Neglected artists are much harder to rediscover even than neglected authors. A rather unusual case is that of Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall (1862-1942), who was a successful society portrait painter for about twenty years, from the early Eighteen Nineties to the outbreak of the First World War, but went on (according to one source) to paint vast mystical abstracts.
Amongst his pictures is a pastel portrait of Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) in 1899, now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The artist exhibited widely, in London, Dublin, Paris and especially Berlin.
Horsfall had a British father and a German mother: the genealogy of the Mendelssohn family mentions Alexandrine Mendelssohn (1833-1900) married to a John Horsfall. He was born in Germany and grew up there, and seems to have spent more time there than anywhere else. A 1924 German art encyclopaedia (Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler) lists him as "living in Germany since his youth".
Nevertheless, he was interned by Germany during the Great War in the Ruehlben prison camp, where records show that he sketched fellow prisoners, and contributed to the publications that the inmates contrived to produce. In the Scotsman newspaper of April 12th 1916, he is noted as having contributed to the Prisoners' Pie annual, printed in Ruhleben. He also contributed drawings to the Ruhleben Camp Magazine. Following the war, his work was included in a 1919 exhibition of work created at the camp, and he sold some to the Crown Princess of Sweden.
In 1923, the author and journalist Herbert Vivian published his memoirs under the pseudonym of ‘X’ (Myself Not Least, Being the Personal Memoirs of ‘X’, Henry Holt, USA: the first British edition was from Thornton Butterworth in 1925). Vivian was himself a colourful character, involved in the romantic Jacobite circles of the Eighteen Nineties, who, owing to his services to certain royal families of South Eastern Europe, had been made a Knight of the Royal Servian Order of Tokovo, and an Officer of The Royal Montenegrin Order of Danilo. Under another pseudonym, he was the author of a Shielian world-conspiracy thriller, The Master Sinner (1901).
In his memoirs, he devotes a few paragraphs to Horsfall, describing him as a “Bohemian acquaintance”, and giving an account of him immediately after his recollections of Aleister Crowley. The artist came back from the camp, he says, “under the influence of [occult] spirits”.
Horsfall, says ‘X’, believed he was under the protection of an ancient Egyptian priest, and “took to doing extraordinary whorls on huge canvasses, closing his eyes and applying his colour by inspiration...one wild confusion of circles, for instance, was a map of the New Jerusalem.” Horsfall, in short, had changed from a painter of precise studio portraits to a strange visionary. Vivian may have been right in attributing the artist’s transformation to the prison camp, but if so this must have developed mostly afterwards. For in the camp he made pencil sketch portraits that are perfectly conventional.
But after this, Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall vanishes from view. None of the work described by Vivian seems to have surfaced in any major gallery or auction. We are left with this tantalising evocation of an artist utterly changed, with work that sounds dramatically different to his earlier portraits, but seemingly undiscoverable.
Picture: Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum
by Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall; pastel, octagonal, 1899;
given by Sir Lees Knowles, 1916. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
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