Charles Altamont Doyle was the youngest son of the Irish political cartoonist John Doyle. Like his talented brothers – the most renowned of whom was Richard Doyle, the fairy painter and illustrator for Punch – Charles was trained as an artist in London, but moved to Edinburgh in 1849 to take up the post of assistant surveyor at the Scottish Office of Works.
Doyle’s career and family life were marred by his severe alcoholism, however, and his later years were spent in nursing homes and mental institutions. In 1885, despite pleas of sanity to his family, he was admitted to Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum (also known as Sunnyside), where, during his years of confinement, he filled a series of sketchbook diaries and completed drawings and watercolours of great imaginative power. From his cell he also illustrated his son Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A study in scarlet. Deteriorating mental and physical health led to his transferral in 1891 to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum before being definitively committed to the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries the following year.
In his autobiography, Memories and adventures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described his father’s life as: ‘...full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of underdeveloped gifts. He had his weaknesses, as all of us have ours, but he had also some very remarkable and outstanding virtues. A tall man, long-bearded, and elegant, he had a charm of manner and a courtesy of bearing which I have seldom seen equalled. His wit was quick and playful. He possessed, also, a remarkable delicacy of mind which would give him moral courage enough to rise and leave any company which talked in a manner which was coarse… He was unworldly and unpractical and his family suffered for it.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle organised the first exhibition of his father’s work in London in 1924. Charles Doyle’s unique achievement as an artist became more widely known following the publication in 1978 of Michael Baker’s The Doyle diary, a facsimile of one of Doyle’s asylum sketchbooks.
The spirits of the prisoners 1885/89 in the Art Gallery of NSW collection is one of Doyle’s most accomplished and fully developed watercolours, produced during his confinement at the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum between 1885 and 1891. It shows a procession of fanciful impish figures and animals swirling over the rooftop of the asylum and cascading down its dark brooding walls. The vivid blue washes heighten the aura of nocturnal eeriness. Doyle’s vision of the spirit world is witnessed from the clouds by a bearded apparition – a clearly identifiable portrait of the artist himself. The inscription along the top of the sheet implies the artist’s intention to present the watercolour as an eyewitness record of an otherworldly vision, vouchsafed to him alone: ‘What probably no one ever saw swirl over the Sunnyside gable and disappear round the corner. The constellation under which this appearance was it observed, was the Great Bear.’
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017