Richard Caton Woodville was born 7 January 1856 at 57 Stanhope Street, London, to an American father and Russo-German mother, both of whom were painters. He was educated in St. Petersburg and Paris before enrolling as an art student at the Academy in Dusseldorf. Despite spending most of his life in England, he would never lose his German accent.
He spent time travelling in the war-torn Balkans before settling in London in 1877 and submitted some drawings of Serbia to The lllustrated London News whose proprietor, William Ingram, was impressed and requested more pictures. Caton Woodville would produce hundreds of pieces of artwork for the periodical during his career.
Although the ILN would provide him with a mainstay of work, he began to seek out commissions after he had successfully exhibited Frederick the Great before Leuthen at the Royal Academy in 1879. Concentrating almost principally on dramatic military scenes, many of which emphasised the might of the British Empire, Caton Woodville’s style appealed to the tastes of the high Victorian era. He came to the attention of Queen Victoria herself ,who commissioned him to paint her son, the Duke of Connaught and the Guards at the Battle of Tel-El-Kebir, and later engaged him to paint the wedding of her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice in 1885.
Having climbed to an enviable social position, he could now command extremely high prices for his work and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle to match. But his extravagance saw him frequently face financial difficulties, and, twice divorced, he earned something of a reputation as a womaniser.
Although Caton Woodville was sent by the ILN to report on the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-8 and to Egypt for the war with Britain in December 1882, he was not a “war artist” in the accepted sense and spent most of his working life in the studio, which he filled with military props and uniforms and used for reference in his work.
Frederic Villiers, who did know what it was like to face the dangers of reporting from the front line, nevertheless claimed that Caton Woodville was the best British battle painter, and wrote that “next to de Neuville and Verestchagin, the greatest painter of war pictures is undoubtedly Mr. Caton Woodville … in his pictures is all the real dash and movement of war”. Van Gogh admired his depiction of the Irish poor in the ILN.
During the First World War, his paintings followed his tried and trusted formula and depicted dramatic charges and heroic stands in a style that had begun to feel old-fashioned and clichéd. In August 1927, impoverished, ill and depressed, he shot himself in the head at his studio in St. John’s Wood, dying some time afterwards. His estate was valued at just £10. Despite his tragic and ignominious end, Caton Woodville was one of the defining artists working in the military genre before 1914, shaping the public’s perception of war in the Imperial age.