Charles Doyle (1832-1893) Charles Doyle was one of the most distinctive fairy painters of the Victorian period, at turns high-spirited, sharp-witted, disturbing and melancholy. However, he was little known in his lifetime, at first overshadowed by his brothers, and later confined to a series of psychiatric hospitals.
Charles Doyle was born in London on 25 March 1832, into a Roman Catholic family of Irish extraction. He was coached as an artist by his father, the political caricaturist, John Doyle (‘HB’), and so followed in the footsteps of his elder brothers: James (1822-1892), Henry (1827-1892) and – especially – Richard (1824- 1883). Yet, in 1849, his father advised that he abandon his artistic ambitions and take a job in Edinburgh, as assistant to Robert Matheson, the architect of the Scottish Office of Works. From December 1853, he also studied at the Trustees’ Academy, as a result of Matheson’s recommendation.
His architectural projects included the figures for Matheson’s fountain for the forecourt of Holyrood Palace (1859). In 1855, he had married Mary Foley, daughter of the first of his Edinburgh landladies. They would raise seven children together, their third child and eldest son being Arthur Conan Doyle.
During his spare time, Doyle continued to produce distinctive paintings and illustrations, but gained no reputation from them, despite the sympathetic advice of his successful brother, Dicky. As a result, he felt increasingly inadequate, and soon moved from ineffectual charm to exhaustion and alcoholism.
Losing his job in June 1876, he was sent to Fordoun House, a nursing home in Kincardineshire specialising in the treatment of alcoholics. The pathologist, Bryan Charles Waller – who was lodging with the Doyles – may have been instrumental in this confinement; Waller certainly became very close to the family, taking them with him when he moved and inviting Mary Foley Doyle to reside in a cottage on the Waller estate in Yorkshire, which she did for over 30 years from 1882. Meanwhile, Doyle’s condition deteriorated rapidly, as he developed delirium tremens, epilepsy and bouts of depression. Following an attempt to break out of Fordoun House in May 1885, he was moved south to Sunnyside Royal Hospital, Forfarshire, where he remained for seven years. In 1892, he was transferred to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and, in May of the same year, to Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries, dying there on 10 October 1893.
Throughout his years of incarceration, Doyle had continued to produce work, including illustrations for publication. However, it was the unpublished drawings that best revealed his states of mind. His fairy subjects seem to represent the hospitalised communities in which he lived, parallel to mainstream society but distinct from it, and with their own freedoms as well as demands.
His later projects included the illustrations to A Study in Scarlet – the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, written by his son, Arthur Conan Doyle – for its first appearance in hard covers in 1888. Conan Doyle had drawn on aspects of his father’s appearance and character in creating his famous detective, and would be influenced by his imagination in writing The Coming of the Fairies (1921). He also organised an ‘Exhibition of Drawings and Studies by the late Charles Doyle’ at the Brook Street Galleries in 1924. On seeing the exhibition, ‘George Bernard Shaw thought the paintings deserved a room to themselves in any national gallery’ (Baker 1978, page xv). Yet it took another six decades before he began to be properly appreciated.
His work is represented in the collections of the V&A; and The Huntington Library (San Marino, CA).
Further reading: Michael Baker, The Doyle Diary, London: Paddington Press, 1978 (a facsimile of Charles Doyle’s sketchbook for 1889); Rodney Engen, Michael Heseltine and Lionel Lambourne, Richard Doyle and his Family, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983; Daniel Stashower, Teller of Tales. The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, London: Penguin Books, 1999; Robert R Wark, Charles Doyle’s Fairyland, San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1980