Vanishing Pre-Raphaelite: Charles William Mitchell

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), Hypatia (detail) (1885), oil on canvas, 244.5 × 152.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

One of my early projects on this blog was to rediscover some of the artists who had been members of the Impressionist movement, either by taking part in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, or who had painted in Impressionist style outside France.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was perhaps less radical and more diffuse, and considerably less documented. Every so often I stumble across another artist who was associated with the movement in some way, who seems to have been abandoned on the wayside of art history. Even major artists who were outside the inner circle of the original Brotherhood, like John Brett, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and Marie Spartali Stillman, have been fading from records.

So it is for Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903). Born just after the dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and with his work dismissed as being “similar in many ways” to that of John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), even Wikipedia can only find sixty words to say about him. And despite the vast riches of the Internet, the sum of his artistic output can now be found in a handful of paintings and the interior design of one church.

Mitchell was brought up in Newcastle, where his father, Charles Mitchell (1820-1895), was a shipbuilder and munitions manufacturer who had originally come from Aberdeen, where he had studied engineering at the university. The Mitchell family lived in Jesmond Dene, to the north of central Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

Nothing seems to have been recorded about Mitchell’s training or career.

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), The Spirit of Song (date not known), oil on canvas, 160.2 x 99.1 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The Spirit of Song is unfortunately undated, and shows a nude Muse-like figure holding a lyre, set in quite English-looking countryside. With its invocation of music, it may have been painted during a period of interest in the Aesthetic movement.

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), Hypatia (1885), oil on canvas, 244.5 × 152.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Mitchell’s best-known painting is that of Hypatia, which was completed and exhibited (perhaps at the Royal Academy) in 1885. It shows a beautiful young nude woman, her very long tresses clasped to her right breast. She is stood, leaning back against a carved stone altar, on which there is a crucifix and a bowl, on an altar cloth. She holds her left arm up, her hand open and gesturing towards a mosaic on the wall behind her, and looks anxious.

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), Hypatia (detail) (1885), oil on canvas, 244.5 × 152.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the altar are burning candles, long on tall floor-standing candlesticks. The flame of that at the left is being blown towards the altar, implying that a door to the left, in the direction of the woman’s gaze, is open.

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), Hypatia (detail) (1885), oil on canvas, 244.5 × 152.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The walls are decorated with mosaics; although the images of them shown are only fragmentary, they appear to be of religious motifs. That behind the woman shows a right foot which could be from an image of Christ crucified. A curtained door leads to a room behind the altar. Scattered on the floor are a white robe (presumably removed from the woman), a candlestick holder, and other debris.

The original story of Hypatia is a strange one. A Greek mathematician in Alexandria, she was a pagan philosopher who headed the Neoplatonic school there. Known for her dignity and virtue, she became embroiled in a bitter feud between Orestes, Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, over local Jewish dancing exhibitions.

A fanatical Christian mob kidnapped Hypatia, took her to a Christian church, where she was stripped, tortured to death, and her body mutilated and burned.

Although Mitchell may well have been aware of the historical origin of this story, he was probably most influenced by Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face, which was published in 1853, and quickly became very popular, and a favourite of Queen Victoria’s.

In Kingsley’s version, Hypatia is on the verge of being converted to Christianity when she is attacked by the Christian mob. She is then dragged to a Christian church, stripped naked by the mob, and torn apart under a large image of Christ. Modern criticism of the novel stresses its anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

The passage in Chapter 29 which Mitchell portrays reads:

On into the church itself! Into the cool dim shadow, with its fretted pillars, and lowering domes, and candles, and incense, and blazing altar, and great pictures looking from the walls athwart the gorgeous gloom. And right in front, above the altar, the colossal Christ watching unmoved from off the wall, His right hand raised to give a blessing — or a curse?

On, up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavement — up the chancel steps themselves — up to the altar — right underneath the great still Christ: and there even those hell-hounds paused.

She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around — shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ appealing — and who dare say in vain? — from man to God. Her lips were opened to speak: but the words that should have come from them reached God’s ear alone; for in an instant Peter struck her down, the dark mass closed over her again … and then wail on wail, long, wild, ear-piercing, rang along the vaulted roofs, and thrilled like the trumpet of avenging angels through Philammon’s ears.

(Quoted from Wikisource.)

Saint Eulalia exhibited 1885 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Saint Eulalia (1885), oil on canvas, 188.6 x 117.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Commentators have pointed out that John William Waterhouse’s painting of Saint Eulalia was also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, and has parallels in its voyeuristic tone, perhaps. But this young Christian girl was torn apart and burned by pagans for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods in Merida, Spain. The artist has transported her to the Forum in Rome, and shown her body unmarked by her vicious murder.

Waterhouse’s painting is now in the Tate Gallery, London. Mitchell’s is in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1887, Mitchell’s father gave the land for, and funded, the construction of Saint George’s Church in Jesmond, which is in art nouveau style. The artist designed three large mosaic figures, and was involved in other aspects of its interior design.

Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), The Flight of Boreas with Oreithyia (1893), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I have recently shown Mitchell’s marvellous painting of The Flight of Boreas with Orithyia (1893), alongside other depictions of this myth, in which the North Wind abducts his betrothed by flying off with her.

This might be compared with Waterhouse’s near-contemporary Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) and Mariana in the South (c 1897), below.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, 149 x 92 cm, Gallery Oldham, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Mariana in the South (c 1897), oil on canvas, 114 × 74 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Charles William Mitchell (1854–1903), Mrs Mary Niven (1894), oil, dimensions not known, Aberdeen University, Aberdeen, Scotland. Source of image not known.

Mitchell also painted some portraits, three of which are currently held by the University of Aberdeen, including this of Mrs Mary Niven (1894). I believe that she was the wife of Charles Niven, a distinguished Professor of Natural Philosophy at the university, and mathematical physicist.

Charles William Mitchell died in 1903, at the age of only 49. Presumably other paintings of his remain in private collections. Wouldn’t it do better justice to his art for them to seen by the public?


Details and images of the interior of Saint George’s Church, Jesmond, including the mosaic figures designed by Mitchell.