Art of Louise Rayner

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Eastgate Street late 1860's
Eastgate Street circa 1890
Eastgate Street circa 1892?
Eastgate Street 2009

Louise Rayner was born in 1832 and died in 1924. She lived in Chester from some time around 1869 until 1910. Louise was born at Matlock Bath, Derbyshire and spent her early childhood there and in Derby. Her father Samuel Rayner (1806-79) was an accomplished painter of architectural watercolours, and her mother, brother and four sisters also artists. The family moved to London in 1842 and Louise took up watercolours seriously when she was fifteen, being taught by her parents and their artist friends. She began to exhibit oil paintings of interiors at the Royal Academy in 1852, and in 1860 her first watercolours of street scenes were shown at the Society of Women Artists and the Society of British Artists. The family moved to Brighton in 1858 but returned to London in the mid-1860s.

Louise Rayner is first recorded as living in Chester in 1869, when she was a boarder with Robert Shearing (who owned a chemist’s in Watergate Street) and his wife Mary Anne, at 2 Ash Grove off the Wrexham Road. From Chester she sent work to exhibitions in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. In the 1870s and ’80s Louise spent a couple of months each summer in different British towns and cities. In the 1890s her sister Margaret came to lodge with her at Chester, where they taught water-colour drawing. They moved to Tunbridge Wells about 1910, and Louise sold her last drawing in 1918 at the age of 86. The Grosvenor Museum possesses over twenty of Louise Rayner's water-colours, the largest number in any single public collection.

Rayner is often criticized for "reusing" the same material, however close inspection of her works show that while she might have painted several works from the same viewpoint, she is careful (as shown on the right) to record the details that have changed in the intervening years. Another notable Rayner trait is moving buildings closer to the viewer. As she was very religious she has a particular tendency to move churches to more prominent positions.

These habits are illustrated by the four images on the right. The first three are Rayner's water-colours of Eastgate Street looking toward present location of the High Cross, while the last is a modern photograph (January 2009). The following details are worth noting:

  • All four images show The Boot although it seem to have lost its pub sign in the latter two water-colours.
  • The High Cross is missing, as it was only put back in place in 1975.
  • St Peter's church tower isn't really quite so visible from the viewpoint of the painting as it is in the third water-colour.
  • The heart shaped sign on the left hand side is still there today - note the identical ironwork.
  • The steeple at the far end of Watergate Street (Holy Trinity Church) is actually much further away than as painted in the second and third water-colours.
  • Gas-lighting appears in the second water-colour. However, by the 1830's gas lighting had reached all the city's central streets, so the gas lamps must have been omitted by the artist in the first water-colour.
  • One thing that is absent from all the water-colours (apart from some vague blurring) is the carved wooden "devil" holding up the protruding front of the "half-timbered" building on the left - perhaps this offended the artists strong religious feelings.

Some of the changes in architecture allow the water-colours to be dated:

  • The large double-fronted building which appears in the second water-colour was built by Thomas Lockwood in 1874. This dates the first water-colour to before 1874. Given that the steeple at the far end of Watergate Street is also absent, this would push the date back to the 1860's - the church was completed in 1869. As Rayner most likely did not move to Chester until well after 1860, this probably makes it one of her earliest Chester water-colours, from the late 1860's.
  • The artist accurately portrays the changes to the building on the corner of Bridge Street and Watergate Street in the third water-colour. In the two earlier paintings it is shown without the arches at Row level that it acquired when renovated in 1892 by Thomas Lockwood. This dates the middle painting to the period 1874-1892, and we can say after 1879 because of the tram-lines as horse-drawn trams only started in that year. In fact, the peaked roof of St Peters was only added in 1886 (the first water-colour shows the previous roof), so we can date this work to 1886-1892.
  • In all three of the paintings the three buildings towards the cross from The Boot are not "half-timbered", but as the photograph shows they were "renovated" by Thomas Lockwood in 1900 and converted into a department store. This dates the third water-colour to 1892-1900, also prior to the electrification of the trams in 1903 (assuming the artist did not leave out the tram-wires).

Some further images of Chester by Rayner can be found on the pages about the Old Queens Head.

Sources and Links