John Rogers Herbert was born 23 January 1810 at Maldon in Essex. Very little is known of his childhood there, but it was noted in his obituary in The Times that his father was a ‘Controller of Customs’. The family had enough money to send young Herbert to London when he was sixteen years old; and he was enrolled in the Royal Academy schools in December 1826. After the death of his father in 1828, Herbert was forced to give up the Academy school and began painting professionally – mostly book illustrations and portraiture. However, sketches from as early as 1829, Captives predict his later interest in larger historical subjects with challenging moral themes and complex compositions.
Portraiture may have paid the bills, but it was more romantic subjects that caught Herbert’s creative imagination at this time. His work exhibited at the British Institution and the Royal Society of British Artists had dramatic, romantic titles such as: The Plain Gold Ring (1832), A Lady Watching the Stars (1834), Guilt and Innocence (1834) and The Reprieve (1835). His most popular of these subjects, The Appointed Hour (1835) brought him to the attention of the art world.
Later in the decade, Herbert, like many of his contemporaries, displayed a growing interest in medievalism. One reason for this may be his friendship with A.W.N. Pugin, who would become the co-architect of the Palace of Westminster and a proponent of medieval revival.
Herbert and Pugin had known each other from childhood, and were very close, intimately involved in each other’s affairs. Pugin was an outspoken defender of the Catholic faith during the debates surrounding the Oxford Movement. Herbert shared his views, and converted to Catholicism around 1838. Herbert’s conversion is a defining point in his career. His art gains a deeper purpose and becomes much more personal. For Pugin, ‘there could be no distinction between work and religion, art and love’ and the same became true for Herbert.
In 1841 Herbert was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and became a full member in 1846. His diploma piece, St. Gregory the Great teaching the Roman Boys to Sing the Chant (1845) typifies the distinctly mediaevalist tone of his work at this time, as does his portrait of Pugin. Throughout the 1840s his work explored the nature of Catholicism in Britain, and his own experience as a convert.
Herbert was a prolific teacher of art. In 1841 he became ‘master of the figure’ in the newly formed Government School of Design, a position probably owed to his friend William Dyce, who was superintendent there, and with whom he collaborated in the illustration of Nursery Rhymes, Tales and Jingles.
Dyce was of high-church persuasion, and sympathised with many of Herbert’s ideas of art. He was, along with Pugin, instrumental in procuring Herbert the commission that would change his career: a share in the decoration of the New Palace of Westminster. Herbert was commisioned to paint a fresco of Lear Disinheriting Cordelia (1848) for the Poet’s Hall, and nine frescos for the Peer’s Robing Room, now known as the Moses Room, owing to his very large fresco of Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law (1858-1864).
His work on this project lasted over two decades. During that time he exhibited several studies for this commission at the Royal Academy, but most of his professional life was occupied with these public commissions, which he felt were his life’s work. Many copies of these works can be found in collections around the world- including a late copy painted by Herbert in 1876 of his ‘Lear and Cordelia’, now in the Nottingham Castle Museum.
Herbert was ernest and methodical in both his subjects and his technique. Evidence of this earnest practice can be found in the extensive research Herbert undertook for many of his paintings. He travelled to the East many times to paint the landscape, clothing and architecture of the area, in order to add authenticity to his biblical scenes. He also did extensive historical research for his political paintings.
Herbert’s success and reputation were grounded on his careful and earnest artistic practice. He was as meticulous with the historical and theological details as he was with the technical aspects of his art. He believed wholeheartedly in the power of art to incite transformation, therefore his work was the result of deliberate thought and careful experiment. These views were sometimes applauded, but were occasionally seen as part of Herbert’s unconventionality.
Herbert’s role in the artistic formation of the next generation was considerable. He was a popular and prolific teacher, with students at both at the Government Schools of Design and the Royal Academy Schools. His support for the ‘rebellion’ at the Schools of Design in 1845 led to the formation of the first private art school in London.
Herbert’s innovative techniques, borrowing from mediaeval, German and Nazarene art influenced the young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He instructed all the young members of the Brotherhood during their sojourn at the Royal Academy Schools, he gave personal support to James Collinson, and perhaps other members, during the formation of the Brotherhood, and was even a potential proprietor of The Germ. Yet, when W.M. Rossetti declared they wished to ‘out-Herbert Herbert’ he had more aesthetic and theoretical considerations in mind. The Pre-Raphelites drew on Herbert’s historical subjects of the 1840s for inspiration, and his influence can be especially seen in their early pictures.
Herbert’s greatest innovation, however, was the forging of a new Victorian Catholic art. His inclusion of authentic Eastern landscape brought a level of realism to sacred art, but this was always in the service of his Catholicism, a subtle distinction which nonetheless differentiated him from his Protestant colleagues. However, his entire oeuvre was extensive and varied. He always painted with unabashed sinceriety, and from his early portraits to later landscapes his ideals of art ripened, but never changed.
Herbert’s began to distance himself from his peers in the 1860s and 70s. His paintings had touched the emotions and noble sentiments of the early and mid-Victorian public, and they rewarded him for it. But he rapidly slipped into obscurity as modernist ideas advanced, resolutely refusing to adapt to them. By his later years, he was seen as outdated and finished. Though many in the Royal Academy still held him in high regard, his earnest ideas of art seemed awkward and out of touch with the younger ‘art for art’s sake’ generation.
Herbert retired in 1886, and died in 1890. No posthumous biography was written, and for over a century he was simply a footnote in the history of Victorian art.