Hector Caffieri was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of French parents who had settled temporarily in England. Following a stint in the navy, which poor health eventually obliged him to leave, Caffieri headed to Paris, part of a generation of young British artists travelling to Europe in the 1870s and 1880s to complete their artistic education. He studied at the Académie Julian with Jules Joseph Lefebvre and under the academic painter Léon Bonnat before returning to London where he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, to which he was elected in 1885.
Caffieri travelled regularly across the Channel to the French coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer where he made studies of the fisherfolk, peasants and children, along with watercolours of quaysides and coastal scenes, all of which constituted his principal subject matter. He settled there permanently in 1897 and became an active member of the Société des Beaux-Arts et des Arts Décoratifs du Boulonnais until 1925, the last time he participated in its annual exhibitions. He also maintained regular contact with the London art world where his work was appreciated and found a ready market. An exhibition of his watercolours, Cliff, coast and quay, was held at the Continental Gallery, London in 1902.
The type of subject matter in which Caffieri chose to specialise was undoubtedly given currency by the popularity of the Newlyn School – a group of painters who established an artists’ colony in the 1880s at the fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall where they could depict, in a manner influenced by French realism, the lives of ordinary people.
Caffieri’s style, however, developed in a self-consciously artistic direction. His loose, painterly technique often combined watercolour and dilute bodycolour in a highly decorative manner. He favoured pleasing compositions with the masts and rigging of fishing boats silhouetted against misty skies, the washes merging softly one into the other, avoiding the dissonance of hard edges. He habitually used a palette of pale greys, ochres, yellows, blues (mostly for clothing) and reds, manipulating the fluid pigment to create diffuse, blurred effects and marvellous realisations of atmosphere and mood.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017