PICTURES from a sketchbook of work by the artist Ernest R Fox, which turned up in a charity shop, are now on display at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.
The small sketchbook and three watercolour pictures were donated to a charity shop in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where a sharp-eyed member of staff made out the words “Ernest R. Fox, Tower House, Dudley, Worcs”, handwritten on the coverpiece.
The volunteer, Lucinda Curtis, then got in touch with Dudley Museum to see if they would like the book.
The small sketchbook contains a series of watercolour paintings, and although most of them aren’t titled the views of the borough are strikingly clear.
The museum already has two small oil paintings of Dudley town by Fox in its collection, however these new pieces provide more information about both Fox the artist and Dudley the town. The pictures in the sketchbook are dated between 1880 and 1884 and give his Dudley address, something not known before, as he was believed to be based in Cornwall and later Devon.
Fox was active between 1880 and the start of the First World War. Most of his output is related to Kent and Cornwall, so to have discovered this collection of paintings of Dudley is quite a coup.
Fox has an impressionistic style, and was fond of landscapes and skyscapes. The view of Dudley Top Church appears to have been a particular favourite of his, appearing several times in the book.
Because the pictures are contained back-to-back in a sketch book, it is impossible to show them individually, as taking the book apart would destroy the paintings. So the museum has photographed the pages and is showing them as enlarged photographic prints which allow viewers to appreciate the detail contained in this diary size book.
Remarkably little is known about Ernest R Fox, there is even doubt about his date of birth, sometime between 1860 and 1862.
He was born in Dorchester, Dorset, and little is known of him until he appears to have been boarding at 25 Fore Street, Marazion, Cornwall, when the 1891 Census was taken. However, as a result of the newly discovered sketchbook, we now know that he was living at Tower House, Dudley, certainly between 1880 and 1884 and he would have been around 18 or 20 years old at this time.
The vast majority of the works in the sketchbook concentrate upon skyscapes and a good number of these are either dawns or sunsets over Dudley.
The sketchbook includes two detailed panoramas of Dudley. A view of Dudley from the Wrens Nest is a fascinating record of the town in 1880 but duplicates other pictures in the museum’s collection.
There is a second local view, painted from Castle Hill, in the vicinity of Castle Mill Basin, looking towards Tipton, and this view is unique in the collection. It is a wonderful piece of social history as it shows how the area now occupied by the Black Country Living Museum would have appeared in 1880.
By 1890 Fox had moved to Cornwall, because he exhibited at the Dowdeswell show with the West Cornwall Artists in that year. His works included the titles “St Michael’s Mount – Hazy Weather” and “A Cornish Lane”.
In 1894 Fox seems to have moved on, living at an address in Dover, which remained the same until 1910, when he moved to Canterbury.
He was still influenced by his time in Cornwall and exhibited “St Michael’s Mount” in the Royal Academy that year. By 1917 he was living in Hythe, Kent.
While he was living in Dover he painted two oil paintings, views of Dudley, which are in the museum’s collection. It is not known if he returned to the area to paint them or if they were done from sketches.
One of the watercolours which were included in the recent gift to the museum is “Rochester Bridge”, which could have been painted when he was in Canterbury.
We do not know when Fox died; he appears to have stopped working in 1917, when he would have been between 55 and 57 years of age, but it’s not known if he died in that year.
The exhibition runs until 9th March. The museum on St James’ Road, Dudley, is open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday, and admission is free.