Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener 1899 pastel by Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall NPG 1780 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall (1865-1942) was a British portrait artist, best known for his portrait of Earl Kitchener which can be found, along with other examples by the artist, in the National Portrait Gallery in London. According to a news report in 1926, Horsfall had been asked to act as an interpreter for Heinrich von Angeli, an artist famous for his portraits of Queen Victoria, in his commission to paint Kitchener in 1899. Horsfall agreed to help him on the condition that he could also paint the Earl. 

Charles’ father was a Yorkshireman who had married into the famous Mendelsshohn family making Germany their second home. Charles was close to his British and German roots and exhibited in academic institutions in both countries. He was living in Berlin when the First World War broke out. He was arrested because of his British heritage and imprisoned in the Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin. It could have been a terrifying experience, but it was made bearable by joining a “distinguished group of artists and scholars who established an informal college with courses in art, science, languages and political science”, there were also several musicians offering concerts and even a dramatic society. Horsfall put his artistic talents to good use and sketched portraits of around 350 prisoners which were allowed to be posted home to their families. Asked in an interview on the occasion of an exhibition of his portraits at Millais House, Westminster in 1926 whether the German authorities were upset about his artistic activities, he responded “Good gracious no, they would have given us anything from a pencil to a grand piano.”

After the war Horsfall returned to England and did not visit Germany again. He settled in Chelsea living periodically with his German wife Helen and two nieces. A newspaper interview from the Westminster Gazette in 1926 described his studio as “famous for its rare curios and choice of artworks, and still more for his hospitality. In this he was seconded by his nieces, two highly intellectual women who were active in helping the London polytechnic and other good causes. The studio and polytechnic disappeared in the bombing of London”. Recalling Horsfall the report also stated that “he liked to smoke and talk clad in a woollen dressing gown which was woven and made in one of the family mills a century ago.” Some of his sitters were well known, but he was also known to go down to the Fulham Road workhouse and persuade men and women to sit for him.

Anonymous newspaper cutting of a spirit painting by Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall Circa 1919

What is strange is that at this time Horsfall, in addition to painting and sketching traditional portraits, was creating large psychic paintings of a symbolic and often abstract nature. He felt inspired to create large spirals and swirls filling large canvases with no preconceived idea of what would be produced. Horsfall described them as being created automatically under the control of an Egyptian priest. 

The result must have been shocking for the artist’s circle of friends and family who believed it must be a reaction to his war experience. It wasn’t unusual at this time to find solace and refuge under the umbrella of spiritualism. Although, the motive is not certain what is clear is that Horsfall took his new spiritualistic direction seriously. Soon after it had begun in 1919 he was showing the work and giving explanations at spiritual societies who were naturally a captive audience. At least three exhibitions took place between January – April in 1920 including at the London Spiritualist Alliance in which he gave a lecture explaining the work on February 12th followed by another at the newly formed British College of Psychic Science.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in both of these institutions and may have been instrumental in introducing Horsfall to them. Doyle, whose father was an artist, had grown up with a passion for art and came across Horsfall’s work in 1919. He invited him to stay at his home in Windlesham in January 1920, and while there Horsfall painted Doyle’s portrait in a traditional manner. Sadly, the whereabouts of this artwork remains unknown. 

How long this spiritual inspiration remained with Horsfall has not been recorded and no painting of this remarkable series has come to light. It is likely they were destroyed when his studio had been bombed during World War II. Horsfall moved to the nearby Norfolk Hotel on Harrington Road, South Kensington and died there on 29th May 1942. An obituary appeared in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury on Wednesday 3rd March 1943 with the heading A Notable Horsfall, but didn’t mention his spirit drawings. 

Text © Vivienne Roberts/mediumisticart.com

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