I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Published December 31st 2020
An Artistic Shield
An artist who was born in Hartlepool and is buried in London, left an enduring legacy for art lovers to follow in Manchester, Salford and Cheshire.
Frederic Shields arrived in the North West, in 1848, when he joined his father in Newton-le-Willows. John was a bookseller, binder, and printer, who had moved north in the hope of securing more trade. Frederic left London when, it seems, John decided he could no longer afford to keep his eldest son in unpaid work. The young man said farewell to his mother and brothers in Stanhope Street, Camden. It was a life of Dickensian poverty - skin-cracking cold and a survival diet of bread and coffee.
Manchester Art Galleryhas a collection of over 100 of Shield's works - usually displayed alongside members of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood. Inevitably though, most are not on the gallery walls. Hannah Williamson, Curator of Fine Art at the gallery, explained to Weekend Notes that many of the works are on paper, which means that they need low lighting and short display periods. She added that "in normal times I am happy to show people work in the store if they ask."
Shields is also responsible for the windows in the Chancel of St Ann's Church, consecrated in July 1712. His subject matter was Christ, as the Good Shepherd. Frederic had been commissioned by architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905). Waterhouse has the distinction of having a Wetherspoon's pub, in Princess Street, named after him. The windows were part of his 1887–89 remodeling of the church. Shield's was a deeply devout man, and his combination of faith and talent must have made him an obvious choice.
Father and son did not find a pot of gold in the North West but before John died in 1849, he had secured a seven-shillings-a-week job for Frederic, at Bradshaw & Blacklocks, Brown Street, Manchester.
After being dismissed from this role of "drudgery of commercial lithography" (Life and Letters of Frederic Shields, edited by Ernestine Mills) Shields eventually secured a more agreeable role - working again for George Bradshaw but on the first editions of the guides, beloved of Michael Portillo's BBC Railway Journeys. Shield's relates: "Old Bradshaw, the Quaker partner in the Railway Guide printing firm sent for me."
He continues: "I dared to ask ten shillings a week for the coveted post of designer and returned to my old shop in honour. The despised became a head, with a little room to himself where no defilement of bobbin tickets ever entered; and I revelled in gleaners, and milkmaids, and rustic lovers, and a box of colours for the first time."
Crucially Shields saved just enough of his earnings to attend classes at Manchester School of Design, then on Mosley Street, in the basement of what is now the city's art gallery. The School of Design became the Manchester School of Art - it can be found today at the Metropolitan University (MMU), near Oxford Road.
He even made some visits, sketchbook in hand, to the Theatre Royal, Peter Street (later the M-Two nightclub and now vacant). But he decided that theatrical diversions were distracting him from the more serious 'labours that God had purposed for him.'
Such serious application to his art paid off, literally, as Shield's started to sell some of his paintings. One of his watercolour's, Bobber and Kibs,was exhibited at the Royal Institution and in the Manchester Exhibition Review for 1856. The work is still in Manchester Art Gallery's collection. It was a suitable subject for an artist who called the street his 'school of art' - because he sketched on his way to and from work.
Bobber and Kibs refers to a game played by children, with stones and marbles. Shields' watercolour depicts a group of children on a cobbled pavement, so absorbed in the game that they are unaware of the painter's gaze. Indeed, the dog who holds himself up by his paws against a wooden gate, is the only one looking beyond the immediate scene of the game.
Frederic secured extra work as a book illustrator, including an edition of Daniel Foe's History of the Plague (Laurie's Entertaining Library).
The Plague Cart. 1862. By Frederic Shields - scan from the book, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org
But despite his artistic progress, Shields lived a lonely life and had to endure the death of his mother and younger brother, Edwin, whose life ended, aged only 19 in 1859. Another brother, Horace, died in November 1860, aged 18.
In 1866, not surprisingly, Frederic's accumulated bereavements, isolation and stresses caused him a nervous breakdown. His emotional state was not helped by a lifelong aversion to noise, which must have made living in an era of rapid urban and industrial expansion a particular challenge.
In 1857 Shields was one of the over a million attendees at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, opened by Prince Albert on 5 May. It was held in Old Trafford, where White City Retail Park is today. The exhibition increased Frederic's awareness of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They became more than just artistic idols when Shields attracted the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He describes the thrill of visiting Rossetti in Chelsea in 1864 as: "A great day for me to be praised by him."
Frederic also became friends with Ford Madox Brown (1821- 1893), another Pre-Raphaelite. The two artists were meant to jointly complete the murals for the Town Hall. The neo-Gothic building, completed in 1877, was another Waterhouse project. But the twelve Manchester Murals were eventually completed by Brown alone.
In 1872, when Shields' Cornbrook home was wanted for government offices, he found living quarters in Salford's Ordsall Hall - which dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth century and lays claim to setting the trend for the quatrefoil Tudor building style.
He established himself in a room where light flooded through a bay window. The room is now known as the Frederic Shields Gallery. It is an appropriate name for a home the artist called, in a letter to art critic John Ruskin, "the happiest refuge I have ever nested in."
However, the modern world would not leave Shields in peace and in a letter to Ruskin, he complained of the proposed sale of the hall and land to an oil cloth company. He continues: "Already the 'Egyptian Plague of bricks' has alighted on its eastern side, devouring every green blade. Where the sheep fed last year, five streets of cheap cottages, one brick thick in the walls (for the factory operatives belonging to two great cotton-mills near), are in the course of formation."
During his Ordsall years, Frederic became a married man. His bride was Matilda Booth (Cissy), who had previously been a child model for his paintings. She was aged sixteen and Shields was 40.
His friends hoped that marriage would bring contentment. Ford Madox Brown speculated that "the agreeable society of your wife (and let us hope children) will do much to alleviate the nervous troubles and anxieties you suffered from."
But it sounds like a hopelessly one-sided and joyless union, with echoes of Ruskin's marriage to Effie Gray. In Frederic's letters to his young wife, he recommends sermons and bible passages, criticises her spelling, whilst also complaining that she writes to him infrequently. In one letter, Shield's writes "You say I am always finding fault with you" signing off as "your loving husband."
In another letter, Frederic says that he is delighted that Cissy is learning to sing but adds that he would prefer she didn't learn to dance. Perhaps Shields felt that it would divert Cissy from study and prayer or perhaps it betrays an anxiety that she would meet someone closer to her own age?
The couple were often physically separated. Shields was on a tour of Italy, whilst Matilda was at a finishing school in Brighton. Surprisingly, given its bustle, Shields took a particular liking to Venice - which he said, in a letter to Cissy, gave him more pleasure than any place he had ever seen.
Frederic's devotion to Cissy seems to be unquestionable but it expressed itself in fatherly advice and spiritual guidance rather than romance.
Shields exited Ordsall Hall in 1875 and it proved to be his last Manchester/Salford abode. He gradually made his way back to London, via the Italian excursion.
The connections and respect Shields built up in the North West were evidenced by a farewell exhibition and banquet on 6 March 1875, with the Mayor of Manchester in the Chair. An exhibition of his collected works was held at the City Art Gallery in 1908.
Neither did he become a stranger to the region. Between 1877 and 1888, Frederic again benefited from his association with Alfred Waterhouse. The architect had been recruited by the 'richest man in Britain', Hugh Grosvenor, first Duke of Westminster, to redesign Eaton Hall in Cheshire. Shields was set to work on the stained-glass windows and mosaics of Eaton Hall Chapel the theme of Te Deum laudamus (Thee, O God, we praise).
Interior of the Eaton Hall Chapel. By Olga Baird. Public Domain, wikipedia.org
His last commission was again in keeping with his rigorous piety - the decoration of the Chapel of the Ascension in Hyde Park Place Bayswater, London. He was commissioned by suffragist and benefactor, Mrs Emelia Russell Gurney - the widow of the Recorder of London, the senior Circuit Judge at the Old Bailey - to provide a scheme of paintings for the interior of the Chapel of the Ascension. The project was to occupy Frederic over twenty years and was finished in July 1910.
If you go looking for the Chapel of the Ascension today, you won't find it. It was obliterated during a German bombing raid in June 1944. It is a cruel irony that Shields's paintings were destroyed amidst the kind of sound and fury which would have pushed his faith and sanity to the very limits.
Shields died on 26th February 1911. He left a small annuity to Cissy, though they had not lived together for many years. He is buried at St Mary the Virgin Churchyard in the London Borough of Merton
His relationship with Manchester was an uneasy but enduring one. It is a blessing for him that he didn't live to experience the 24-hour noise and neon of modern life.
On show at Manchester Art Gallery, in its Pre-Raphaelite room, is The Good Shepherd. Christ is blessed with flowing red locks, on which a crown of thorns rests. A flock of sheep crowd around him like besotted disciples and a halo of sun bursts through a background of oak trees. The depiction verges on being, unintentionally, homoerotic.
Hannah Williamson adds: "I find the sheep in that painting give it real edge - they are almost devilish in appearance, which was probably not intentional."
The Good Shepherd by Frederic James Shields (1833 - 1911). Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery
The gallery label, to the side of the painting, asks: Is its Victorian sentiment too cloying for our modern taste?
Shields as a man seems to have been in retreat from his own time - let alone ours. The sentiments of his paintings do perhaps seem hackneyed to us but his sheer visual flair and dedication to his art, along with his story of overcoming aversion, mean that his creations will surely continue to demand our attention - in Manchester, Salford, Cheshire and wherever else they are on show.
Frederic Shields, E Gertrude Thomson By scanned by Olga Baird - from E.Mills 'Life and Letters of Frederic Shields'. 1912, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org