Reuben Chappell was born on July 21, 1870 in Doyle Street, Goole, the youngest son of six children. His father was a joiner who in later life became a master cabinet-maker. Chappell was born near to the docks of Goole, so that from his childhood he was familiar with ships and seafarers. He won a scholarship to the then privately-owned Goole Grammar School, and soon showed a talent for drawing the ships that had dominated his daily life from infancy. He became interested in photography, was apprenticed to Harrison the photographer, and tinting photographs led him into painting. Apart from a few lessons, he was self-taught.
By his late 'teens Chappell was contributing line drawings to local newspapers, and his paintings of ships were becoming well-known locally. By the time he was twenty he had established a studio at 7, Jackson Street in Goole, and he was advertising in the Goole Times as a photographer and artist. But he found that by selling his portraits of ships to seamen he was so busy that he had little time for photography.
As ships arrived in the port Chappell went down to the docks to invite commissions, sketching details of the ship to be painted, and then returning to his studio to complete the work either in watercolours or in oils. He charged five shillings for a watercolour and thirty shillings for a portrait in oils.
He married at the age of twenty-five Caroline Bayford, of Thorne, a minor poetess whose verses were published occasionally in local newspapers. They had three sons. The eldest, Mr Cecil Chappell, opened this exhibition in Goole. But Chappell. who suffered from a bronchial weakness from childhood, was advised to seek a climate kindlier than the cold and damp air of Goole. So in 1904 he left for Par in Cornwall, and there, with his family, he lived for the rest of his life, a familiar figure on the shipping quays of Fowey, Par and Charlestown, usually dressed in a Norfolk suit, no matter what the weather.
He was a modest man, quiet, reliable and industrious. Isolated from art schools and studios, he was an essential part of the marine community. His friends were sailors, and he was often a lonely man. He showed none of his work at art exhibitions or in galleries. Yet he was an artist, and proclaimed himself as such. He supported his family entirely from his painting - visiting the docks as he did in his earlier days at Goole to obtain a commission, making pencil sketches (one of his sketchbooks is featured in the exhibition) and then returning home to work on the painting, often working far into the night because he was, literally, battling against the tide on which the ship he was painting had to sail.
His wife, too, died in 1930, and from then until his death ten years later he painted very little, so that his productive period was from 1890 to 1930. In 1933, a lonely man, he married a second time, and on July 20, 1940 he died of bronchial pneumonia, eight days after his seventieth birthday. He was buried in Fowey cemetery.
In his early years in Goole Chappell depicted the keels and sloops that were so characteristic of Goole as a port, and which are now extinct. Later he began to paint the new steamers that sailed out of Goole to Continental ports. His first major success was the steamer Wharfe, which he displayed in a furniture shop window in 1890 so that it might attract the seamen who walked along Aire Street to the docks. He painted a number of oils of the Wharfe, which was famed locally as "The Greyhound of the Humber" because of her speed of 16 knots, and some of his work done in Goole had a powerful, even dramatic quality.
He never, throughout his working life, had any thought of the fame that was to come to him because of the accurate record he made of the appearance of hundreds of the ships of his day. He was concerned solely to support his family by means of the best talent he possessed.
He rarely dated his work, but normally he signed it - usually "R. Chappell, Goole", even after his removal to Cornwall, so that he would continue to be known as the same man who had painted in Goole. In later years his signature became "R. Chappell" and, very occasionally, "R.C." or "R.C.G". But almost invariably, along the bottom edge of his paintings, is the name of the vessel depicted, its port of registration, and sometimes the name of its master.
As a painter of ships, Reuben Chappell belongs to folk art and to the waterfront. He painted the ships that Goole knew in its growing days as a port, bringing the ships into the homes of the people in the days when every street in Goole had its sea- faring family, deeply attached to the ships in which their men-folk sailed, when "Tide Time" was a town's occasion as the people gathered on Lock Hill to wave farewell or to welcome their men home from the sea. His pictures bring back to the older generation, as do few other things from the past, the spirit of Goole as a port filled with lovely ships, of a bustling, busy river, of an era that will, because of vast technological changes, never come back.
Foreward from 1972 Exhibition at Goole Museum