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 Ernest Townsend  (1880 - 1944)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: portrait painting

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Portrait of Doris Campbell, half-length, in a white dress and hat with feathers
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Ernest Townsend (1 January 1880 – 22 January 1944) was a portrait artist from Derby in England.  He studied at Derby College of Art, Heatherleys in Chelsea and the Royal Academy of London*. Among his notable works were a 1915 portrait of the Right Hon. Winston Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. This picture now hangs in the National Liberal Club in London.

Townsend was commissioned to create a design for the roofs of the Rolls-Royce aircraft engine factories in Derby so that they would appear to German bombers to be no more than a village.

Ernest Townsend was born in Parliament Street in Derby, the youngest of James Townsend's five children. His father was a coach builder with Holmes of Derby (later Sanderson & Holmes). Coach building had been the Townsend profession practiced for at least three generations. James' father, William, had moved to Derby from Bitton in Gloucestershire in the late 1850s. However by the age of eight, Townsend's caregiver was his elder sister.

His early education was at Abbey Street School and at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of architects, Wright and Thorpe (later known as T.H. Thorpe Associates), practicing at 23 St James St, Derby. Thomas Harrison Thorpe, the junior partner, recognized Townsend's artistic ability immediately and a lifelong friendship developed between them.

Townsend's early promise was justified and eventually he left architecture altogether and embarked on a full-time course at the Heatherly School of Fine Art in London. He then moved to a five-year course at the Royal Academy Schools. He was enrolled as a student in the School of Painting at the Royal Academy from the 28th January until January 1907. Amongst his tutors at the Academy Schools were John Singer Sargent and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

In 1904 he won the Royal Academy's Landseer Scholarship* for figure painting and in 1905 he won the Academy's Creswick prize for 'Willows and Weeds', a painting donated by his family after his death to the Derby Art Gallery.

In 1907, he left London. After some time in Paris and the Netherlands, he returned to Derby, where he had a studio in Full Street, living in nearby Coxbench. In 1912, Townsend, like his friends, Alfred Munnings and Laura Knight, represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games in Stockholm by entering a painting in the Olympic Art exhibition.

At the age of 25, Townsend was commissioned to paint his former headmaster at the School of Art, T.C. Simmonds. This painting was later accepted by the Royal Academy for its 1910 Summer Exhibition. Perhaps it was this success that led to another commission from the Town for a portrait of the Libraries Museum and Art Gallery Director, William Crowther, upon his retirement in 1911. Many more "official" commissions were to come from the Town for the remainder of Townsend's life; a succession of mayoral portraits can be seen in the Council chamber today.

Townsend's 1915 portrait of the Right Hon. Winston Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty was commissioned anonymously. This picture now hangs in the National Liberal Club in London, but it was not hung until 1944. Churchill had been unavailable to unveil it in 1915, and when he was available, he was no longer popular in the Liberal Club. The portrait was mothballed and retrieved for public viewing only following Churchill's success in 1944, when he was belatedly asked to unveil it.

When Townsend died in 1944, some said it was due to overwork. He had been busy during the war creating designs that could be used to camouflage Rolls-Royce's aircraft engine factories in Derby. These factories built the Merlin engines that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. Using his skills, he made the factory appear from the air to be no more than a village.

In 1944 Derby Art Gallery put on a memorial exhibition in his honour. Derby Art Gallery still houses a large collection of his work, although not on permanent display. There is a permanent display of reproductions of many of his works in the Standing Order public house in Derby.


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