'Freak' who proved the doubters wrong

Quirky one, this. A shoemaker's son born with malformed arms and only a few fingers goes on to make his name as an artist.

Steven Russell

Quirky one, this. A shoemaker's son born with malformed arms and only a few fingers goes on to make his name as an artist. A fan tells Steven Russell why history shouldn't forget this dogged painter

EVERY now and then you stumble upon something that fills you with gratitude and relief for being a child of modern times. Born 200 years earlier, life having dealt you some poor cards, you could have found yourself paraded as a freak before anyone willing to hand your mum and dad a few coins. John Vine, born in 1808 to a Bury St Edmunds shoemaker and his wife, was one unfortunate to endure this fate.

An advertisement from an edition of the Bury & Norwich Post is pitiful. “John Vine,” it reads, “a child about 11 months old, born with imperfect arms and hands, the two arms are differently formed, one being longer than the other, and one arm has two joints, while the other has only one. This child has one finger and thumb on the right hand, and only one finger on the left. Thus being deprived of the means of future support, the parents submit (though with considerable reluctance) to a PUBLIC EXHIBITION, solely for the future benefit of the CHILD.

“To be seen at Mr. Frost's, baker, Abbeygate Street, Bury. Ladies and Gentlemen what they please. Tradesmen & Etc. 1s [one shilling]. Working People and Children 6d. each.

“N.B. The parents may wait on any gentleman or lady at their own house, if required.”

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The youngster's condition was caused by a rare, inherited, genetic disorder now known as Thrombocytopenia Absent Radius Syndrome.

In 1922, when a retrospective exhibition of his work was held in his adopted hometown of Colchester, one or two people suggested Vine had also been exhibited at fairs and shows as a boy, producing impromptu drawings with his deformed hands to entertain customers.

All in all, it seems a strange, very public and unpromising start in life. But while John Vine might have been physically different from most other children, he was made of stern stuff.

His talent might have been considerably more prosaic than contemporary Edwin Landseer's, and he didn't go to the Royal Academy Schools or enjoy royal patronage, but Vine didn't need charity. He apparently drew skilfully as a youngster despite his disability, and in adulthood travelled the country as a painter - picking up numerous commissions from the proud owners of prize-winning livestock.

John Vine wasn't exactly . . . how shall we say? . . . a top-notch artist. Even when he earns a mention in 19th Century reference books, he's often consigned to the “na�ve painter of farm animals” school - a reference to the alleged childlike simplicity of his work. But his pictures can nowadays change hands for thousands of pounds. One of six prize Berkshire pigs was sold for �14,000 at Bonhams in 2006, for instance, while a painting of a short-horned cow went for �3,600 at the beginning of this year.

One admirer is retired Essex farmer Hugh Scantlebury, who has produced a 195-page softback book - the fruit of years of research. He also recognises that Vine was not a great artist - an 1830s watercolour shows a problem with the perspective of a table, for instance, while the head of a skewbald horse in another painting is rather peculiar - but he argues that John's work gives a fascinating snapshot of the best of 19th Century livestock. And it's a cheering human tale, too.

“There are many more-interesting artists, but he's a man who didn't let his disability worry him. He just got on with his life and some of the people for whom he painted were really important agriculturalists.

“In the middle of the 19th Century, after the earlier difficulties with high prices and the Napoleonic wars, there was tremendous interest in agricultural shows. All the local squires, all the lords, entered cattle in royal shows, and a very humble farmer, if he got a winner, could make an awful lot of money.

“English livestock was the centre of the world. William Fisher Hobbs, in the 1840s, was exporting his improved Essex Pig to America. The winner of the Ayrshire all-class at the Royal Show at Chelmsford in 1856 was exported to Australia!

“There were several painters like Vine going round the royal shows, but he's one of the more interesting ones. I've researched in the past another (19th Century) Essex artist called Robert Nightingale, who was a much better painter than Vine and painted Derby winners and this kind of thing, but was the absolute antithesis of Vine. He worked only when he had to, and spent his time drinking. Vine was a really hard-working man but didn't have the talent of Nightingale.”

John Vine's family moved to Colchester from Bury St Edmunds in 1828, living in a house with four acres of market garden off Maldon Lane (now Maldon Road).

“It seems most likely that the impetus for the family's move came from artist John himself,” suggests Hugh. “Although not twenty years old, he was much experienced from his time with the fairgrounds and realised that, despite his small stature, his time as a boy painter was coming to an end.

“Astute enough to have saved his money, and not for one moment lacking confidence in his own ability, he decided that Colchester would be a suitable place to embark on his life as a professional artist and persuaded the rest of his family that they too could benefit from a fresh start.”

Maldon Road would be home for the rest of his days. “He began as a watercolourist, painting whatever people would commission him to do. A few examples of these early works have survived and show the broad range of subjects he painted, be they farms, houses, churches, children, family groups or the more familiar animal studies . . . It is likely that he was self taught, but learnt from experience and contacts with other artists.”

Vine was on hand to record the drama of the fire at St Peter's Vicarage in the High Street in May, 1842, showing lines of people with buckets, trying to keep the pumps supplied with water.

In the late 1830s he painted Rock, a pointer, for Osgood Hanbury, who lived near Coggeshall. Hanbury was a Lombard Street banker “and was a prominent backer of William Wilberforce in the great fight to abolish slavery that was finally realised in 1834”.

The book also contains a picture of a shorthorn heifer commissioned by Lord Rendlesham, who lived near Woodbridge. He was a founder member and one of the vice-presidents of the East Suffolk Agricultural Society.

Vine was also employed to paint the animals of men known for their innovative livestock breeding enterprises: Lord Western, from Felix Hall, Kelvedon, and William Fisher Hobbs - of Marks Hall, Coggeshall, and then Boxted Lodge, Colchester.

The coming of the railways in the 1840s allowed the artist to visit large agricultural shows in search of fresh business. It's likely he was a regular at the Royal Smithfield shows in London. Vine also painted prize-winners at the Royal Agricultural Society travelling summer shows at places such as Salisbury, Chester, Leeds and Newcastle.

It seems he went home with orders for about 20 pictures from the 1862 Royal Show at Battersea Park, making more than �60.

Vine carried pocket-sized sketchbooks and drew his subject in pencil, shading patches to indicate colouring. Back home in Colchester, he would produce an oil painting with the help of his sketch, placing the animal in any background he thought suitable.

In his personal life, John married Sarah Ann Surrey, the daughter of a mariner from Magdalen Street, at Lion Walk Independent Church in Colchester in the summer of 1847. They didn't have any children.

Vine died in the very cold March of 1867, aged 58, after a short illness. The death certificate cited congestion of the lungs. He was buried in Colchester Cemetery, off Mersea Road, about a week later.

Sadly, in 1913, his grave was reopened and the body of a stranger, a widow, was buried there too.

“Apparently no member of his family had purchased exclusive rights to the plot at the time of his death, so that later on, when the cemetery was having difficulty in finding sufficient space for fresh burials, this was a very easy, practical and convenient option,” explains Hugh Scantlebury.

He's very surprised sole rights had not been secured.

Sarah chose the cheapest burial for her husband and spent the last 20 years of her life in an almshouse. “It seems most unlikely that John Vine was not comfortably off, financially, at the time of his death. Throughout his life he had always shown himself to be a very shrewd man as far as money was concerned . . .”

Perhaps, he muses, Sarah “was somewhat freer in her spending habits and had exhausted her late husband's money in the first fifteen years of her widowhood”. In the 1930s, when the Colchester exhibition was staged and people wrote in with their memories, one correspondent had complained of Mrs Vine putting on airs above her station during her marriage.

Her husband seems to have faded quickly into obscurity after his death. Indeed, his obituary merited just one fattish paragraph in the local newspaper.

It was local writer, publisher and historian (and three-times mayor) Sir William Gurney Benham who raised the late artist's profile in 1931 by printing a piece on Vine under the headline A Remarkable Armless Artist. It created huge interest and led to the following year's exhibition at the Albert Hall, Colchester. Many owners of Vine paintings had written in.

“These few letters make sad reading today . . . one lady wrote in saying that she had fourteen works by John Vine, commissioned by her forebears. On a recent visit to the same house, only one appeared to be still there . . .” says Hugh. “Another man has told me that when he was a boy he and his friends used to throw darts at such pictures. When they were of no further use as target practice they went on the bonfire.”

And in about 1950 the borough council sold four Vine watercolours, acquired in 1932, for 10 shillings and sixpence each.

“All in all, one can't help feeling that despite the success John Vine made of his thirty-seven or so years in Colchester, the town has not been kind to his memory. Very few pictures by him are on public display. The shared grave in the town cemetery, with no headstone, just rough grass, seems a very understated memorial for such an extraordinary man.”

Hugh bought his first Vine painting from a friend about 30 years ago. “I was from an agricultural background, the artist was an Essex chap and I just got interested and started doing a bit of research.

Over the years I've created a kind of running manuscript and now, in my 70s, it's a sort of vanity thing - I thought I'd got such an awful lot of stuff that if I didn't do anything now, I never would!” Hence the publication of John Vine of Colchester: An Account of the Life and Times of an Essex Livestock Painter.

Happily, collectors rate him.

“The serious money is for the Stubbses of this world. The Vines are the journeymen - the artisans of this sort of thing.” But nonetheless recognised as being of merit. “Oh yes. If Vines come up for auction, there are other people than me interested, I can assure you!”

Hugh Scantlebury's book can be bought for �20 (including postage and packing) by writing to him at Parvilles, Hatfield Heath, Bishop's Stortford, CM22 7AT. Cheques should be payable to him.

THERE are good reasons why some of John Vine's painted animals look a little odd, as Hugh Scantlebury explains:

“It is characteristic of John Vine and indeed other contemporary painters that the heads of farm animals are invariably depicted as smaller than they were in real life, so as to emphasise the sturdy nature of their bodies and their capacity to produce great amounts of meat and fat. The portrayal of rather slender legs was another common device to achieve the same result . . .

“Nowadays we tend to think that pictures of large obese cattle, standing on unlikely-looking matchstick legs, are caricatures. Undoubtedly, as we have seen, there was a certain amount of artistic licence of one sort or another, but it seems to have been as acceptable in paintings at the time as air-brushing of photographs is today.”