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an undated photograph by J. L. Brewery (Norfolk Museums Collections)
|Born||26 July 1803|
|Died||15 July 1886 (aged 82)|
|Education||no formal education or training|
|Known for||landscape painting, fabric pattern design|
|Movement||Norwich School of painters|
Obadiah Short (26 July 1803 – 15 July 1886) was a British painter of landscapes. He is associated with the Norwich School of painters, which was the first provincial art movement in Britain. Short was an amateur artist who had a long career as a pattern designer. He wrote a detailed account of his childhood memories and produced accurate paintings of Norwich scenes, both of which have provided historians with a valuable record of the city.
Born of poor parents, he was orphaned during the Peninsular War when his mother, who was a camp follower with the British Army, fell sick and died in Lisbon, and his father was killed at the Battle of Corunna a few weeks later. The young Obadiah was subsequently brought up by his grandparents, and worked as a Norwich textile labourer before learning the trade of a weaver. He went on to become a pattern designer for Edward Willett, Nephew & Co., which manufactured shawls, and worked for the firm for fifty years.
After 1829 he began to draw, strongly influenced by the work of James Stark. In 1832 he walked from Norwich to the residence of the Earl of Leicester, and was permitted to study paintings in the Earl's collection. He was commissioned to illustrate the Norwich surgeon John Green Crosse's essay on urinary calculi, which won the Jacksonian Prize in 1833. His paintings usually feature wooded landscapes around Norwich, or rural river scenes.
Obadiah Short was associated with the Norwich School of painters, a group of artists loosely connected both by geographical location and their depictions of Norfolk landscapes, as well as by personal and professional relationships. The school's most important artists were John Crome, Joseph Stannard, George Vincent, Robert Ladbrooke, James Stark, John Thirtle and John Sell Cotman, along with Cotman's sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph Cotman. It was a unique phenomenon in the history of 19th-century British art, being the first English city outside London where a school of artists arose, and creating the first provincial art movement in Britain. It had more local-born artists than any subsequently-formed schools elsewhere. The city's theatrical, artistic, philosophical and musical cultures were cross-fertilised in a way that was unique outside London. The leading spirits and finest artists of the Norwich School were Crome and Cotman.
The Norwich Society of Artists was founded in 1803. It arose from the need for a group of Norwich artists to teach each other and their pupils. Not all of the members of the Norwich School were members of the Norwich Society, which held regular exhibitions and had an organised structure, showing works annually until 1825 and again from 1828 until it was dissolved in 1833.
Obadiah Short[note 1] was born on 26 July 1803 in a house close to Bethel Yard, Norwich, the son of Joseph Short and Elizabeth Cubitt.[note 2] Born six months after the marriage of his parents, he was baptised a day later at St Augustine's Church, Norwich. His father worked converting raw grain into malt on Mousehold Heath and was the sexton for the Norwich parishes of St. Augustine's and St. Saviour's. His mother was a Norwich cotton weaver. Two of Obadiah's younger brothers died in infancy. Another brother called William was baptised in 1807.
Obadiah Short, Recollections
Later in life, Short wrote his autobiography in a small leather-bound book, now kept in the Norfolk Museums Collections at Norwich Castle. In the book, which he called Recollections, he recorded many of his childhood memories, as well as information given to him about his family. He gave an invaluable eyewitness account of events that occurred in Norwich during his childhood, unrecorded by anyone else during this time.
According to Recollections, Obadiah, who was known to his family as Oba, supplemented his parents' income by working as a small boy in the textiles industry. He was paid to turn a cord wheel, for a master who treated him with relative kindness. He later worked for another master, running errands and polishing boots. His book recollects his memories of his parents and of what he was told about their fate.
Short wrote in Recollections that in 1808 straightened circumstances forced his father to become a substitute soldier in the East Norfolk Militia. Joseph Short was promoted to the rank of corporal. He travelled that year to Spain as a regimental sergeant in Sir John Moore's army, along with Elizabeth, who came with her husband as a camp follower.[note 3] She then fell ill and was sent with the sick and wounded to a military hospital in Lisbon, where she died. As Joseph Short failed to return to England and was never heard from again, it was assumed by his family that he was killed on 16 January 1809, in the midst of the Battle of Corunna.[note 4]
As a son of a British soldier killed during the Napoleonic Wars, it was possible for Obadiah to attend the Royal Military Asylum at Chelsea, but he was instead brought up by his grandparents in Norwich. His poverty forced him to seek poor relief and he was taken by his grandmother to Duke's Palace Plain, where employers came to hire boys as cheap labour.
Before the 1840s many of Obadiah Short's family were employed in Norwich's textile industry. Spinning and weaving were mainly done in the workers' homes, but due to both the fast-changing fashions, and competition with the mills of the north of England, these methods were obsolete. Norwich had textile mills, but the mill owners had to buy their fibres from manufacturers in the north, where they were made more cheaply. The Jacquard loom allowed manufacturers to invent their own cloth designs, but these were an expensive investment. Textiles mills around the city, such as St James Mill near Whitefriars, ultimately failed to compete with mills located close to plentiful raw resources, such as coal.
Short worked as a weaver from the age of thirteen, and learnt to weave bombazine. In 1834 he obtained employment as a pattern designer at Edward Willett, Nephew & Co, a large manufacturer of silk shawls, initially based in Pottergate, Norwich.[note 5] As a designer, Short would have been regarded one of the most important men in the shawl trade, albeit a part of a large team of workers. The pattern designers for a firm were seldom named and so nothing is known about many of them. Not all were locally based employees, or noted artists, as was the case with Obadiah Short, who remained with the same firm for fifty years.
There are no surviving records of Short's designs for Willett & Nephew, but a single example of a fabric known to come from one of his designs has survived. It is now held in the Norfolk Museums Collections. Measuring 41 by 41 centimetres (16 in × 16 in), it is a silk Jacquard square made from eight pieces of shawl fabric, sewn together to make what may have been a cushion cover. Each quarter of the square shows a long pine and lily shape.
In the 1841 census Short was described as an 'artist', but in later censuses his profession in the textile industry is reflected by his occupation being described variously as a 'designer', a 'designer of textile fabrics', and a 'designer artisan’.
Short married Susanna (or Susan) Kyburt at St Saviour's Church, Norwich in 1821.[note 6] Their children were Elizabeth (born in 1824), Harriet (born in 1826), Ann (born in March 1830, but died in February 1831), Obadiah (born in July 1833, died in infancy aged 10 months), Obadiah (born about 1835), Rachel (born in 1838), Charlotte (born in 1841), and Emma (born in 1844).
According to the census for 1851, their second son Obadiah followed his father in the textile trade and became a designer's assistant. The parish record of his marriage on 30 December 1856 to Elizabeth Wurr, stated his occupation (and his father's) as 'designer'. He died in 1863, aged only 28.;
Obadiah's wife Susan Short died in 1871, having been married to him for fifty years.
After 1829 Short saw a Mr Harbord of St. Stephen's Church Alley copying a work by John Crome, which may have been the reason why he began to sketch and paint. He was later acquainted with Mr. Sparshall, a local patron of the arts, who lent him pictures by James Stark to copy. Short was influenced strongly by the works of both these artists.
In 1832, Crome's physician took an interest in Short and provided him with a letter of introduction to give to the Earl of Leicester. Short walked over 30 miles (48 km) from Norwich to the Earl's stately home at Holkham Hall. Upon his arrival he was treated with kindness and remained there for several days studying the Earl's artworks, before walking home again. He subsequently learnt the art of Landscape painting by copying the works of the Old Masters. Short's individual artistic style probably originated from his access to the Earl of Leicester's collection. His artistic style was influenced by both the artist Alfred Priest, whom he met in about 1851, and possibly the London-born water colourist John Varley.
The famous Norwich surgeon John Green Crosse was fascinated by cases of bladder stones and in 1833 he used his expertise to produce an award-winning essay for the Royal College of Surgeons's Jacksonian Prize on the "Formation, Constitution and Extraction of the Urinary Calculus", completing it within a few weeks. Obadiah Short was commissioned to produce the drawings for the plates, and he included O. Short, del. on each page of the drawings used to illustrate the essay. Crosse received the prize in London at a meeting of the College in 1833 and his essay was published in 1835.[note 7]
The Norfolk Museums Collection based at Norwich Castle has over thirty drawings and paintings by Short, as well as a sketchbook and some hand-written notes. His pictures of Mousehold Heath were drawn many years after most of the original heath had been enclosed by landowners. The pictures depict the heath as treeless and free of human activity, but only because the viewpoint of each drawing deliberately points away from the Norwich skyline.
Unlike most of the Norfolk-based members of the Norwich School of painters, Obadiah Short never belonged to the Norwich Society of Artists, but he showed four works at their last exhibition in 1833.
Obadiah Short died peacefully on 15 July 1886 at Heigham, Norwich, aged 82. His obituary, published in the Bury and Norwich Post a few days after his death, asked its readers to appreciate "a life not barren of interest to those who care to mark the events of a well-spent career", and "to notice the success of perseverance under difficulties". Obadiah was described as kindly, unambitious, undemanding, and a devout Christian, whose art was praiseworthy for its “charming choice of subject” and "delineation of foliage". His will was proved in Norwich (in which he was described as a 'Pattern drawer'), with his estate valued at £208.
Obadiah Short's total output of paintings and drawings was limited by being fully employed for much of his adult life. As a devout Christian he may well not have worked on Sundays, which if so would have limited still further the time he devoted to painting.
His paintings came to light after his death when they were exhibited at the 1927 Loan Exhibition in Norwich, when three oil paintings and a watercolour, Landscape at Costessy, Norfolk, were shown.
Early art historians such as Dickes and Cundall did not mention Short, but more recent authors have praised his work, whilst still regarding him as a minor painter. Derek Clifford rated him as a "pleasing minor talent" and Harold Day, who noted that Short could produce paintings that were charming, also described him as "not one of the great men of the Norwich School".
Short's Recollections have provided modern historians with a link to the past and allowed the revival of previously forgotten traditions, such as wassailing. Short drew Norwich's old buildings, some of which have since been demolished or altered beyond recognition. These drawings, made before cameras were first used to record them, have become a valuable source of information for historians.