Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Charles Augustus Howell

Alias: Owl
Nationality: Portuguese
Date of birth: 10 March 1840
Place of birth: Oporto
Date of death: 11 June 1890
Place of death: Home Hospital, 16 Fitzroy Street, London
Category: collector, dealer, printer


Charles Augustus ('Owl') Howell, entrepreneur, was born of an English father and a Portuguese mother around 1840. His marriage certificate of 21 August 1867, lists his father as Alfred William Howell, merchant. The certificate, signed by Murray Howell, gives Howell's profession as 'gentleman'. Howell described himself as of high rank and related to the da Costa or Posser family and wore the red ribbon of the Order of Christ to prove it. His death certificate gives his age as 50, address as 91 Southampton Row and cause of death from Pneumonic Pthises Asthemia at the Home Hospital, 16 Fitzroy Square, on 21 April 1890.


Howell was an Anglo-Portuguese dealer and collector. Despite his often dubious dealings, he was regarded with friendly tolerance by artists. He worked as Ruskin's secretary during the 1860s until his dismissal in 1870, and for Rossetti from 1872-76. He met Whistler through Rossetti, though the date is unknown, and commissioned him to paint his mistress Rosa Corder (see Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder y203).

He helped Whistler in his tangled affairs, to pawn, sell and engrave his pictures, print and sell etchings, and meet clients and dealers. He also bought paintings from Whistler (see Study of 'Arrangement in Brown and Black: Miss Rosa Corder' m0713-Sketch of 'Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder' m0714). He was charming, persuasive and unscrupulous, described by Whistler as 'the genius, the superb liar, the Gil-Blas, Robinson-Crusoe hero out of his proper time, the creature of top-boots and plumes - splendidly flamboyant' (Pennell 1921, p. 58). He came to Whistler's aid during his financial crisis in 1878-79 and acted as agent for a series of etchings of Chelsea and the Thames.

Whistler visited him at his house at Selsey Bill and painted seascapes there including The Selsey Shore y200 and A Coast Scene y201 and a watercolour, Selsey Bill m0863.

Material in the Kreitman Research Centre at Tate Britain contains many flattering references to Howell by Frederick Sandys, the Rossettis, Swinburne, Millais, Whistler and others (MacDonald 1995). Ford Madox Brown on 1 March 1872 called Howell 'second to no one in England in his intimate knowledge of ancient and oriental furniture, china, tapestries', while W. M. Rossetti commended his 'quick and accurate discernment of the merits of works of art and decoration of many various kinds, along with extensive practical knowledge of their market value' (6 February 1872). D. G. Rossetti stated that 'I can express complete confidence in his judgement on questions of art' and commended 'his striking gifts and energy in business' (29 April 1872).

These commendations avoid any question of Howell's unscrupulousness and self-aggrandisement, which led first Rossetti and later Whistler to part with him on less than amicable terms. Yet in the end, Howell made little profit from Whistler and was one of the chief creditors at his bankruptcy. In 1882, Whistler published The Paddon Papers, concerning an obscure quarrel over furniture which ended their relationship.

Howell lived at Chaldon House, Fulham in 1877, 91 Southampton Row from 1878 and Old Danner, Selsey Bill, Sussex from about 1879 on.


Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 ; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Whistler Journal, Philadelphia, 1921 ; Angeli, Helen Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite Twilight: The Story of Charles Augustus Howell, London, 1954; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; Maas, Jeremy, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 .