A STATE OF THE ART
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Did a remote Zambian town make a name for itself in the Victorian art world?
When it comes to important figures in the turn-of-the-century art world, an English Christian missionary probably isn’t top of the list. But in the 1890s, Fr Francis Leonard Howard transformed a remote town on the Zambia–Malawi border into an unexpected artistic hub that—for a time at least—became a major talking point in late Victorian England.
Howard was born in London in 1851, but in his early 20s moved to his mother’s home city of Paris to study art. Despite rising to some prominence in the city’s art world (and despite counting the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro among his many friends and mentors), he soon became disillusioned with the brash hedonism of nineteenth century Paris and returned to England in 1879, destitute and unhappy.
Back home, Howard found solace in the church: the son of the renowned biblical scholar and translator Thomas Howard, in 1882 he followed in his father’s footsteps an enrolled in a seminary in Oxford. There he gained a newfound interest in missionary work, and by the 1890s was on his way to teach and minister in one of Britain’s newest African colonies.
Howard arrived in the town of Muyombe in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1891, ostensibly to help establish a Christian school there. Alongside his teaching and missionary work, however, he continued to sketch and paint, and before long his work had attracted the attention of several of his pupils.
An after-school art class was promptly organised, and when that proved unexpected popular a well-attended exhibition of Howard’s pupils’ work was organised in the Rhodesian capital, Livingstone, in 1892. By then, he was teaching painting to more than 250 local people a week, and his work had become well known both throughout the local area and, crucially, back home in England.
In his frequent letters to family and friends, Howard would rave enthusiastically about his pupils’ skills and paintings, and through his father’s parish back home in Walthamstow, news of this bizarre hub of artistic talent, hidden away in British East Africa, soon began to spread through Victorian high society.
In 1899, arrangements were made for Howard to two dozen of his pupils’ choicest artworks to London for a two-week exhibition at Vestry House in Walthamstow; the exhibition proved so popular that after a full eight months on display it transferred (amidst much pomp, and a grand party attended by the Prince of Wales, the future king Edward VII) to the Victoria & Albert Museum in spring 1900. Howard travelled all the way from Rhodesia for the museum opening, bringing with him one of his young protégés, a 12-year-old Zambian boy known only as Andrew, and a further twenty-five Muyombe artworks.
This so-called ‘Muyombe School’ of amateur artists enthralled Victorian critics and art-lovers in equal measure (especially given that, at a time, the only news coming out of Britain’s African colonies was the ever-more distressing rumblings of the Boer Wars). Astutely, Howard monopolized on this sudden interest in his pupils’ work, and while in London sold many of their paintings to the highest bidders—channelling all the money he raised back into his work in Rhodesia. One untitled Muyombe artwork is even reported to have fetched as much as £550 in a sale at a London auction house in 1903 (equivalent to more than £65,000 today).
Alas, interest in the Muyombe School dwindled in the early 1900s and Howard’s untimely death in 1909 effectively ended the school’s art program. Nevertheless, even today Muyombe artworks remain much sought after collectors’ items, and on the rare occasions they turn up in salerooms around the world can fetch considerable prices.