Born in Birkenhead on 18th January 1861, Talbot Kelly was a landscape painter of mainly Eastern subjects. The son of the Dublin born landscape artist Robert George Kelly he grew up in a large family with three brothers and seven sisters. In 1876 he left school to work at a Liverpool firm of cotton brokers. Meanwhile his parents encouraged him to develop his talents for painting and music and he soon began studying art under his father, sharing his Liverpool studio and exhibiting under the name Robert George Kelly, Jnr. In the early 1880s his employers sent him on a cruise to recuperate from a period of overwork. This marked a turning point in his career – the sight of foreign lands filled him with a desire to travel and paint and in 1882 he resigned from his job and embarked on his new career in painting. To avoid confusion with his father’s work, he adopted an old family name of Talbot and henceforth became known as Talbot Kelly.
His early travels concentrated on North Africa – Morocco, Egypt, and probably Algeria. He debuted at the Royal Academy with A Morocco Landscape in 1888. Two years later he showed an Egyptian scene entitled The House of Prayer. Although the whole region interested him it was Egypt that particularly fired his imagination and which was to become his adopted home until the First World War – he established a studio in Cairo and became fluent in Arabic. He was very interested in the Bedouin way of life and often spent time with them. He evidently had much sympathy and respect for them and they, equally, seem to have respected Talbot Kelly, for he often wrote of the generosity and kindess they displayed towards him, for example how they would bring him something to drink while he was painting, and shared their meals with him. His paintings from this period, almost all watercolours, were exercises in patient observation and immaculate control. He depicted scenes from everyday life but in a distinct style that caught the reverberation of light and the incredible clearness of the atmosphere.
Talbot Kelly endured harsh conditions in order to obtain the true colours of the desert – blinding light, oppressive heat, sandstorms and flies. He would continually dampen his paper until it was saturated before applying a single coat of paint. In spite of all his difficulties, however, his desert views are amongst the most interesting of his work. An excellent watercolourist, he achieved beautiful atmospheric effects by subtly blending delicate tints of pink, yellow, pale blue and violet. His style and colouring clearly influenced another Englishartist, Augustus Osborne Lamplough.
Amongst Talbot Kelly’s favourite themes are camel riders travelling through rocky terrains, Bedouins marching in the oppressive heat and light of the desert, and dhows on the Nile. Following his election as a full member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1892, Talbot Kelly had become highly regarded and his works commanded high prices. However, he sought to supplement his income by book illustration. In 1902 he published his first book entitled Egypt, Painted and Described which which was illustrated with his own watercolours, as was his second book, Burma which was published in 1905 following a request from the Burmese Government for him to visit their country. He also wrote for newspapers, including three articles for New York’s The Century Magazine in 1897 and 1898 in which he described his time in Egypt and his various adventures there.
He was a member of several societies including The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours (1908), The Royal British Colonial Society of Artists (1910), The Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal British Academy. Most of Talbot Kelly’s career was concentrated on Egypt, apart from trips to the Italian lakes and towards the end of his life, Europe – particularly France. At the height of his career he was receiving regular commissions from various dignitaries and members of the aristocracy who visited his studio in Cairo as part of their tour of Egypt.
His reputation was further enhanced when his London studio was visited by Queen Mary and other members of the Royal Family.After the First World War he was unable to return to Egypt on account of ill health, but he continued to work and exhibit until his death on 30th December 1934 in London.Talbot Kelly’s work was greatly appreciated in England, exhibiting at the principal London galleries from 1885 – the Leicester Gallery and the Fine Arts Society held regular one-man shows of his work. In addition he exhibited six works at The Royal Academy from 1888 to 1901, including a view of the Pyramids, twelve works at Suffolk Street and many others in London and the provinces.
He is also represented in several public collections at home and abroad. Most of his pictures are signed ‘R.Talbot Kelly’ though some carry an RTK monogram with a reversed R.
Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead (On the Nile, 1903; A Nile Village, 1911)Glasgow Museum (Au Pays Desert et Sans Eau)Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (The Flight of the Khalifa after his Defeat at the Battle of Omdurman)
Benezit, Vol VI (1976), p190 ‘Dictionary of British Artists Working 1900-1950’ by Grant M Waters (Eastbourne Fine Art, England, 1975), p187 ‘Dictionary of British Book Illustrators’ by S Houfe (1978), p358 ‘Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists’ by H Mallalieu (1976), p151 ‘Dictionary of British Artists 1880 – 1940′ by Johnson & Greutzner, p286 Who’s Who (1926)Connoisseur LXIX, p183’Dictionary of Victorian Painters’ by C Wood (1978), p263 ‘Les Orientalistes de l’Ecole Britannique’ by Gerald M Ackerman (ACR Edition, Paris, 1991) pp138-143’Les Orientalistes Peintres Voyageurs 1828-1908′ by Lynne Thornton (ACR Edition, Paris, 2001) pp276-277‘Antique Dealer and Collectors Guide’ Sept/Oct 2004 pp25-27, article by John Ramm