The Truth about Charlie: The Painter Károly (Charles) Brocky and the Limits of Art History

Dear readers, I feel like I owe you. And not just you, but also Charlie, my imaginary friend. A few months ago, I set out to write a post about him – Károly/Charles Brocky (1807–1855), London-based painter of portraits, genre scenes and female nudes – and what came out was a post about Brexit. It was a conversation that had to be had, no doubt. But it eclipsed the central topic: a ‘fascinating and illuminating’ one that would have involved, as Charlie himself put it, ‘migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art’. I still owe you the truth about Charlie.

But is there a truth? And if there is, whose truth is it? And how do I access that truth? Being an art historian, my go-to method is of course to gather as many sources as I can and assemble them like pieces in a puzzle. I am not the first to attempt this, and certainly not the most serious. Thanks to more than a hundred years of research, we do have a nice amount of information about Charlie. The puzzle pieces are numerous, and they sometimes fit together quite well. Nevertheless, as you will see, these puzzle pieces are often more like intricately cut gems: they glisten in the light in different colours, depending on which way you hold them. Their ‘truth’ is multifaceted and elusive. We know a lot about Charlie – but what we know can be subject to different interpretations.

First, a short biography. Károly Brocky was born in Temesvár, Transylvania (today Timişoara, Romania) in 1807. His father was a barber, but the young Károly had no desire to follow his profession and started training as a painter instead. He eventually enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and started earning money by painting portraits and miniatures. Like all ambitious painters of the time, he complemented his academic training with a study trip to Italy. In 1837 he travelled to Paris, where he met a Scottish nobleman named Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar, who invited him to London. Thanks to the long-term patronage of Munro of Novar, as well as to the art dealer Dominic Colnaghi, Brocky was able to make a decent living in London, specialising in watercolours, pastel portraits, and idealised faces representing different emotions. He also practised oil painting and started experimenting with a new genre around 1850: sensual female nudes painted in the manner of William Etty, a successful artist of the time. He regularly exhibited his pictures at the Royal Academy, and was an acknowledged member of the British art world, even if not a household name. In London, he kept in touch with the Hungarian émigrés who arrived after the defeat of the War of Independence of 1848–1849. When he died in 1855, he left five of his paintings to the Hungarian National Museum.

Károly/Charles Brocky: Does He Love Me? 1847 (Hungarian National Gallery) Web Gallery of Art

There are many more details that could make this short sketch livelier, but what happened after Brocky’s death is of more concern to us now. Not the part where he continued to roam the streets and exhibition halls of Britain, apparently unfazed by the fact that he had just died – that was the topic of the previous post. Today we will look at how historians and other enthusiasts – oblivious to Brocky’s second life as my imaginary friend – built up a different new life for him: one where he, the expat who never turned back, posthumously became embedded into the Hungarian art historical canon.

The fact that Brocky worked in Britain was not unknown in Hungary during his lifetime. The painter Miklós Barabás met up with him on his trip to London in 1843, and random pieces of information were sometimes published about him in newspapers. The paintings he bequeathed to the National Museum became popular display pieces, at least the ones that could be shown: two of the five were portraits of prominent 1848ers, and hence remained in storage in England in the 1850s and 1860s, but the alluring nudes did not raise any problems. Nevertheless, until the very end of the nineteenth century, Brocky remained a relatively obscure artist in his native country. It was in the 1890s that the historian Sándor Nyáry embarked on a quest to trace his life and oeuvre. The resulting monograph is still indispensable as a secondary source.[1] Nyáry’s project was not an easy one: although information about Brocky was not exactly scarce, it was extremely scattered. Besides some comments from Barabás and others, another useful source in Hungarian was the autobiography of Jácint Rónay, a Hungarian émigré who had met Brocky in London.[2] There was also a biography in English, written by Norman Wilkinson in 1870.[3] And there were many, many paintings and drawings owned by collectors in Britain, a number of which Nyáry painstakingly traced in order to list them in his monograph. What happened next was inevitable: given that Brocky was no longer a name in Britain, but was becoming increasingly popular in Hungary, many British collectors sold the works they owned to Hungarian art dealers. Brocky’s traces disappeared from the country he had chosen as his home, while in Hungary he earned a new reputation as a Hungarian painter who had made it abroad.

More than half a century after Nyáry, a new researcher, Edit Lajta, began working on a new monograph.[4] In terms of tracing the oeuvre, Nyáry had done a thorough job: Lajta only had to update his catalogue with new information and discoveries. She was free to devote most of her research to gaining a better understanding of the context: Brocky’s place in the British art world. She investigated how contemporary critics had assessed Brocky’s paintings when they were displayed at the RA, and explored how he had engaged with the British artistic tradition, including his deferential nods to Reynolds and Gainsborough, as well as the similarities to Etty. Another aspect of Brocky’s social network in Britain was highlighted by Gabriella Szvoboda Dománszky, who was the first to publish Brocky’s watercolour portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which had up to then lain undiscovered by Hungarian researchers in the Royal Collection.[5]

Thanks to these researchers we know a lot about Charlie… Charles Brocky, I mean. But is that the (whole) truth? Does it present us with a complete, or, at least, not all too fragmented picture of the artist? I am not so sure. Historical research is, of course, always plagued by this problem: the picture it presents is never fully complete, nor objective. There are always missing pieces in the puzzle. But in Brocky’s case this problem has always seemed especially acute to me. There are so many pieces, so many facts – but when I put them together, I cannot seem to get an idea of who he truly was. How successful was he really? By what measure? Did his career satisfy his ambitions? Did he see himself as a British painter? Was he eager to learn or did he just adapt out of necessity? Did he feel like he had conquered the vast pastures of Albion, or was he always, always confounded by the strangeness?

The problem is not necessarily the lack of sources. Indeed, Norman Wilkinson’s biography provides us with ample information on Brocky’s personality. ‘Like so many men of genius, he had apparently two phases of character. Sometimes in conversation he talked upon art better than anyone I ever heard, sometimes he rattled away the most amusing nonsense possible,’ he says, for instance (p. 21). He also describes Brocky’s interactions with Queen Victoria, who sat for a pastel portrait:

The trouble with artist’s biographies such as Wilkinson’s is that they constitute a genre in themselves, and that genre has its own conventions. The artist has to be presented as a genius – hence not only the focus on the ‘two phases’ of Brocky’s character, but also the many instances where Wilkinson asserts that the painter had chosen ‘High Art’ instead of commercial success. Other sources tell a different story: Brocky worked in a lucrative genre – portraiture – and for one of the most influential art dealers; then, he switched to nudes in the wake of Etty’s success. Was Wilkinson’s emphasis of his commitment to High Art just rhetorical flourish, or was that how Brocky himself formulated his artistic credo? Was that his true self – or was the opposition between high and low ultimately meaningless to him? We might never know. Similarly, while the conversations with Queen Victoria may have happened, they fit into Wilkinson’s overall story suspiciously well. They present the artist as a likeable maverick who does not care about social niceties. Again, a mark of genius – but also the mark of a foreigner unable to navigate the intricacies of British politeness. Is this a stereotype or Brocky’s true self? This, I suspect, we will never find out – although, as my readers know, my imaginary friend Charlie can indeed be rather blunt sometimes…

Károly/Charles Brocky: Sleeping Bacchante, 1850-1855 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

Due to the lack of letters, diaries, or notes written by himself, Brocky’s personality will always remain the most elusive aspect of what we know about him. Perhaps, in this respect, it’s best to just give up. But other aspects that should be traceable with the help of less personal sources also remain blurred. What do we really know about his contacts in England? What, precisely, was the nature and extent of his affiliation with Munro of Novar or Colnaghi? What other patrons did he work for? Which British artists did he associate with? These questions are largely unanswered, but at least there is hope they might be cleared up if new sources are uncovered in the future. The rub is, however, that when Brocky’s works were removed from their original locations and sold to Hungary, many traces of his actual social network were obliterated for good.

Another interesting issue is that a lot of what early sources do tell us about Brocky’s contacts sounds so far-fetched that it is hard to believe. According to Rónay, Brocky had known J. M. W. Turner, and it was the great British artist who had advised him to move to England. Another early biographer, Jenő Szentkláray, claims that the two had worked together.[6] Furthermore, according to Wilkinson, ‘one day Turner, sitting with Munro of Novar, pointed to one of Brocky’s pictures, and exclaimed, “That is the man who can paint, and that is the man you must watch.”’ (p. 22) Rónay names Franz Xaver Winterhalter as another famous contemporary artist who had supposedly praised Brocky’s work, while Wilkinson claims the same about Edwin Landseer. Again, this sounds suspicious: as if the biographer was trying to promote a barely known painter via the well-known device of name dropping. But is it really that far-fetched? Isn’t it just the East European inferiority complex that makes us question whether Brocky could have associated with these artists as an equal? After all, they were all flesh and blood people moving around in the same art world – it is not impossible that they met. The Turner connection is, for one, very plausible, given that Turner was also patronised by Munro of Novar. Furthermore, we do know for a fact that Brocky did indeed paint Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – and that sounds like the most unbelievable part of all. So why automatically disbelieve the rest? As I hinted in the previous post on Charlie, I tend to think that there is some truth to these stories. Nevertheless, they remain mere rumours until corroborated by other sources.

We are in a disadvantaged position today compared to Wilkinson, Nyáry, Szentkláray or even Lajta, because we are many generations removed from Brocky’s time. Informal sources such as family traditions are no longer available to us in the same way, and many of the collections Brocky’s works had once been part of do not exist anymore, or have been thoroughly transformed. Our own position in time does, however, come with its own advantages. For one, we have the internet, and with it databases galore. A search of the ArtUK database – an amazing collection of artworks from public collections in the UK – brings up five paintings by Brocky. One is the head of a girl – typical Brocky subject. The other four are depictions of the four seasons, featuring groups of putti. They are in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Wirral. And what do you know: Wilkinson does indeed mention a series of four seasons, supposedly praised by the Duke of Wellington (p. 22).

Károly/Charles Brocky: Landscape with Figures, 1830s-1850s (British Museum, London) © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Research in museums in Britain is much easier today than ever before – especially compared to Lajta’s time, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. A quick search of the British Museum’s database brings up an array of works on paper (some already known in Hungarian literature): portraits, landscapes, sketches for a Hungarian-themed history painting Brocky completed around 1850, as well as a drawing of a castle. The Victoria and Albert Museum also has some pretty drawings of girls’ heads, but what I found more interesting when I did some in-person research there some years ago were some prints depicting the heads of biblical figures, drawn by Brocky, lithographed by Emile Lassalle, and published in Paris. Is it possible that Brocky monetised his greatest skill – drawing emotional human faces – by having his drawings internationally distributed as lithographs? This is a completely new line of enquiry; an additional brushstroke to the rather sketchy portrait we are today able to paint of his artistic persona.

Károly/Charles Brocky: The Brunette, Female Head, 1830s-1850s, drawing in coloured chalk (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Brexit post strayed away from nineteenth-century art history quite a bit, and in return the present post has turned out as rather art historical. I am not trying to set up an opposition. As I have often said on this blog, (art) historians always use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Granted, sometimes the gaps are so small they are almost unnoticeably bridged; furthermore, different genres of history writing allow for different degrees of authorial licence. I like collecting facts and fitting them together meticulously – believe me, I am not trying to make a case for ‘anything goes’. Still, sometimes the gaps are too big, and the story still has to be told. And hey, this is a blog. Its purpose is more to understand, than to analyse. I would like to know why Charlie came here, why he stayed, and what he thought of all that was (is) going on. In the previous post I tried to answer these questions by relying on my instincts, rather than historical sources, and in this post I showed you how fragmented and ambiguous those sources really are. If the truth is a solid construct made up of uncontestable facts, then we might never know the truth about Charlie. If our imaginations are allowed to contribute, then perhaps we already do.

And in any case, I can still ask him a few questions the next time we meet up for a beer.

Nóra Veszprémi

Károly/Charles Brocky: Othello and Desdemona, watercolour, 1830s-1850s (British Museum, London) © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

[1] Sándor Nyáry, Brocky Károly festőművész élete és művei [The life and work of the painter KB] (Budapest, 1910)

[2] Jácint Rónay, Napló-töredék: Hetven év reményei és csalódásai [Diary fragment: Hopes and disappointments of seventy years] (S. l., s. d. [Budapest, 1884])

[3] Norman Wilkinson, Sketch of the Life of Charles Brocky the Artist (London, 1870)

[4] Edit Lajta, Brocky Károly 1807–1855 (Budapest, 1957); Edit Lajta, Brocky Károly 1807–1855 (Budapest, 1984)

[5] Gabriella Szvoboda Dománszky, ‘Brocky Károly arcképei Viktória királynőről és Albert hercegről’ [KB’s portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert], Művészettörténeti Értesítő 35.1–2 (1986), pp. 71–75.

[6] Jenő Szentkláray, Brocky Károly festőművész élete [The life of the painter KB] (Timişoara, 1907), p. 47.

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