The two pencil sketches of the tragic twin artist brothers Maurice and Edward Detmold are perhaps two of the most haunted and poigniant drawings from the Victorian era. Probably drawn of each other at the same sitting in 1899, they are the only likenesses we have of the mercurially touched but ultimately doomed brothers. Charles – known as Maurice – and Edward Detmold.
The twins were born on 21 November 1883, at 97 Upper Richmond Road in Putney, Surrey, England. Circumstances didn’t bode too well from the beginning. Their chronially ill “electrical engineer” father (he made electric signs) left home around 1888 leaving the boys with their mother Mary and their older sister Nora. Also living at no. 91 was an uncle who’d brought Mary up when her parent’s marriage had failed. This uncle’s name was Dr. Edward Barton Shuldham. Uncle Edward seems to have relished taking on raising the Detmold boys and his influence would prove to be the major catalyst for their incredibly meteoric artistic development. By 1891, Uncle Edward had moved the family north to south across London to a large house in Hampstead.
Uncle Edward nurtured those boys. He fired in them an intense interest in natural history and in art (he loved Japanese painting), creating an empowering environment that inspired and fired their precocious talents. Uncle Edward started them young and whatever nurturing he was doing worked. When the boys were just five years old their uncle was taking them on regular sketching trips to Regent’s Park Zoo and the Natural History Museum. After the twins turned six they spent six months studying drawing at the nearby Hampstead Conservatoire. This was the only formal training the Detmold twins ever received.
Another uncle, their absent father’s brother, Henry Detmold, an an artist of renown, also played a key role in developing the twins’ obvious natural talent. The pair won prizes in a national art competition before they were eleven years old.
Precociously and ridiculously talented, the child prodigies first exhibition was at the Royal Academy at the age of thirteen, the youngest artists ever to exhibit watercolours at London’s greatest art institution. Their work was displayed ‘on the line,’ in other words at eye level, a great accolade. They also sent drawings to the Institute of Painters in Water Colours, where the doorman, seeing the two children, refused them entry.
“Whose pictures do you want to see?”, asked the doorman. “Your father’s?’”
“No. Our own,” said the twins. The doorman fetched the secretary of the Institute, who let them in.
Experiments in colour printing led to a number of publications including Pictures from Birdland in 1899 and an illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book in 1903. They also held an exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1900 and turned to stained glass design. Although they produced prints separately, their works are almost indistinguishable and they continued to collaborate. ‘They seemed as one soul divided between two bodies’, a contemporary remarked. On 9 April 1908 Maurice committed suicide by inhaling chloroform. Edward continued to work but, in the 1930s, withdrew into obscurity and also took his own life in 1957.