Abraham Pether
Abraham Pether was a landscape artist specialising in moonlight scenery. Born in Chichester, most of his working life was spent in London. He moved with his family to Southampton in c.1805. At least two children were born to Abraham and his wife Elizabeth in the town: Helen (born 6 March 1805 or 1806; christened at All Saints Church 31 May 1812) and Philip (born 6 February 1808; christened at All Saints 31 May 1812). Helen Pether was later to marry Thomas Henry Skelton, lithographer, printer and sometime collaborator with her brother Henry. A lingering disease confined Abraham "under the most calamitous sufferings" for the last three years of his life (The Examiner, 26 April 1812). He died destitute, aged 56 years, on 13 April 1812 leaving a widow and nine children. He was buried at All Saints on 19 April 1812. The Artists' Benevolent Fund controversially refused any assistance (Oxford dictionary of national biography). His last exhibits at the Royal Academy - where he exhibited 61 times between 1784 and 1811 - were of local scenes: 'A view in Hampshire - moonlight' (1810), 'View near Northam - summer evening sunset' (1810) and 'A moonlight scene in Hampshire' (1811).
Abraham Pether is best known as a landscape painter specializing in the effects of fire and moonlight. "The peculiar softness of his distances, and the brilliance of his afternoon scenes, conferred on him the appellation of the British Claude" (The Examiner, 26 April 1812). Thirty two oil paintings by (or attributed to) Abraham Pether are illustrated on the BBC Your Paintings website. These include 'God's House Tower by moonlight', held by Hampshire County Council Museum Service. But he was in reality a polymath. To quote again from the obituary in The Examiner, "Few men ever attempted, and at the same time, attained perfection in so many branches of science". He experimented in electricity and astronomy. He constructed microscopes and telescopes. A sale of optical instruments in 1816 included "the celebrated telescope by Pether" (Morning Post, 2 May 1816). He invented a type of pencil which his widow marketed after her husband's death. Trading as Pether & Co, of 35 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, Elizabeth and her commercial partner Thomas Thornton advertised black lead and chalk pencils, "the leads being freed by a chemical process from all impurities, and scratching particles". The partnership dissolved in March 1819. Elizabeth subsequently sought new partners through the influence of the Royal Academician Joseph Farington (National Portrait Gallery, British artists' suppliers, 1650-1950: online). Abraham was also a musical prodigy, playing the organ at Chichester Cathedral at 9 years old.

Pether, Henry
Henry Pether was the second youngest son of Abraham and Elizabeth Pether. Born in Chelsea on 15 March 1800, he moved with the family to Southampton in c.1805. He was christened - seven weeks after his father's death - at All Saints Church on 31 May 1812. He became an artist, specialising like his father and elder brother Sebastian in moonlight scenes. He exhibited a view of Calshot Castle by moonlight at low water at the Royal Academy in 1828. He collaborated with his brother-in-law Thomas Henry Skelton in a series of lithographs of the town in 1830. He lived at 29 Beach View before moving to Greenwich in the early/mid 1830s. His sister Eliza continued to live in Southampton with another of his sisters - Helen, wife of T H Skelton - until the 1860s.
Henry Pether had a remarkably varied life. In 1836 he was surveyor and engineer to the abortive London and Portsmouth Railway which offered a direct line between the capital and Portsmouth docks. Sydney Smirke was named in the first prospectus as his colleague. In January 1837 Pether was a prisoner in the London and Middlesex debtors prison in the City of London, facing trial in the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors. In April 1839 he was granted a patent, with Alfred Singer of the Vauxhall Pottery, for a machine which cut tiles out of thin layers of clay. These were used to create ornamental mosaic pavements, characterized by Grecian, Arabesque and Gothic patterns. Although produced for only a limited time at the Vauxhall Pottery, the tiles graced several important buildings, including Charles Barry's masterpiece the Reform Club (notably the much admired tessalated pavement in the entrance hall), the Royal Exchange and Blenheim House. A second patent, dated May 1867, was for a new method of producing ornamental bricks. Manufactured by the Burham Company of Aylesford, Kent out of local deposits of Gault clay, Pether's diaper bricks were pale buff moulded bricks capable of taking very sharp detail. They could be made to almost any design and were a cheap and durable means of decoration, particularly for spandrels and stringcourses. They were much favoured by William Butterfield, architect of the Gothic revivalist (eg St Augustine's Church, Kensington). Thomas Alfred Skelton - son of TH and Helen Skelton - used his uncle's bricks as decoration in his rebuilding of 153 High Street, Southampton for the pharmaceutical chemist Edwin Whitlock in 1871. And throughout this turbulent life Henry Pether continued as a landscape painter. The BBC Your Paintings website has 40 oil paintings by (or attributed to) Henry Pether. These include 'Southampton Town Quay at sunset' and 'Town Quay by moonlight', both in Southampton City Museums. His 'Venice by moonlight' is in Southampton Art Gallery.
Henry Pether died, at Stockwell Green, Lambeth on 20 February 1880, a few days shy of his 80th birthday.

Pether, Sebastian
Sebastian William Thomas Pether was born in 1790, son of Abraham and Elizabeth Pether. He was christened at Luke's Church, Chelsea in August 1794. He moved with his family to Southampton in c.1805. He followed in the family tradition of landscape painting. Two local oil paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy: 'View near Lymington in the New Forest' (1812) and 'View in the New Forest' (1817). A view of Southampton as seen from the Itchen ferry, dated 1819, is regarded as a fine example of his moonlight work. He died at Battersea Fields in March 1844, aged 54 years. It was a life notable for little except misfortune. Married "too young and too poor", he "soon fell into the hands of those harpies - the dealers". His works always found a ready sale during his life "yet the low prices given by traders proved too small for the wants of so numerous a family; and he passed a life, short, indeed, but full of the most painful privations that any man ever endured" (obituary in Gentleman's Magazine July 1844, abridged from the journal of the Art Union). Poverty was to haunt the family even after death. Public appeals in 1870 and 1876 saved an unmarried daughter - one of 15 children - from utter destitution after illness and failing eyesight prevented her from supporting her aged mother and invalid sister by needlework.

1.God’s House Tower by Moonlight

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Oil painting by Henry Pether, c.1830

2. The Assembly Rooms

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Drawn by Henry Pether, engraved by T. H. Skelton, c.1830

see also

Further reading:
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Volume 43 (for Abraham, Sebastian and William Pether)


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