Edmund John Niemann was a prolific British landscape artist who worked mostly in oils. In the literature about him it is claimed that he had strong connections to High Wycombe, where it is said that he settled in 1839. But are those claims true?

Niemann’s early life

Edmund John Niemann was born in Islington, London in 1813, and baptised on February 7 at the parish church, St Mary’s. His parents were John Diedrich Niemann, a native of Minden, Westphalia in the north west of Germany, and his wife Mary Louisa. His father was a member of Lloyd’s, working in the City of London, and used his influence to secure a position for his young son as a clerk there. But Edmund had other ideas for his career. Although he continued to earn his living as a ‘Clerk to an Underwriter’, he spent his spare time painting landscapes. He was also a restless soul, frequently changing his lodgings, which were initially at various addresses in and around Islington. He also spent some time at the Hotel Conti in Paris before returning to London.

In about 1837 he moved to Maidenhead to lodge at the Hand and Flowers Inn in the High Street, and it was there that he first gave his occupation solely as an artist. Again he moved around, lodging at the house of Mr Smith, Hair Dresser, and then that of Mr Thomas Gunsmith, both houses being in the High Street in Maidenhead. He then moved to Reading, firstly lodging at No. 56, London Road, where we know he was living in October 1840, before moving to No. 33, Oxford Road, in the centre of the town, by May 1841. By then he was a family man, having married Caroline Matilda Cooper in 1840, with their first child, a boy who was named after his father, born early in 1841. In the census taken in 1841 Edmund described himself as an Artist and the family had fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Birkhead with them as a domestic servant. The couple went on to have a total of 6 children, three boys and three girls. whose places of birth help us to trace the movements of the family.

Niemann’s early career as an artist

The first time that we can obtain a clear indication of Edmund’s work as an artist is from an article in the local Reading newspaper on October 17, 1840, which begins ‘Mr Edmund Niemann begs to inform the nobility and gentry of Reading that he is engaged on a large PANORAMIC PAINTING of the Town, from the same point (Katesgrove Hill) which was chosen by the ingenious Samuel Buck more than a century ago.’……..’It is his intention to Publish the View by Subscription, of a size to match the old Engraving by Buck, and the painting may be seen in a few days at Mr Snare’s library.’

The article then continues ‘Mr E.N. respectfully solicits the inspection of another View (now lying at the Library in Minster Street) which he has just finished in Water Colours on an extensive scale (4 feet wide by 2 feet 6 inches high). It is taken from the Western Elms Estate, and commands the Valley of the Thames and Isis, with the whole expanse of country from Sonning to Mapledurham, and a distinct View of the Great Western railway etc, etc.’

Niemann was engaged in another venture at the time, 1840/41, which was to produce a series of publications under the title of ‘A Tour Around Reading’. This involved a collaboration with other artists Samuel Williams and Charles Spalding. William’s task was to produce engraved wood-cuts of Niemann’s paintings and Spalding, a renowned ‘animal artist’ was to ‘paint figures in the landscapes’. The paintings were to be the two mentioned above, plus ‘A View of Reading from Caversham’ and ‘A View of Reading from Southern Hill’. All four paintings could be seen at the Library in Minster Street. Each of the series were to be printed by John Snare of 16 Minster Street and sold priced 6 pence, or 1/- shilling if printed on ‘superfine large paper’. In the local press this series was described as a very interesting and much valued little work’.

Whether these efforts were a commercial success for Niemann must be open to doubt, as two years later he found himself in Reading Gaol as an insolvent debtor.

Niemann’s bankruptcy proceedings

Niemann’s ‘brush’ with bankruptcy proceedings, something that was to become a regular occurrence throughout the rest of his life, involved his arrest on August 23,1843. At that time he was living at Elm Cottage, North Town, Maidenhead, and was taken to Reading Gaol, where he was held until his appearance before the Reading County Court on October 9, 1843.

The official report of this his first arrest for bankruptcy is particularly interesting because it lists his occupation and places of residence during the many years prior to his arrest, probably ever since he had left his parents’ home. Unfortunately, the report does not provide a date for those places, but in all cases he was said to be ‘lodging’ at the stated location. It would seem therefore that he had a somewhat itinerant lifestyle during this period, which included the early years of his marriage.

It has not been possible to determine the outcome of the 1843 bankruptcy case, but it was only eleven years before he faced new proceedings. On November 24,1854, when he was living at Mount Vernon House in Hampstead, he was ordered to appear before the Court-House in Lincoln’s Inn, London on January 31, 1855. At that it was reported that Niemann had sold his house so that ‘there was upwards of £200 in court’, but this was insufficient to settle all his debt. The case dragged on until at a court hearing on August 17,1855 he was ordered to settle the outstanding debts with his creditors by paying ‘one shilling and one penny three farthings in the pound’.

Niemann proved to be an inveterate bankrupt, facing insolvency proceedings another three times, in 1861, 1866, and 1871. At the bankruptcy proceedings in 1861 it was revealed that in the 1854 proceedings his total debts amounted to £1,638.

Niemann’s later career

After Niemann’s artistic activities whilst he was living in Berkshire, in Reading and Maidenhead, he returned to his roots in London, but from 1844 he travelled extensively all over the country to paint his primarily landscape scenes. His output was prodigious, totalling nearly 200 paintings, many of which have since been reproduced as prints.

He began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1844, when he sent an oil painting, ‘On the Thames, Near Great Marlow’, and a drawing, ‘The Lime Kiln at Core’s End, Wooburn, Bucks’. He continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1872; but more often his works appeared at other prestigious galleries such as the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, as well as at Manchester, Liverpool, and other provincial exhibitions.

In 1848 he also began to diversify his activities when he joined a group of artists who were dissatisfied with the exclusivity of several leading art societies, so they established the ‘Free Exhibition’. This took place in the Chinese Gallery at Hyde Park Corner, where some 500 works of art, including sculptures, were exhibited. But the exhibition was not free to those who visited it, entrance costing 6d and the catalogue was another 6d. So, the word ‘Free’ presumably referred to freedom from the constraints placed upon exhibitions by those such as the Royal Academy.

In 1850 this exhibition moved to the Portland Gallery in Regent Street and Niemann became one of the Trustees, he was also the Honorary Secretary. This later became ‘The National Institution’ but was short-lived, the last exhibition being in 1861. Probably this was at least partly responsible for his bankruptcy in that year, when his debts were revealed to be £5,169, ‘against assets of inconsiderable amount’. At the initial proceedings Niemann gave his occupation as ‘Picture Dealer, Dealer, and Chapman’, but later reverted just to ‘Artist’, which was the occupation he gave at the proceedings in 1866 and 1871.

In the 1850s Niemann joined the ‘great and the good’ of the art-world by becoming a steward at the annual festival of the Artists General Benevolent Institution for the ‘relief of Decayed Artists, and their Widows and Orphans’. This was a dinner at Freemasons Hall, tickets costing £1.1s.

On July 1, 1859 an auction was held by Christie & Manson which included ‘Fifty pictures and studies by that highly talented artist Edmund J Niemann (who is relinguishing his studios in Newman Street)’. Niemann was living at that time at No. 76 Newman St, which is off Oxford St. He then moved for a few years to North Hall, England’s Lane in Haverstock Hill; then to 17 Charlotte St, in Bedford Sq, but carrying on business at 47 Leicester Sq; then to The Glebe in Brixton Hill, where he died on July 15, 1876.

Niemann’s Legacy

In his work and his lifestyle Niemann may be said to be something of an enigma.

In obituaries Niemann is variously described as ‘a meritorious although comparatively little- known painter’; and ‘one, who not very much thought of in his lifetime, is now beginning to be valued’. Opinions of his artistic talent vary from ‘His paintings are characterised by great versatility, natural colours, and visual realism, often in the romantic artistic style’; to ‘Niemann’s pictures, some of which are large, illustrate every phase of nature. They show great versatility but have been described as at once dextrous and depressing’.

One thing we can say, is that although Niemann had a very peripatetic lifestyle, he did not live in Wycombe, although he probably visited the town in the course of his work.