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Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

Louise Rayner's Paintings of Chester

Louise J Rayner (1832-1924) was a gifted and prolific artist who lived in Chester for many years and produced numerous fine watercolour studies of the city's streets and buildings as they were in the 19th century. Her work remains very popular today and many of her paintings are available as reproduction prints- stockists include Chester History & Heritage in St. Michael's Church, Bridge Street and the Grosvenor Museum, Grosvenor Street- which also possesses the country's largest collection of her original works.

Louise was born in 1832 in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire (although one authority says in Markeaton Street, Derby), the second daughter in a family of five girls and a boy. Both of her parents were painters and they encouraged all of their children to follow their example. Her father, Samuel, was a talented and well-known watercolourist who specialised in architectural and historical subjects. He had first exhibited in London in 1821 and in 1845 was elected an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society.
Unfortunately, in 1851 he became involved in a serious fraud case, for which he was convicted and afterwards was shunned by his previously wide circle of artist friends and expelled from the Watercolour Society. He nontheless continued to exhibit until near his death in 1874.

Of all his children, Louise was decidedly the most talented. She had started drawing seriously by the age of 15 and later studied painting, initially tutored by her father and then under a series of professional artists. Her style, however, would always closely resemble that of her father. She first worked in oils but soon found a preference for watercolour and by the age of 20 was regularly exhibiting her work.

In 1851, when Louise was ten, the family moved to London and, except when travelling, she spent much of her life there. She would often accompany her architect brother Richard on his business trips and paint in the places they visited while he was meeting his clients. As a result, Louise was widely travelled, both in this country and in northern France. She most enjoyed visiting old cathedral cities and market towns, and in addition to her Chester street scenes, she is also locally known for her views of London, Hastings, Salisbury, Tewksbury, Warwick, Edinburgh, Wrexham and Shrewsbury.

By 1865 she had moved to Chester and spent many years working and teaching painting here. She lodged at the home of Robert Shearing (who owned a chemist's shop in Watergate Street) and his wife Mary Anne at 2 Ash Grove, in what was then a secluded rural location outside the city. It still exists today and remains a fine house in a charming, quiet residential street in the Westminster Park area, just off the busy A483 Chester-Wrexham Road. On the left is a sketch of her home, made by her brother Richard during a visit in 1892 and below, as photographed by the author in January 2009.

In 1910, she and her sister Margaret, who had lodged with her for a time in Chester, moved to Tunbridge Wells. When Margaret died, in 1920, Louise moved for the last time to Southwater Road, St Leonard's-on-Sea, Sussex, and died there on 8th October 1924, aged 92. She never married.

For over half a century, Louise was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, the Old and the New Watercolour Societies, the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street Gallery, the British Institution, the Society of Female Artists, the Dudley Gallery, the Birmingham Society of Artists and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Today, her work can be seen at the Ludlow Museum in Shropshire and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead but, as previously observed, Chester’s own splendid Grosvenor Museum houses the largest public collection of Louise Rayner’s watercolours– 23 in all- and is well worth visiting.

We now present a few of her watercolours of Chester, each of them a wonderful insight into how our city appeared in the middle to late 19th century. Total accuracy cannot be assumed, as she was inclined to utilise a degree of 'artistic licence' in her works- for example, church towers moved closer for more dramatic effect or 'untidy' lamp posts and tram tracks ommited. Occasionally, as with her painting of Harvie's Almshouses in Duke Street, she recorded for us for scenes for which no other records survive.

For those wishing to know more about her life and work, and also some examples of the works of her father and siblings, we recommend that you pay a visit the definitive Louise Rayner website- and very good it is too- hosted at the Dudley Mall.

Click on a thumbnail to bring up a larger image, descriptive notes and, occasionally, photographs to show how the places look today (notes and comparative photos are in preparation- bear with us!) ...

Northgate Street

Eastgate & Foregate Streets

eastgate street

Watergate Street

Bridge Street

Lower Bridge Street

Other places around the city

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Louise Rayner at the Dudley Mall
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