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Dick Caton Woodville: British artist at a pivotal point in Albanian history

Kate Holman

Images reproduced by kind permission of Fran Kukaj

A fascinating story unites an Albanian émigré born and brought up in Brussels and the nineteenth-century British painter and writer Richard (Dick) Caton Woodville.

Fran Kukaj’s family is from Rajë in the mountains of Shkodër, part of the Merturi clan that fought with Scanderbeg against the Ottomans. Fran’s father Pjeter was imprisoned in 1946 for agitation and propaganda against the communist regime and then fled to Yugoslavia where, with his mother, wife and daughter, he was placed in a refugee camp. The family moved to Belgium in 1956 as political refugees. Fran was born in Belgium, as the growing family settled into their new life.

But Fran suffered from ‘a sort of false nostalgia’. Even while the country was cut off from the international community, ‘I wanted to know more about my roots’.

‘At that time there were not many books about Albania, and the information we had tended to be propaganda by the communist regime. I searched for images to give me an idea of the history of the Albanians. I was very curious’.

Fran developed a passion for pictures, postcards and documents about the homeland where he had never lived. His collection started when his grandmother passed on a couple of postcards with images of traditional costumes. ‘When an emigrant leaves Albania, those pictures get more and more valuable’, he observes. Fran started to visit booksellers, flea markets and antiquarian bookshops everywhere he went. ‘I found old books on Albania here and there - in London, Paris, Italy, the United States... Over the years I accumulated a collection of pictures, lithographs and engravings that are also beautiful artistically. I did it for pleasure. I didn’t know if they had any value, but artist friends told me yes, their value is also historical, sociological and ethnographic.’

Sometimes English dealers brought items to Brussels for international markets; and then the arrival of the internet opened whole new opportunities for exploration, using key words he had come to identify. ‘It’s like being a detective,’ explains Fran. ‘You see the picture and then you discover the artist’.

That was how he came across Woodville ‘by accident’. Son of an American artist, Woodville was born in London in 1856. He studied art first at the Düsseldorf school of painting, and then in Russia and Paris. He settled in Germany, from where he travelled widely to pursue his career as a painter and writer. He spent most of his career working for the Illustrated London News, where he developed a reputation as a talented chronicler of current events.

Woodville was best known as a painter of epic military battles; he studied under the Prussian military artist Wilhelm Camphausen. In the 1880s he travelled to northern Albania with the British writer Athol Mayhew and executed a series of remarkable engravings. They portray not only the struggle for freedom that was engulfing the country, but also the intimate details of everyday life captured with astonishing precision and accuracy, and an ability to convey the unique character of the people he portrays.

Fran’s first sight of Woodville’s work was in London, where he bought an engraving of the League of Prizren. He now has a collection of forty-three engravings, published between 1880 and 1907, mainly in the Illustrated London News but also in Harper’s Weekly in New York as well as French and Italian magazines. ‘I was very attracted by his pictures, and I started to research his life,’ he explains. Woodville’s images of Albania are ‘very natural, very dignified’.

Indeed, in his book Albania Through Art, Professor Ferid Hudhri writes that Woodville’s works ‘give us the atmosphere of the time and the environment where common people lived and worked. Woodville is the author of the most beautiful works about the Albanian League of Prizren, which he did during his travels in those regions of Albania, where the fire of the war for independence was raging.’

In his essay In Albania with the Ghegs, published in 1881 in Scribner’s Monthly magazine, Athol Mayhew tells how he and Woodville encountered the League of Prizren. ‘On our arrival at Scutari, we found the people in a patriotic ferment, and the outbreak of a war with the Slavs - for which we had waited some time in Podgoritza - appeared to be imminent…. The little border rebellion, we were told, had been entirely organised by a patriotic secret association styling itself the Albanian League.’ From interviews with the ‘chiefs’ in Shkodër, Mayhew deduced that ‘The Albanian League is a purely patriotic association, composed of all grades of Albanians, having for its object the determined resistance of an annexation of territory by foreign powers.’ This meant opposing the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, which had awarded portions of Albanian territory to Montenegro, Serbia and Greece. Its aim was Albanian independence.

In a footnote added five months later, Mayhew reproduced the League’s proclamation: ‘We Albanians, who are not immigrants but natives of the soil of this country, who obtained our independence centuries ago, must claim the right to create a state for ourselves… We will obtain that or die in the attempt.’ He concluded that its members had abandoned secrecy and were in open revolt against Ottoman rule.

Woodville and Mayhew travelled north in a bid to reach Gusinje, where they heard Ali Pasha was directing the revolt. Mayhew’s account of the hazardous and ultimately unsuccessful venture is full of humorous detail about the hospitality they received en route, for example a sheep slaughtered in their honour. ‘In Albania the mish ipikitaun, or sheep roasted whole, is the greatest mark of consideration and friendship a mountaineer can offer his guests.’ After hot lard and honey-cakes, ‘… a big gourd full of raki was put into circulation, and once again we returned to our mutton. But it was fearfully trying work, and after an hour or so of persistent muttonizing I tried to feign sleep as the only possible escape from apoplexy.’ In the meantime, Woodville had observed enough to be able to produce some unique and historic images of the uprising.

Mayhew also described the circumstances in which Woodville executed two other outstanding engravings. A bear-fancier in the bazaar portrays ‘three very lady-like gentlemen - at least about the skirts - seated in that armourer’s shop so graphically depicted by my comrade with the pencil.’

Indeed, Woodville’s attention to minute detail - for example the armourer’s traditional weapons hanging in the shop - is one of the features that attracts Kukaj. “Each engraving is a small masterpiece that conveys a poetic image of Albania’, he says.

Street Scene in Scutari portrays a ‘quaint, raking gap of a thoroughfare… and coming down the steps towards us, while leading his small highland packhorse, is a Christian mountaineer, a bold, conspicuous figure, clad in white close-fitting woollen garb and Arab-like headgear.’ He notes with amusement that, on rainy days, the residents carried enormous red umbrellas, ‘which an Englishman recognises at once as nothing less than a veritable English ‘gamp’.’

Fran watches carefully over his remarkable collection - now numbering more than 2,000 items - choosing when and where to unveil them when he believes they will receive a worthy showing.

In 2015, his donation of a rare antique lahuta to Brussels’ Museum of Musical Instruments was the occasion for speeches, stories and music attended by the Albanian Ambassador. But Fran regrets that Woodville is not well-known in Albania itself and now wants to highlight this Anglo-Albanian connection in the context of the centenary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Fran is especially interested in the way other Europeans see Albania. Woodville, he argues, wanted to show that the country was rich in tradition, yet rooted in Europe. ‘Like all artists, Woodville had great curiosity. He was fascinated by the beauty of the costumes. He managed to apprehend the Albanian character: proud, independent, stoical. One would say he really understood the strength, the purity of the mountain dwellers. He knew also that it was a moment of crisis - the beginning of the end of the Ottoman empire.’

Like so many artists, Woodville was influenced by Lord Byron and aware of the Greek struggle for independence, believes Kukaj. He understood that Albania aspired to become integrated into a European ‘family of liberty’.

According to Athol Mayhew, he and Woodville did indeed form their own conclusions about the country. ‘Our first experience of Albania dispelled the dark stain which ignorance had placed upon the people’s character,’ he wrote. ‘We shall long remember the unflinching friendship and hospitality that was shown us when we sojourned with the Ghegs in Albania.’


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