“Dartmoor is a favourite subject with several present-day artists, who for the most part exhibit a good knowledge of the region. No-one who is not a stranger to it can look upon the pictures of Mr. Charles E. Brittan without being conscious that they breathe its spirit. They are distinguished by a charm of colour, while his effects of light and shade on cloud are wonderful”, William Crossing, 1966 p.123.
Charles Edward Brittan Junior was born in 1870, his father, Charles E. Brittan was an artist particularly noted for his pictures of animals. Naturally having such a father, Charles junior was taught his skills at an early age where he was known to also have specialised in animal pictures. As the years progress he moved on to portray the various landscapes of Dartmoor painting in both oils and watercolours although it was his watercolours that he is best known for. Charles Brittan also painted in other landscapes such as Cornwall, Exmoor and Scotland, some of his Scottish works were even purchased by Queen Mary. In later years he was commissioned to illustrate various books which included the Reverend Hugh Breton’s guidebooks – Beautiful Dartmoor and Sabine Baring Gould’s book on Sheepstor. It was in the early 1900s when Brittan was living in Burrator House at Sheepstor, here he came to know Hugh Breton which explains why he illustrated the covers of his books. One might just get the impression that the famous Dartmoor topographical writer, Eric Hemery was none to keen on his work when he notes:
“… when Hugh Breton became Vicar of Sheepstor in th early years of this century, it (Burrator House) was occupied by C. E. Brittan, the artist. Thus it was that Brittan’s charming though somewhat exaggerated, impressions of the Moor form the cover illustrations of Breton’s Beautiful Dartmoor series“, 1983, p.178
He and C. E. Brock illustrated a 1911 edition of Lorna Doone and today copies of this book will fetch around £30. Several years later Brittan produced 12 illustrations for Alfred Vowles’s book, The Lorna Doone Country, again first editions of this book will go for about £30.
Over his career, Charles Brittan developed a particular style of portraying the Dartmoor landscape. Initially his foregrounds always included a trackway of some descript but then changed to show rocks and boulders all of which sport some kind of moss or lichen. It is seldom that human figures are ever shown but in various studies cattle, sheep and ponies are depicted. Brian le Messurier, 2002, pp 52 – 3, considers that as Brittan matured he style changed from one of melodrama to that of impressionistic which echoes Hemery’s words. His works were always signed, “Charles E. Brittan”, as opposed to his father’s signatures of C. E. Brittan or simply CEB. Throughout his career Brittan held several major exhibitions, in 1913 he displayed his works under the title of Arran and the Western Isles in the Bond Street gallery of Arthur Ackerman and Son. In May 1914 he again exhibited in Ackerman’s gallery this time displaying his Dartmoor and Exmoor works as well, it was here, as the Times newspaper reported, that the Queen and Princess Mary viewed his works. The Royals must have had a liking for Brittan’s work because they revisited the gallery in 1921 and 1923. In 1933 the Graves Gallery in Sloane Square was exhibiting a work of Brittan’s which depicted the Hecklake on Dartmoor and this particular picture was rated in the top ten of 104 painting in the exhibition. Some of his works were reproduced in postcard format
Charles E. Brittan died on Sunday the 18th of December 1949 and the Times newspaper ran the following obituary;
“Mr, Charles E. Brittan, the well-known Devon artist from whom Queen Mary and the Duke of Windsor purchased pictures of Dartmoor scenery, died at Tavistock on Sunday aged 79. Mr Brittan who was self-taught, exhibited in the Royal Gallery, and had painted over 3,000 pictures. In recent years he had painted Perthshire landscapes in addition to those of his beloved Devon. He leaves a widow, son and daughter“.
A much less formal obituary appeared in the Western Morning News and the following extract shows how much he was admired in his native Devon:
“Brittan was a painter in a class of himself. His works showed a knowledge of Dartmoor flowers and ferns, granite and atmosphere that could be attained by years of intimate study of the moor, his delineation of which has never been excelled… His were not the overdone purple hues, but the delicate, subdued and softer tints that held one’s admiration by their charm beauty and fidelity. He has made Dartmoor live, and Devon has lost a great artist“, Le Messurier, p. 53.
With such a prolific artist there is very little chance of seeing all his Dartmoor works, especially as some of them are probably hanging somewhere in Buckingham Palace. But there is a small selection of his works shown in the left hand column of this page. Out of all of his paintings that I have seen I think my favourite is the picture below of Feather Tor.
For me, Brittan has captured the intricate hues of the granite rock along with its accompanying mosses and lichens. This portrayal of the landscape could easily be that which is seen through a window, it is so life-like that you can almost smell the heather. A very, very close second would be his work of the high moor gateway which is shown in illustration 7, again it exudes the very air of Dartmoor.
Whilst researching this page I was amazed at the lack of information on Charles E. Brittan and although this is but a very scant coverage of what I could find I hope it redresses the balance in some way and celebrates the work of this great artist.
I have recieved the following email from a lady who lives in Tasmania and gives some more information on Charles Brittan:
‘I discovered your website quite by chance when looking for something on the above painter. You say that there is very little that you could find on him and I have a bit more than was on the site. My parents/grandparents ran a general store at Bridge Cottage Lifton in 1930’s. One of their customerswas the Brittan family. At that time the family was living at Stowford a short distance from Lifton. The home was in a large garden some cultivated and part au natural with a stream running through it. My father did their grocery deliveries and I often accompanied him. My parents were married in 1928 and Charles painted a picture for their wedding gift. It has never to my knowledge been catalogued, it depicts the aforesaid stream running below a bank covered with bluebells around a centre feature being hawthorn tree in full bloom. When visiting Plymouth in 1987 I bought in a gallery on the Barbican another picture similar to no 7 in your listing for which I paid £197. I well remember the family as when we moved into Tavistock we lived not very far away from them in Glanville road and we used to save stamps for Miss Mary to packet up for charity. The son was for some time our family dentist. whose practise was in Church lane Tavistock.’ – many thanks Thelma for this information.
Crossing, W. 1966 Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, Hale Publishing, London.
Le Messurier, B. 2002 Dartmoor Artists, Halsgrove, Tiverton.