The Barkers

John Wright Barker and his daughter Kathleen lived for many years at 16 Duchy Road, on the Duchy estate, Harrogate. Both were artists and Kathleen also wrote and illustrated children’s books. Although largely forgotten now, even in the town they made home, their lives and work are of interest.

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John Wright Barker was born in Bradford in 1863 in the Great Horton district of the town. His father, Benjamin, was a weaving overlooker, and his mother Lydia had also been a weaver. Their son too entered the textile trade and in the 1881 census, when the family were living in Falcon Street off Great Horton Road, he is described as ‘engaged in a weft room’. It is not known when he learned to paint or what attracted him to it. The family home was within walking distance of the Bradford Art School and it is possible he attended classes there. In a newspaper notice after his death, it was also stated that he had studied at the Académie Julian, a private art school in Paris. Nor is it known why he left Bradford, but by 1891 his occupation is given as artist and he is lodging in a house in Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire, between Mansfield and Ollerton. In that year he exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy, In Forest’s Depths Unseen, where he was to show regularly until the 1930s. In 1892 he married Ellen Mary Alcock, the daughter of a farmer of nearly 500 acres at Prior’s Park Farm, Tuxford.

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Image 1 : Wright Barker, Crossing the Ford (Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate)
Image 2 : Wright Barker, Circe (Cartwright Hall Gallery, Bradford)
Image 3 : Wright Barker, portrait of Frank Renaud, (Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS foundation Trust)

He enjoyed success as a painter of landscapes, rural genre scenes of animals and hunting, portraits and some mythological stories. [Illustration1] The most notable of these was Circe, which he gifted to Bradford in 1902 and where it still hangs in the city’s Cartwright Hall Gallery. [2] His animal paintings were particularly popular with the general public. But he also did portraits, including of the Duke and Duchess of Portland and even went to Poland to paint Count Potocki. Another rather fine portrait, of Dr Frank Renaud, a consultant physician at Manchester Royal Infirmary, is still at the hospital. [3] He was sufficiently well known to receive a commission to paint Edward VII’s favourite dog, a fox terrier called Caesar, when the King visited Rufford Abbey in 1905. He was a member from 1896 of the Royal Society of British Artists and, in addition to the RA, exhibited at the Royal Society artists’ shows, and those of the Royal Scottish Academy and the Yorkshire Union of Artists.

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Image 4 : 16 Duchy Road today (Photo Frank Jennings)

Having earlier moved to Hampstead, the family, possibly on account of the First World War, moved to Harrogate in about 1914 or ’15, to Thorn Lea, 16 Duchy Road. It is said that he worked as a picture dealer but he continued to paint and in contemporary directories he is listed simply as ‘artist’. [4]

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Image 5 : Kathleen Barker, The January Tortoise, signed by the author
Image 6 : Kathleen Barker, The Wood By the Water
Image 7 : Kathleen Barker, There Are Tigers About

Kathleen Francis was the third of their four children, born on 2 January 1901 at their home, The Beeches, in Willow Road, Ollerton. By 1911 the family was sufficiently prosperous to employ a live-in governess, in addition to servants. As with her father, nothing has survived to enable me to comment on her early life and personality but she followed him as an artist and from the 1930s as a children’s book author and illustrator. Beginning in 1933 with Just Dogs: Sketches in Pen and Pencil and Bellman: The Story of a Beagle, she published some twenty works down to 1961. Examples include The January Tortoise, The Wood By the Water and There are Tigers About from the 1950s. [5,6,7] Although charming in their way, they have not stood the test of time to retain the appeal to children of the better-known Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, for example, or those of Enid Blyton. Chiefly, one might suggest, because the writing is not as good.

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Image 8 : Kathleen Barker, Bulldog, the Gamest Fighter of All Time
Image 9 : Kathleen Barker, Catch
Image 10 : Kathleen Barker, And with one determined leap cleared both dyke and ...
Image 11 : Kathleen Barker, Rough otter hounds

Her animal illustrations, particularly of dogs, were also very popular, like Bulldog, the Gamest Fighter of all Time and many others, which still sell. Her illustrations were featured in The Field Tailwagger and the Yorkshire Evening Post. [8,9,10,11] Her love of dogs does not seem, however, to have extended to wildlife more generally, as her favourite pastimes were said to be, along with riding, beagling and otter hunting. Indeed, she published a book in 1939 for children titled The Young Entry: Fox-hunting, beagling, and otter-hunting for beginners.

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Her father died in 1941 and her mother in 1947. They are buried together in Stonefall Cemetery. Kathleen had never married and continued to live at the house on Duchy Road. In her later years, her neighbours were the McClea family. Their son Nigel saw her only occasionally but knew her to be a famous author whom he was told to treat with respect and not to kick balls into her garden. She was, he remembers, a ‘daunting and rather reclusive old lady’ but also ‘gruff but kind’ and she gave him three inscribed copies of her books

She died alone at her home on 1 April 1963. It was noticed that milk had not been collected and the door had to be broken down. This seems to have reflected not only that reclusiveness but also her by then relative obscurity, as there do not appear to have been obituaries, despite her prolific writing and illustrating career. She too is buried in Stonefall Cemetery. Soon after her death, number 16 was converted to two flats.

Of the two, her father is perhaps better known today, albeit as a rather conventional minor artist, as his work is represented in many public galleries, including the Mercer in Harrogate. The work of both artists features also in auction sales. But I hope this piece will stimulate renewed interest in their work.

Acknowledgements:

For Wright Barker, see the website on Bradford artists, Not Just Hockney: https://www.notjusthockney.info/barker-wright/

Thanks to Nigel McClea for his memory of Kathleen Barker.
Other sources are the census, Robinson’s Directories of Harrogate and District and the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer for 11 March 1941.

I was unable to find any photographs of them but if readers know of any or have any more information on the Barkers, or comments about their work, I would be delighted to hear from them.

Paul Jennings paul.jennings@cantab.net
April 2022