Herbert Colborne Oakley   (1869 - 1944)

Born Southampton, England     -      17th December 1869
Died St. David's, Wales     -      22nd December 1944

HCO in 1921


We know very little about this gifted artist - the only modern reference uncovered exists in the "Dictionary Of Neglected Artists", an appropriate location, and a fitting current day description of him and his work   -   which is why this site was created.

A comment made in the book is:

"It is curious why this good quality artist did not exhibit ..."

It would appear that the reason may well be that as a young man he had no pressing need to either exhibit or to actively seek commissioned work, given his financial situation.  The capability is clearly there however, as an early commissioned portrait of a former mayor of Southampton and much later his portrait "Tom", demonstrate.

Hopefully the material currently assembled on this web site can be progressively increased to do some level of justice to his work.

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Herbert Colborne Oakley came into this world on the 17th December, 1869, in Southampton, England, the second child of Richard Garrett Oakley and Maria Oakley.  It would appear that he enjoyed the benefits of a financially well-endowed family.  His father, who was listed as a "Seedsman And Fruiterer" in the 1881 British Census, became mayor of Southampton in 1908.  He was apparently much respected, being referred to by a Southampton Justice Of The Peace as a man "... who was generous and kind towards every good thing in town".

The Oakley family were partners in Oakley and Watling, a prestigious Southampton company that was a supplier of fruit, vegetables and flowers to amongst others, the Royal Yacht Britannia and to the Titanic prior to its ill-fated voyage. Before the Titanic left its Southampton dock, it had been supplied with 36,000 apples, 16,000 lemons and 13,000 grapefruit. All the meals on board the Titanic were prepared using fruit and vegetables supplied by Oakley and Watling.

HCO in 1921 HCO in 1921 HCO in 1921
The Oakley & Watling Building (built in 1890)
as it exists today at 56 High Street, Southampton
On the left is Doulton's white Carraraware tiles (introduced in 1888) designed for the facade of the building
The sailing vessel depicted is known as a Southampton Hulk (a medieval ship type)
On the right are roundels of fruit highlighting the company's provisions

The above images and information are reproduced by kind permission of Come Step Back In Time

Herbert had a sister, Annie, six years older than he, and a brother, Harold, four years younger.  Elise d'Elboux, the artist, was a cousin of his.

It appears that he inherited sufficient wealth from his family to permit him to enjoy the relatively easy life of a gentleman of that era.  This may well have led to him not fulfilling his potential as an artist - given the absence of a need to strive to make a living from his paintings.

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The Art Student

Herbert C. Oakley did however receive a considerable education in the arts.  The first reference we find is to his attendance at the Hartley Institute in Southampton, (today part of the University of Southampton), where he was a prize winner in 1889.

Later, he was a student at South Kensington, in London, in what was then the "National Art Training School", which evolved into the Royal College of Art in the late 1890's.  The course of instruction, when it came into being in 1864, consisted of twenty-three stages: ten of drawing ornament, the figure, and flowers from the flat and from the round (mainly, casts); seven of painting the same types of examples; three of modeling them; and the last three devoted to “composition in design”, which included studies from life, time sketches and compositions from nature and from memory.

In 1896, at the age of 26, he was awarded a number of prizes for his work there, as documented in the "The Studio"" and "The Artist"" magazines of that period.

"The Studio"
Volume VIII 
The National Competition, South Kensington, 1896

"A design for a Cloisonne Plate (1000) by H. C. Oakley suggest good colour for the enamels and is a very  ingeniously arranged pattern;"

"The design for metal-work (806) by Herbert C. Oakley (South Kensington), are strong and expressive;  the silver medal they secured is well won."

"Design For Fire-Dog" by Herbert C. Oakley,   South Kensington

"Design For Door Knocker"  by Herbert C. Oakley,   South Kensington

"The Artist"
Honorary Awards to the Students of the Training Class at South Kensington
Silver Medals

"Chalk drawing of a Laocoon"     Oakley, Herbert C.

"Design for metal work"                Oakley, Herbert C.

An insight into the evolution of the South Kensington art training institution into what is now the Victoria And Albert Museum, is presented in the following paper: A Grand Design.

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Artistic Influences

Herbert Oakley was clearly influenced by a number of great artists.  Growing up as he did in Southampton, John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896), one of the world's master painters and a fellow Southamptonian, exerted an influence, but only in his early years.  Millais, who along with Holman Hunt and Gabriel Rossetti, formed in the late 1840's the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood", a small group of artists intent on founding a movement that was, in their belief, to stay the decadence of English art.  Their resolve, and commitment to each other, and driven by Ruskin's preaching, was to base their work entirely on nature, "... nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature."  Oakley's works, as he matured, were to follow a different doctrine.

The legacy of another Englishman, possibly the greatest artist that England has ever had, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851), played a role in Oakley's artistic development.  A notable painting of Oakley's, sold at auction at Bonhams & Brooks in 1997, was a full size copy (36" x 48") of Turner's 'The Fighting "Temeraire"'.  The scene, of the Temeraire, a veteran of Trafalgar, being towed by a steamship to the breaker's yard, was one of  Turner's greatest, and certainly one of Turner's favorites, referring to it as his "darling".  Oakley's copy was probably painted in the rooms in the basement of National Gallery given over to copyists.

France, and Paris in particular, was to exert a significant influence on him, primarily in his twenties and thirties.  The artistic community in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter were a heady influence on a relatively young Englishman.  The French impressionist masters, notably Monet, Manet and Renoir, were clearly admired, and their influence on his style is felt, to a certain degree, in some of his landscape paintings, a good example being "Bathers" at the Southampton City Art Gallery.

However the artist that he unquestionably admired the most was John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925).  Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent was and remains one of the world's greatest portrait painters.  He spent a large portion of his life in England.  The high regard, bordering on adoration, that Oakley held him in is evidenced in a number of the letters he wrote. One in particular stands out, written from Florence, on hearing of Sargent's death:

Sargent is dead, with whom we associate so much of life, for his works are alive, instinct with vitality - the multiform and nervous vitality of this modern world.  Easily he takes his place among the really great painters of this or any age, and our praise of him is benumbed with pain as of a great loss, as we realize that that wonderful hand and brain are stilled which so lately wrought swift marvels with a sure and certain touch, a touch that recorded with uncanny accuracy and verve the many vivid personalities of our time.  What a record, the mere recital of his works!  What unswerving purpose, what triumph over material difficulties!  What victories over aesthetic problems!

Sargent's work probably had the greatest influence on Oakley's, albeit tempered by the need that every artist should strive to create a style of their own.  Oakley comments on this when comparing Sargent to past masters:

Though Sargent did and could paint elegance, not from his brush need you expect the suave and serene beauty of Reynolds or Romney, often lacking in their loveliness that individuality that modern men and women display in this pulsating age.  Sargent painted the men and women of our day as we see them, full of personality, individual variety, and typical indeed of our many sided civilisation.

Further references to Sargent, and in particular his work, can be seen in a later section (Lectures and Letters).

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The Art Teacher

There are somewhat sketchy records of his life as an art teacher.  He appears to have taught at Eton, but no records have yet been found to confirm this.

HCO - young man HCO - young man

He also taught at Kidderminster.  As reported in the Southampton "Southern Daily Echo" in 1915, (when Oakley would have been 45), he was

"...headmaster of the School Of Art at Kidderminster, from which he had now retired."

Again no records have yet been found to shed further light on his time there.

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Painting & Travelling

Having retired, in the early 1910's, he traveled extensively, but France and Italy held special appeal for him, probably related to their artistic heritage.  He, like most serious artists of that period, felt the need to at least experience if not immerse himself in the culture that continued to spawn the greatest artists the world had ever known.  Another probable reason was his desire to travel - and to obtain some respite from winters in Britain. The fact that he was fluent in French and reasonably fluent in Italian, made his trips to these countries far less of a challenge.

Approximately a decade later, in the early 1920's, he settled in St. David's, Wales, though he would continue to visit, almost annually over the next 15 years, his favorite places in France and Italy.

"The H. C. Oakley Virtual Gallery" Copyright © 2005-2013 Andrew Gray