PastPresented

J. WHITTAKER, ARTIST, WIGTON
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John Whittaker is not listed among members of the Lake Artists Society (in the society's "Centenary Celebration" book by Jane Renouf), nor in "The Artists of Cumbria" by Marshall Hall or "Painters in the Northern Counties of England and Wales" by Dennis Child. However, paintings by Whittaker occasionally appear in adverts from art dealers and auctioneers (occasionally mislocating him to Wigtown on the Scottish shore of the Solway Firth).

In the 1911 Census, at 13 Water Street Wigton, a dwelling with only three rooms for occupation in a warren of slum housing just north-east of the junction with King Street, appears John Whittaker, self-employed artist painter, age 34, born in Accrington, Lancashire, with his wife Mary Ellen, age 30, born Church, Lancashire (just to the west of Accrington), and their only child William, age 12, born in Rook, Lancashire. Other sources inform us that John was born on 15 July 1876, and that he married Mary Ellen Winterbottom in Blackburn registration district, in the third quarter of 1896.

John is also listed at the same address in the 1914 Electoral Register, but shortly afterwards the Great War began and he joined the 2nd Battalion of the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, which may have precipitated the family's move to The Bungalow, a tiny cottage near the top of Meetinghouse Lane. As Private Whittaker 16601 he went overseas on 18 March 1915.

Later in 1915 he wrote home "We have lost a good many Wigton boys at the Front, and I must say I am glad my life has been spared. I shall never forget the great battle of Ypres on the 24th and 25th April, and also the 8th May, for I was in those great engagements" (this comment was published in the Wigton Advertiser on 29 Apr 1916, as they marked the anniversary of the battle). In the autumn his battalion returned to England and he spent some time on munition work in Manchester, but hearing that Mary Ellen was ill and had needed an operation, he set off immediately for Wigton and sent an application for leave by post. He was arrested for being AWOL, but the Wigton Police Court on 14 December accepted his explanation and claim that he "still desired to serve his King and Country", so they merely instructed him to wait at home for the military escort. He was, however, discharged from the army on 10 May 1916, due to health problems, for which he was granted a small pension.

He was presumably the same Mr Whittaker who painted the scenery for the Wigton and District Discharged Sailors and Soldiers' Association fundraising concert in October 1918, but it's interesting to note that his name does not appear on the Great War honour board in the parish church. As you read on, please assume that every sentence starts with the word presumably, because without spending a small fortune on official certificates it's very difficult to interpret the evidence.

The death of a Mary E Whittaker was registered in the fourth quarter of 1915- in Blackburn district where the Winterbottom family lived, not Wigton. A Lancashire burials index lists Mary Ellen Whittaker as buried on 9 Dec 1915. The marriage of John Whittaker & Isabella McGrath was registered in Carlisle district in the fourth quarter of 1916 (apparently not a church or chapel wedding), and the 1921 Census lists at the 3-room dwelling on Meetinghouse Lane, John (still a self-employed artist), Isabella, exactly the same age as John, born in Carlisle (working for a preserve manufacturer on Station Road; "Late Carr, White & Co." is written on the form) and John Whittaker jnr, age 13 years 7 months, born in Accrington. Is young John an adopted nephew- and I wonder where William went when he grew up?

Although he was self-employed, John snr was never listed in trade directories, though he rarely failed to write "J. Whittaker, Artist, Wigton" on the back of his works, which would be a smart way to facilitate word-of-mouth recommendations. I have only found one paid advert for his skills, in the Wigton Advertiser, 5 May 1928:

"TOMBSTONES LETTERED and CLEANED; reasonable charges.- John Whittaker. Meeting House Lane, Wigton."

Nonetheless, he seems to have been moderately successful. My mother's family decorated pretty much the whole of their new house at Holme Croft, Silloth, with his paintings when they moved there in the early 1920s. The four paintings I inherited show a preference for dramatic scenery, particularly in Scotland (hence, perhaps, the Wigtown error) but catalogues from auctioneers and art dealers reveal at least two paintings of a favourite cat (one of which I bought).

The 1939 population register made in preparation for the Second World War found John snr ("Artist, decorator") and Isabella (born 7 July 1876) still living in The Bungalow. A Wigton Advertiser story from 7 November 1936 enables us to suggest where John jnr went, as it involves the prosecution of "John Whittaker, currier, Meeting-House-Lane" and others for rabbit poaching. In the 1939 register, John Whittaker, leather currier, born 30 Nov 1907, is living at 31 Denton Lane, Carlisle, with his wife Catherine and a redacted younger person, who would be their son John J. Whittaker, born in April 1934 according to Ancestry user elaineakie.

Isabella's death in Wigton registration district is recorded in the first quarter of 1951, age 76 (which would amend her date of birth to 1874-5). That ties in temptingly with an 1881 census entry for Isabella McGrath, age 7, scholar, born Carlisle, then an in-patient at Carlisle Infirmary on Caldewgate. Strangely, no Carlisle-born Isabella McGrath aged about 17 is listed in the 1891 census. There is a 16-year-old Bella McGrath, who claimed to have been born in Whitehaven, but searching for a local Bella McGrath aged about 6 in 1881 leads us straight back to the Carlisle Infirmary girl. The likelihood that Bella is Isabella, who would later marry John Whittaker, leads us beyond strangeness into downright spookiness, because Bella in 1891 was a domestic servant at 16 Market Place, Whitehaven, where I am now typing these words.

John outlived Isabella by some years, his death aged 84 being registered in Carlisle district in the second quarter of 1960.

UPDATE: J. Wick and other surprises

Some of Mr Whittaker's paintings are still to be found in Wigton, and after I published the first version of this web page I was contacted by a man who had both paintings and further information. His grandfather had worked in Aird's ironmongers, and told him that the artist used to hire bicycles from them and ride into the Lake District, where he would paint a picture or two to sell for beer money. We had great fun discussing the paintings, not least because some of them, clearly in Whittaker's style, were signed "J. Wick". Here is detail from an example which, very helpfully, also has the proper name on the back [inset right].

Better still, the title given on the back led to the probable source, a C.W. Faulkner & Co. picture postcard with the same title on the front [inset left]. It seems likely that most Whittaker/Wick paintings of scenes far from Wigton are based on postcards. What we have not yet been able to work out is why some paintings use the Wick signature; we hope we'll find more in future auction catalogues so we can perhaps detect some pattern.
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