Biography and illustrations from Caparn Family collection of Oliver
Chamberlain, Jr., great-grandson of Thomas John Caparn. 6/2006:
Thomas John Caparn
artist, horticulturist, businessman
John Caparn was born at Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire, England, on
January 10, 1834. His father, William Horner Caparn (1804-1872),
was a nurseryman and seedsman, owning a large nursery there; he was
from a prominent family, several ancestors having included mayors of
Like his father, by 1854 Thomas John Caparn had set up
a nursery in Newark on Trent, and by 1869 was furnishing plans for
gardens and staff to install them. He won major awards at English
Midlands flower shows and was often a judge at such shows. He won
first prize for a landscape design in the London International
Exhibition. After his father’s death in 1872, Thomas John
combined the nurseries, which then became one of the largest such
enterprises in the Midlands.
Caparn was appointed Actuary of the
Savings Bank in Farndon, Nottinghamshire, in 1871. Two years
later he opened a business in Newark as “Professional Accountant,
Estate Agent and Trustee in Bankruptcy.” In 1876 he opened
another such office in Farndon and after that another in Newark.
John showed artistic ability by his teens, sketching people, plants,
animals and natural scenes. Later he became proficient in
watercolors and oils, entering paintings in local and regional shows
and offering works for sale. As recently as 2005, a painting of
his was offered at auction in Boca Rotan, Florida.
appears to have been self-taught, by the method not uncommon at the
time, of studying the works of other painters. Works exist
showing that he did paintings after Pyne and Ramsbotham. He
thought enough of the well-known artist George Morland to track two of
that artist’s watercolors over a period of years in order to acquire
Caparn married Ann Elizabeth Price (May 12, 1830–October
12, 1912) of Oundle on August 12, 1863. Together they had five
children, several of whom continued interest in nature and art: Harold
ap Rhys, Margaret Jane, Arthur Tom, Annie Smith and Ethel Rose
In 1884 he left England and settled in Short Hills,
New Jersey, where he established a nursery, and in partnership with his
son Arthur Tom, offered landscape designs in isometric proportion and
the implementation of such designs. At the same time, in the next
town of Millburn, he offered lessons in drawing and painting as a
landscape and marine artist. His obituary states that he
continued painting right up until the time of his death on August 23,
1925, at Summit, New Jersey, aged 91. Caparn’s principal subjects were
paintings of flowers, seascapes and landscapes especially including
fine views of a variety of trees.
As a teacher, he was a
mentor to his nephew, William John Caparne (1855-1940), in both
horticulture and art. It is thought that William John added the
“e” to the end of his name in order to differentiate himself from his
uncle. William John became widely known for propagating varieties
of iris; a medal given anually by the American Iris Society was named
after him. He spent a brief time in France at the invitation of
Claude Monet, painting with him and giving him iris for his garden.
William John’s paintings, in watercolor and gauche, appear in auctions
in the United States and the UK; he was honored in 2005 by the island
of Guernsey, where he lived, with a set of six stamps using his
paintings of flowers on their face.
Thomas John’s older son,
Harold, opened an office as a landscape architect in New York City in
1902; from 1912 until his death in 1945 he was the consulting landscape
architect of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In 1912 he was
president of the American Society of Landscape Architects and lectured
at Columbia University. He was married to Clara Howard (Jones)
Royall, a musician and teacher of singing in New York City; their
children were Anne Howard Caparn, a writer, and Rhys Caparn, an artist
in drawing and sculpture.
Sketchbook, with a sketch signed and dated 1853; Thomas John was age nineteen.
A. Fenner, 2 vols on the life and works of William John Caparne
(Tavistock: Stannery Gallery, 1994 and 1998); both volumes include
information on Thomas John Caparn.
Millburn newspaper, The Item, 1886, advertisements by Thomas John Caparn; 1925 issue, his obituary.