Reuben Bussey was a well known artist working in nineteenth century Nottingham. His best pictures combine technical excellence with a talent for capturing vitality and atmosphere. Sadly, none of his better pictures are in public collections. This website provides a brief guide to the artist and his work.
Grateful thanks to everyone who have provided information about Reuben Bussey and images of his pictures including Lee Attwood, David & Lindsey Bailey, John Beale, Hilary Bussey, Renzo Coira, Sylvia and Peter Derry, Alan Goodwin, Fiona Goodwin, Wendy Hussein, Stephen Kibbey, Judith Mills, Brian Nash, Graham Pugh, George Roberts, Richard Smith, David Turner, Neil Walker, Margaret White and Deborah Wyatt. The research and writing of Heather Williams is gratefully acknowledged.
Updated 25 February 2013..
This introduction to Bussey's work is an extract from Heather Williams's The Lives and Works of Nottingham Artists from 1750 to 1914, University of Nottingham PhD thesis 1981.
'Reuben Bussey was born February 12th 1818. He was the son of William Bussey, a cork cutter of Lister Gate. Although his family had no connections with art, he soon revealed a considerable talent for drawing. As a young man he was befriended by the local artists Thomas Barber and John Rawson Walker and received some tuition from them. His enthusiasm and ability brought him to the notice of John Smith Wright of Rempstone Hall, who became his patron and assisted his career by financing his studies in London. During Bussey's stay in the capital the Wright family procured an introduction for him to the Duke of Wellington, then Constable of the Tower of London, and he was given permission to draw the armour there. It seems that Bussey had already developed an interest in historical subjects. Wright also offered to pay for him to study at the Royal Academy Schools, but the declining health of his father made Bussey decide to return home and assist in running the family business. His art, however, had already reached a high standard ...'
'During the 1840s Bussey worked as a cork cutter, but he did not abandon his art. He obtained the post of drawing master at the Mechanics' Institution, no doubt assisted by his friendship with John Smith Wright, the first President of that body. No definite date can be given as to when Bussey took up his duties, but it is known that around 1849 he resigned from the post. No doubt his reasons for doing so were linked with the worsening health of his father, who died in 1851. Bussey then assumed full control of the business. He continued to paint and occasionally he exhibited his work, for example at Birmingham. In 1854 he was asked to produce several illustrations for Thomas Bailey's Handbook of Nottingham Castle.'
'Around 1860 Bussey resolved to become a professional artist ...his paintings were regularly shown at Birmingham and Manchester. He also exhibited at Nottingham whenever the opportunity arose..... He was especially fond of historical subjects and would frequently turn to events in Nottingham's past for inspiration..... Occasionally Bussey produced narrative paintings without any historical associations. In 1868 he painted The Black Knights which is now in a private collection. The scene depicts a fight between two boys, both chimney-sweeps. They are sitting on the backs of donkeys and using their brushes as weapons in the tradition of the Medieval tournament. The picture is full of gentle humour, not only in the activity of the contestants but also in the jostling crowd of onlooking schoolboys. The faces of these children are worthy of study, as is the careful painting of the street and houses in the distance. Bussey has beautifully captured the atmosphere of a snowy winter's day..... The Black Knights shows Bussey to have been possessed of considerable vitality as an artist, and it is this painting, rather than his historical subjects which brings his talents to the fore.'
This is just an extract. Heather Williams's chapter about Bussey presents an intelligent and balanced view of the artist. She is lukewarm about some of historical work but full of praise for his humour, his enthusiasm, and for capturing atmosphere and vitality. The chapter includes a detailed list of Bussey's addresses in Nottingham, trade directory entries and a full bibliography.
This is not a commercial website, so please do not contact us about buying pictures by Reuben Bussey. If you want to buy one of his pictures, you will need to wait until one comes up for auction.
Reuben's father and grandfather were corkcutters, manufacturing a variety of articles from cork including shoe linings and fishing floats as well as bungs for bottles. Reuben's father William was born at Stamford in Lincolnshire. The family moved with the business to Nottingham about 1800. According to a family story, William ran away from a press gang during the Napoleonic Wars, he fell over a wall and was, to some extent, crippled for the rest of his life.
William Bussey married Ann Ward at Nottingham St Mary in 1817. They had two sons, Reuben and John, who were both baptised at the non-conformist Castle Gate Meeting. Reuben was born in 12 February 1818 and John a year later. Sadly John died in infancy and Reuben probably grew up as an only child.
Reuben married his cousin Elizabeth Ward at Nottingham in 1847. Elizabeth came from Sutton in Ashfield, a town north of Nottingham. Reuben and Elizabeth did not have children. There is some evidence that they were quite close to Elizabeth's sister's family. The sister, Mary Ward, married John Goodwin and they had a son John Thomas Goodwin. A delightful watercolour by Reuben Bussey is dedicated to this son. It shows the Goodwin family bakery in Warser Gate, Nottingham. After Reuben's death, a number of Reuben's paintings were passed on to the Goodwin family and are still being appreciated by their descendants in England and Australia.
Many of Reuben's Bussey relatives moved down to London where the cork cutting business continued to flourish. But Reuben and Elizabeth remained in Nottingham. By the middle of the nineteenth century Nottingham had acquired notorious slums - one contemporary commentator described them as the worst in the British Empire with the exception of Bombay. Reuben's commitment to the city during this difficult time may well have earned him some affection from the community there.
Another Bussey who remained in the area was Joseph Bussey, Reuben's uncle. As a young man, Joseph was convicted for stealing some knives in Nottingham and sentenced to deportation. But instead, he served his sentence on board a prison hulk. After his release Joseph returned to the Nottingham area and was befriended by Reuben who was present at Joseph's death in 1880.
In later life, Reuben formed a close friendship with Joseph Derry who ran a printing and stationery business in Nottingham. He wrote some delightful birthday letters to Joseph and to Joseph's daughter Polly. With Polly, the correspondence continued after she married.
Reuben died at Park Hill, Nottingham on 1 March 1893. He was buried with his parents in the General Cemetery. The headstone reads 'Ann the wife of William Bussey who died Feb 17th 1850 aged 56 years also William Bussey who died July 22nd 1851 aged 62 years also John their son who died in infancy also Reuben Bussey artist who died March 1st 1893 aged 75 years". Reuben did not leave a will and presumably passed on his possessions to his wife Elizabeth who died at Nottingham in 1898.
Heather Williams comments on Reuben's reputation: 'His death was mourned in the city, for the man, as well as his art, was greatly admired in the community. He was by nature a retiring personality who cared little for money and prestige. He lived above all to paint and his enthusiasm for art was immense. Those who strove to know and befriend him were rewarded by great kindness and a natural and infectious sense of humour. In 1894 the city honoured his memory by mounting an exhibition of his paintings at the Castle Museum.'