Born in 1860, the son of a coachman, Arthur John Elsley joined the South Kensington School of Art at the age of fourteen. In 1876 he became a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools, and submitted his first exhibit to the Royal Academy in 1878. By 1887 he was sharing a studio at 151 Gloucester Road, Kensington with George Grenville Manton, who later introduced Elsley to Fred Morgan. Elsley was to paint the animals in Morgan's pictures in succession to Allen Seally, and following the death of Charles Burton Barber in 1894, came to be considered the foremost painter of animals and children in England.
Many of Elsley's early works were equestrian subjects including A Smithy, exhibited at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colors, London in the winter of 1887. This followed in the tradition of Sir Edwin Landseer's famous painting Shoeing the Bay Mare (R.A. 1844) which then hung in the National Gallery, London. A quarter of a century later, Elsley returned to the setting but now used it for his speciality: a narrative featuring children and animals.
As Good As Ever was painted when the artist was at the height of his skills and popularity. Working furiously, Elsley completed at least eight works in 1912. He was so much in demand that later in this year he took two canvases to finish on holiday in Hampshire.
The farrier was an essential person in the rural English community; much more so than the tire mechanic of today. He was often also the village blacksmith, and is seen here mending a hoop, a popular children's toy of the time. Elsley's studio was at 26 Queen's Road, St. John's Wood, North London, and the model for the farrier in the present painting was the local carpenter who lived in the next street. He also appears as the bearded man wearing a cap in The Punch and Judy Show painted the same year (fig. 1).
Both the girl, Elsley's daughter Marjorie, and the unknown boy appear in numerous other works. The Scottie is a departure from the artist's usual collies, fox hounds, or St. Bernard dogs. It first appeared in Look Out 1908, and then in Shall I ?,1910. The smithy is again used as the setting for Won't You Fix My Horse Too? also painted in 1912 which was sold to America and reproduced as a color calendar by Thomas D. Murphy Co. in 1915.
Elsley was a keen photographer and converted a room in his house into a dark room. His black and white photographs of unfinished paintings were shown to potential print publishers, the most important of whom was Charles William Faulkner proprietor of the London publishers that bore his name. Elsley's photograph of the unfinished painting shows the little girl without a hat, the dog with a short tail, and no horse's bit hung on the wall (fig. 2). Faulkner was well known for suggesting changes to his artists and this may well account for the differences between the photograph and the finished painting.
In 1902, You Musn't Pull was the first of Elsley's paintings to be reproduced by Faulkner. This was the start of a long association and friendship, even leading to Faulkner's children being included in the artist's later works.
The use of prints as promotional items was at its height at the turn of the 20th century. Faulkner signed a lucrative deal with the beef extract company Bovril in 1901 to produce a series of prints. These were obtained by collecting coupons on Bovril jars. Elsley had immediately become one of Faulkner's leading artists so he naturally suggested his works to Bovril. Twelve of the thirty nine Bovril prints, produced between 1901 and 1917, were after Elsley's paintings. These prints were produced in huge quantities and brought Elsley's works to an even wider audience.
We are grateful to Terry Parker for his assistance in preparing this catalogue note.
(fig. 1) Arthur John Elsley, The Punch and Judy Show, 1912, Private Collection.(Sold, Christie's, London, 11 November 1999 for the world record price of $1,163,527)
(fig. 2) Photo of As Good As Ever in its unfinished state. Photo Courtesy: Terry Parker.