertising himself as a ‘Bulb & Seedsman’ at the Rohais with a ‘New Race of [Intermediate] Irises’ and in 1899 was elected a Fellow of the RHS. By 1901 he had adopted the trading title ‘The Iris Plant & Bulb Company’ and began sending Iris hybrids annually to the RHS garden at Wisley. In 1902 he was awarded a Bronze Flora Medal for a group of hardy iris and this was the first of several honours relating to his Iris breeding and painting activities, awarded by the RHS and other bodies.

Although he had ceased trading as a full-time nurseryman by the end of 1903, Caparne continued his interests in Iris breeding and propagation. He continued to supply other nurserymen both in Europe, America and the UK who further developed his introductions as their own. With their superior production and distribution facilities this had the effect of eclipsing Caparne’s achievements, to the point where even his original creation of the Intermediate hybrids became obscured. In 1913 and 1919 he sent plants, seeds and bulbs to his cousin Harold Apreece Caparn, designer of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, showing that family traditions were alive and flourishing. Caparne himself continued to develop his 'Intermediate' irises through into the mid 1930’s, latterly with the assistance of his daughter. His own deteriorating sight was noted as a problem in his left eye by 1934.

In 1936 Caparne was awarded the Foster Memorial Plaque by the British Iris Society. He was suffering from a severe cataract in his right eye and, after seeing a specialist he visited Wisley for the last time. By the end of the year he was almost completely blind. In 1937 he offered his entire collection and library of Iris studies to the British Iris Society, who reluctantly declined due to lack of funds. William John Caparne died at Bon Port, Guernsey on 31st January 1940. It is only in recent years that his contributions to horticulture and Iris breeding in particular have achieved wider recognition.

Text (with minor modification) from information panels at the March 2004 exhibition of Caparne's works at Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery