The later career of James Meadows
Setting the scene
James Meadows' career evolved from portrait painting, and his current reputation is based upon landscapes and seascapes. However, his contemporary reputation was established in another genre, as a 'scenic painter' in London's 19th century theatreland.
According to Lacy's book, James "flourished" between 1844 and 1853, notably as the scene painter at The Surrey Theatre in Southwark, and Sadlers Wells Theatre in Islington. However he also appears to have developed a strong relationship with the managers and companies of The Lyceum Theatre, where his son Alfred is also reputed to have later been employed as a scene painter.
Scenic painter at The Surrey Theatre
James' association with The Surrey Theatre appears to have been well-established by the mid to late 1840s, as an entry in the diary of the great actor-manager William Charles Macready mentions, "Mr. Meadows, the artist of the Surrey Theatre, called, and I went over with him the scenes of ' Hamlet,' writing out a plot for him. " Macready's interpretation of Hamlet was considered one of the greatest performances of the role. Macready managed Covent Garden, and later the Princess' Theatre, in Oxford Street, where Macready performed 'Hamlet' in 1845. Macready retired from the stage in 1851.
By the time of the 1851 census, James and his family had moved from Mile End to Clapham Old Town. Given his association with The Surrey Theatre, it is likely that James moved his family south of the river for professional reasons in the 1840s, after the birth of his youngest child Arthur who was born in Mile End in 1843.
Self-portrait, by James Meadows.
Centre stage: James Meadows at The Lyceum
Even if James' family and professional life was centred on the South Bank of the Thames in the later 1840s and the early 1850s, his greatest works as a scenic artist were created at The Lyceum Theatre, between the Strand and Covent Garden, in the heart of London's theatreland. From 1847-1855, the theatre was managed by the contralto Madame Vestris and her husband, the actor-manager Charles Matthews the Younger. Charles Matthews the Elder, a renowned actor-manager in his own right, had seen William Meadows perform in Dublin in 1794 and commented favorably on his performance (see the Early career of William Meadows). Whether this had any bearing on James Meadows engagement is unknown, but it is certain that his family background would have endeared him to his fellow scene painter, William Roxby Beverley, one of the leading lights and revolutionaries of 19th century scene painting.
The final member of the quintet that ensured the success of The Lyceum, was the curious and colourful herald of arms and playwright, James Robinson Planché (1796-1880). Closely connected to the Court by family and professional associations, he was nonetheless a prolific and successful playwright for sixty years. A long-standing friend of Madame Vestris, he was "playwright, librettist, general advisor and superintendent of the decorative departments" at The Lyceum from 1847-1852. His 'Extravaganzas', at The Lyceum included 'Charles XII', 'The Golden Branch', 'Theseus and Ariadne', 'The Island of the Jewels', 'King Charming', and 'The Prince of a Happy Land', were amongst the highlights of the Christmas seasons. (One of Planchés earlier original creations, in 1837 for Vestris and Matthews, was 'Puss in Boots'). The Extravaganzas were 'sophisticated fairy tales' for adult audiences, but they are widely acclaimed as representing the first flourishing of the pantomime. Much of the success of these productions was due to the scenery which supported them, and even today they are considered masterpieces of stage scenery.
The success of Planchés productions hinged upon the effects wrought by Beverley, Meadows and their assistants. 'The Island of the Jewels' was considered by one contemporary critic to be rather boring, until the final scene when the leaves of a palm tree fell away to reveal a fairy bearing a jewelled coronet on each branch. This was the first example of a transformation scene. 'King Charming' ran for over 180 nights, starting on Boxing Day 1850. A first-hand description of the show by Thomas Hailes Lacy, the theatrical publisher,('Home sketches on both sides of the Channel, being a diary', published in 1852), mentions: " I called into The Lyceum and witnessed a burlesque or extravaganza called 'King Charming'. There was some very excellent dancing introduced into the course of the evening, but the sceneary and machinery were beautiful in the extreme; indeed I never saw anything in this way to equal them." Another critic in 'The Sporting Magazine', wrote of 'The Prince of a Happy Land', that Beverley and Meadows scenery was "surpassingly beautiful", and that "Beverley, Meadows and their assistants have wrought wonders".
The second link below to the on-line collections of the University of Worcester also allows us to read a description on page 4 of the scenes which James Meadows created with William Beverley for Charles Matthews own original creation, 'A Strange History', in March 1853, one of their final co-productions.
The final bow
In 1852, Planché left The Lyceum to enter 'semi-retirement'. In 1853, it was the turn of William Beverley to leave, and move around the corner to Covent Garden for a season, before making his final move to Drury Lane in 1855. Vestris and Matthews gave up the management of The Lyceum in 1855, and so the revels now were over for the band which had made The Lyceum such a success.
(Above) James Meadows, probably in the 1860s; (Below) Ann Meadows née Cross, probably in the mid-1850s.
In 1856, the family had moved back to the East End, no doubt partly encouraged by the final geographical shift in James' professional centre of interest, and was living at 18, Beaumont Square in Mile End, close to Stepney Green. By the time of the next census in 1861, James and his family were living at 12, Coburn Street in Bow. It is to this later period of his life and career that James Meadows owes his reputations as a marine painter. From 1855 until 1863, James exhibited 21 paintings at the Royal Academy, all of which depicted ships or coastal scenes. The scenes depicted included the mouth of the River Thames; Dover, Pevensey and Beachy head on the south coast, Scarborough on the north coast, and Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.
A coastal scene by James Meadows Snr. Dated 1859, this may be a companion piece to another similar painting of trawlers off the coast at Rye.
James Meadows died of diabetes on 5th May, 1863 at his home in Coburn Street, and his funeral took place at the local parish church, Holy Trinity, Mile End. According to one obituary, it appears that he was buried in this churchyard. His death was commemorated in the obituary list of notable persons linked to the stage, as a "scenic painter", in the later editions of 'The Era Almanack." Nonetheless, it is for his marine paintings that James Meadows is most remembered, and so his gamble, at least, paid off.
James Meadows on the web
Examples of James Meadows' marine paintings are now sought after, and there are examples of his work in the collections of the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and in the British Government Art Collection ('Seascape', 1861; and 'Shipping off Yarmouth', 1858). The links below will allow you to browse a few examples of James' work which are currently displayed on the web.
Information regarding James Meadows' contemporaries can be found on Wilkepedia, with extensive entries for Planché, Madame Vestris and Charles Matthews. The links below provide more details of the life of William Beverley; the history and development of British pantomime, including an article on The Lyceum; and access to two excellent sources of information, the on-line catalogues of Victorian playbills at the University of Kent and the University of Worcester.