Basil Nightingale was the youngest of the ten children of Elizabeth and Robert Nightingale R A, a reputed animal painter of Maldon, Essex. Nightingale is thought to have been trained by his father and worked with him on known pictures. He certainly showed early promise: at the age of twelve he produced a copy in chalk of “A Lady’s Favourite Pony, with side saddle”, an engraving by Landseer, commended by the press for its reproduction of the depth, softness and finish of the original, when it was exhibited in the window of a local stationer.
Basil Nightingale was an anatomist, a practical horseman and houndsman, a rare combination which ensured the high quality of all his work, whatever the medium. He worked in oil, watercolour and pastel and produced work of considerable quality from at least the age of 21, though not many of his early works were published as prints. He was acclaimed for his grey/brown backgrounds, chosen so as not to intrude on or detract from the subject. Nightingale painted a number of famous horses and their riders, including in 1886, the Duke of Westminster’s ‘Ormonde’, winner of the Triple Crown, with Fred Archer up, and in 1898, Tom Firr, for twenty-seven years huntsman to the Quorn, on ‘Whitelegs’.
He painted a large number of hunting scenes and racehorses for the Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII) and indeed a sketch of the King himself. ‘The Sportsman’, introducing an exhibition of Nightingale’s drawings at Olympia, referred to him as “that skilful and versatile delineator, Mr Basil Nightingale.”
Having spent the first twenty or so years of his life in Maldon, as he established himself as an artist, Nightingale moved around, from Maldon to Somerset then briefly to Sherborne in Dorset, where he met Ellen Augusta Fox, who became his wife in Somerset in 1890. He spent some time in Melton Mowbray before moving in 1902 to Leamington in Warwickshire where he made a name for himself as a prolific artist and huntsman. He set a record for jumping the railway track, later beaten by Lord Lonsdale, Master of the Quorn and widely known as ‘The Yellow Earl’ because of his fleet of brightly coloured carriages used to convey his guests and servants to meets. Nightingale’s painting of ‘The Yellow Earl’ in the act of jumping the track, is inscribed on the back to the effect that Lonsdale is breaking the wide jump record set by Nightingale himself.
Basil Nightingale led a colourful life in more ways than one: in Leamington alone he moved house with astonishing regularity, living at 93 Willes Road in 1902, Lancaster House Portland Place West in 1908, 3 Charlotte Street in 1916, 15 Clarendon Square in 1917, Leam Terrace on 1920, Wharf Cottage, Radford Road in 1922 and 12 Wise Street in 1923, each time having to find accommodation to house his large family and his studio.
In addition to his work as an artist, he was an enthusiastic sportsman and huntsman, and a competitive and competent billiards player. Unfortunately, when involved in sporting events, he occasionally let his feelings run away with him. The Leamington Courier in 1912 reported an alleged assault at a hunting field event, as a result of which he was taken to court by Joseph Mayfield of Allesley. The matter was settled out of court, with a profuse apology from Nightingale. He seems to have developed something of a habit of being taken to court, but according to press reports, never appeared to let the experience undermine his confidence: more than once he questioned the Judge as to the reason for his being obliged to appear, – as when charged (twice) for not having a dog licence, or when summoned in 1904 for omitting to send his children to school. In fairness, when the children were examined, they were adjudged well up to the standard expected for their age. Soon after he arrived in Leamington, Nightingale was summoned to a bankruptcy hearing, for debts incurred when he lived in Melton Mowbray. The aggrieved plaintiff alleged that Nightingale had recently earned for a painting several times the sum owed to him. Nightingale was allowed time to pay, on promise of setting aside a proportion of his future earnings to cover the debt.
The Nightingale family cash-flow problems never went away: there are still people in the town who remember the times when he would offer a sketch or a painting in exchange for his bar-tab. In 1917, there was high excitement n the local press, when both Mr and Mrs Nightingale went to court as a result of altercations with the two Misses Hoggart-Hill, their neighbours in a shared house at 15 Clarendon Square. There had been a series of un-neighbourly verbal exchanges, resulting in a physical attack on Mrs Nightingale by one of the sisters. Mrs Nightingale fell down a short flight of stairs and when she called her husband to help, the other sister attacked him with a club, egged on by their brother, who stayed carefully out of reach at the top of the stairs. A doctor was called: Dr Hicks, a neighbour and well-known local physician. He gave evidence in court as to the injuries sustained by Mrs Nightingale and the lesser injuries, occasioned by a physical struggle, to Miss Hoggart-Hill. A police constable gave evidence of the attack with the club, describing in detail the shape of the club’s matching indentations in the Nightingale’s door, thus corroborating the Nightingales’ version of events. All four were bound over to keep the peace. Three years later, Basil Nightingale was in court again: Warwick Quarter Sessions heard an application by his landlady Mrs Brady, owner of 52 Leam Terrace, to have the Nightingale family evicted from their lodgings at that address. Mrs Brady found Mrs Nightingale abusive, and her children a nuisance, and she wished them to leave so that she could let the rooms to two ladies. The Judge allowed a month for the Nightingales to find a new home. Ironically, the site, now a block of 1960s flats, is now called Nightingale Court.
Basil Nightingale also appeared in the columns of the Courier as a regular letter writer, on such widely differing topics as a the Rating Reform Scheme in 1909; a plea in 1914 for the revival of the “ the pretty Leamington meeting” (the Leamington Steeplechase); his claim to have invented sixteen years previously what the Germans were advertising in 1915 as a completely new bullet-proof shield; also in 1915, a proposal to set up a multi-disciplinary sporting event, to raise funds for rifles under the banner of ‘Home Defence’; the taming and keeping of a starling as a household pet and unrivalled fly catcher; and in 1920, a moving account of his first encounter with the hunt which engendered a lifelong enthusiasm.
Nightingale also suffered personal tragedy: two sons died young and in 1915, his lively daughter Stella died in the Warneford Hospital aged 14. She contracted septicaemia after falling from a window at their home in Portland Place West, suffering a compound fracture of the leg and its subsequent amputation. At the inquest, Basil Nightingale gave evidence that the accident happened as Stella, having heard her mother call her from the garden, ran upstairs, across a 20 foot landing, and hurtled across her bedroom, falling headlong over the low-silled open window on to the gravel path 32 feet below.
Six of the Nightingales’ seven daughters survived to adulthood. Dorothy, the eldest married and settled in the south of England; Agnes Augusta, their second daughter, having sailed to the United States on a lecture tour in aid of the Red Cross about her famous great aunt and her role in the Crimean War, met and married a Lieutenant in the US Navy in 1917; Florence married in Australia, also in 1917; Kitty, the youngest, married at the Parish Church in Leamington in 1928, and Bertha, known as Billie, in Banbury in 1932, where the Nightingales had settled after leaving Leamington. Both Nightingales eventually died in Banbury in the same year, Basil in January and Ellen Augusta in November 1940.
Basil Nightingale’s work was undoubtedly popular during his lifetime: a number of his sketches and paintings appeared regularly in the local press in sales of effects, including those of his fellow artists. He had access to reproduction facilities which allowed him to sell prints of his work, though it is not known how many of them survive. He was admired and endorsed by His Majesty King Edward VII and collected by the hunting fraternity. At Lowther Castle, ancestral home of ‘The Yelow Earl’ there was an entire gallery, the ‘Nightingale Room’, lined with oils, watercolours and sketches. As late as 1949 there were still advertisements in the press by galleries anxious to acquire Nightingale’s works. Like many artists before and since, his paintings post mortem often fetch thousands, fetch far in excess of anything Nightingale could ever have imagined. His paintings of horses, hounds, otters and foxes, although collectable during his lifetime, now fetch sums at auction which are a lasting testament to his skill and finesse as an artist.
Sources: Preliminary research by Richard King; Leamington Spa Courier Online Archive; Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum; Spennell’s Directories of Leamington and Warwick