Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (1856-1927), was a British artist and writer who inherited from his American father both the name and the gift of painting. Following in the footsteps of his father, Woodville Jr. graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1877. During the same year, he had his first painting published in the Illustrated London News. This weekly news publication inaugurated in 1842 had acquired a wide popularity among Victorian readers for its pictorial content covering both domestic and foreign affairs. Woodville’s artistic talents were recognized and for the rest of his career, his name became almost synonymous with the famous British weekly which published a large number of his war paintings.
Woodville’s early professional assignments included coverage of Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and the Anglo-Egyptian war in 1882. In his memoir, Random Recollections (1914) he recalls some of the perils he experienced in the aftermath of the war during his passage from Albania and Montenegro where he developed a close friendship with the British Consul, William Kirby Green and had his first encounter with Islamic culture. Four years later, he covered the British military campaign against Egypt in the wake of Ahmed Orabi’s rebellion.
Besides his artistic work, Woodville was commissioned to design modern uniforms for the Egyptian army which was then reorganized according to the British military standards.
In subsequent years, Woodville’s fame as a military artist traveled far and wide. He had strong fans even among the members of the Royal family in London. Queen Victoria herself had commanded him to draw several paintings of the royal family commemorating important events such as the weeding of Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg. It was thanks to his personal connections to powerful figures in the British official circles that Woodville secured his appointments as a member of the delegation of Ambassador William Kirby Green to Morocco in 1887 and as a companion of Prince Albert Victor during his visit to India at the end of 1889. Both of these journeys left memorable impressions on him which he recorded in his memoir.
Besides his artistic work, Woodville pursued a professional military career having joined the Royal Berkshire Yeomanry Cavalry in 1879. His numerous equestrian paintings testify to the influence of his military service on his production. Until 1914 when he retired as a captain, Woodville enjoyed the privileges which the Victorian military establishment offered its servicemen. He had undertaken journeys to the Mediterranean in 1888 and visited Canada and the United States in the early 1890s. In turn, his artistic accomplishments were recognized by the European nobility and earned him many a medal. The most notable of these marks of appreciations were bestowed by the governments of Spain, France, Egypt, and Montenegro.
In October 1886, Woodville was summoned to accompany his old friend William Kirby Green on an official mission to the court of the Moroccan Sultan Mawlay Hassan I. Green was newly appointed a successor to Sir John Drummond Hay who for over four decades had served as the British minister in Morocco. Green himself had held several diplomatic positions in Morocco under Drummond-Hay and had a strong familiarity with the political affairs of Morocco. For Woodville, the visit was an occasion to draw pictures of the country which despite its proximity to Europe represented a stark contrast to all aspects of modern European civilization.
In four chapters of his memoir, Random Recollections, Woodville recorded several scenes and incidents of this journey. After spending a month at Hotel Villa de France in Tangier, the delegation sailed to Mazagan (Eljadida) on board a British ship. From there, they rode for six days through the plains of Doukkala escorted by some 500 Moroccan cavalry towards the sultan’s palace in Marrakech. In Marrakech, they were lodged at the lofty Mamounia palace. The highlight of their three-week sojourn was incontestably the royal reception at the sultan’s court described by Woodville in these appreciative terms:
The reception at the palace by the Sultan was a magnificent spectacle. We were received in the morning by him in a square in front of the palace. The four sides were lined with troops, and the Sultan arrived mounted on a black stallion under the Shereefian umbrella. On each side walked attendants with long cloths to whisk away the flies. We were all in full uniform or diplomatic dress. Sir William Green presented us all in order, and when it came to my turn and he was told I was an officer in the Royal Engineers, “Ah,” said the Sultan,” I understand; he is making the map of my country.” (Random Recollections, p. 169)
Woodville made several forays into the recesses of Marrakech to feast his eyes on what appeared an exotic world insulated from the profane influences of modern civilization. The bazars, the slave market, and the lavish royal banquets offered in the delegation’s honor were unforgettable vistas. Equally enchanting was the diversity of scenery explored during the hunting trip to some Atlas valleys beyond Marrakech and along the coastal road from Essaouira to Tangier on the journey back.
Beside his memoir, Woodville produced over a dozen drawings which reflect his artistic vision of Morocco. The ubiquitous presence of the Moroccan male figure is particularly striking. Besides Sultan Mawaly Hassan, there are drawings of the sultan’s domestic servants and soldiers. Woodville’s attentive eye to military posture and attire is revealed in his portrayal of a Kaid from the Atlas Mountains and a body of horsemen from Doukkala tribes.
Each of these drawings is a powerful narrative bristling with energy and symbolism. The drawings were published in Illustrated London News between August and December 1887 accompanied by an elaborate account of the journey by Walter Harris the famous correspondent of The Times in Morocco and a veritable connoisseur of its affairs.
Woodville’s life was certainly a string of colorful adventures; yet his exit lacked no tinge of drama either. On August 17, 1927 he was found dead in his studio in London. The obituary published in The Times a few days later stated that Woodville who was suffering from depression had shot himself in the head.