Samuel Butler and Art

Samuel Butler at the piano in his room at Clifford's Inn
Butler in his rooms at Clifford's Inn, London (IX/2/9)

Samuel Butler studied Classics at St John’s College from 1854 to 1858, and after graduating in 1859 he moved to New Zealand, where he established a profitable sheep run. Five years later, having achieved financial independence, Butler returned to England and settled in London, where he pursued his ambition of becoming a painter. He studied at the South Kensington Museum and Cary’s Art School in Bloomsbury, then from 1867 onwards studied exclusively at Heatherley’s in Newman Street.

Despite his formal training, Butler always favoured the primitive, untutored style of the provincial artists found in Italy before Raphael. Butler’s own naïve style of painting never sat well with the art establishment at the Royal Academy, and as a result his public success was limited.

Butler continued to sketch and paint throughout his life, though, producing all the illustrations for his Italian guide book Alps and Sanctuaries (1881). He also published works of art criticism, in which he championed the Italian painters and sculptors he spent time studying during his frequent vacations in Italy.

From the late 1880s onwards, photography became Butler's medium of choice, and his ‘snap-shots’ display his acute talent for finding extraordinary qualities in scenes of ordinary life.

Above, you can see Butler in his room in Clifford’s Inn, London, where he lived surrounded by pictures and artefacts. Some of the paintings on his wall are his own works – which can now be seen hanging in the Samuel Butler Room (the graduate common room) in St John’s College.

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