The Forge, engraving, 1859.
45.5 × 53 cm (18 × 21 in)

James Sharples (4 September 1825 – 13 June 1893) was a blacksmith and largely self-taught artist born in Wakefield, Yorkshire.[1] He produced only one major work, The Forge, completed in 1847,[2] but the story of his life so impressed the writer Samuels Smiles that he included it in the later editions of his Self-Help book, first published in 1860.[3]

Sharples was one of the thirteen children of James Sharples and his wife Sarah. Born into a family of blacksmiths,[a]Sharples’s father and both grandfathers had also been blacksmiths.[1] at the age of ten he was sent to work as a smithy boy in Kay’s Phoenix Foundry at Bury, where his father worked in the engine shop.[4] Sharples evidently displayed some early signs of artistic ability by drawing boiler designs in chalk on his mother’s kitchen floor,[1] and she and his elder brother Peter encouraged him to pursue his talent. At sixteen he attended weekly art classes at Bury Mechanics’ Institute for six months, and worked to improve his reading so that he could better understand the principles of art. Despite his difficulties in reading, he studied John Burnet’s A Practical Treatise on Painting (1827) assiduously, and his brother Peter bought him a copy of Flaxman’s Anatomical Studies.[5]

At the age of 18 Sharples started to experiment with oil painting, and after making his own easel, palette and canvas he walked the 18 miles (29 km) into Manchester and back to buy paint and brushes.[5] After some initial disappointments he produced a copy of an engraving, Sheep-Shearing, which he sold for a half-crown.[b]A half-crown is 12½p in decimal currency, equivalent to about £100 of labour value as at 2019.[6] Still working in the foundry, he opted for the heavier kind of iron work, which gave him the time while waiting for the metal to heat up to a working temperature to work on his most ambitious piece yet, The Forge, which he started in 1844.[5]

The Forge

Completed in 1847,[2] The Forge is one of very few representations of the interior of a Victorian factory.[7] In the words of a Sharples biographer, “The artistic merits of this painting … were less impressive than the trials that had been undergone to produce it.” But nevertheless, its reception encouraged Sharples to consider a career as a professional painter.[1] He decided to devote himself exclusively to art, encouraged by Agnew and Zanetti, Manchester art dealers, but after fifteen months opted to resume work in the foundry.[5]

Encouraged by a suggestion from Zanetti, of Agnew and Zanetti, that reproductions of The Forge would make excellent engravings, Sharples undertook to learn the art of steel-engraving, making his own tools and press.[5] After ten years of work he finished the plate – his only one – in 1859.[2] Prints proved to be an “immense success”, and thousands of copies were sold, but Sharples was “exploited outrageously” by the print sellers, and combined with some bad luck meant that he remained reliant on his work at the foundry for an income.[3]

Personal life

Sharples married Sarah Moore (1832–1861) on 7 April 1852, with whom he had one son and a daughter, who died in infancy; after his first wife’s death he married Sarah Ford on 20 June 1863, with whom he also had a son and a daughter. Sharples died in Blackburn, Lancashire on 13 June 1893 and was buried at the town’s cemetery.[1]

See also

  • Victorian paintingVictorian painting refers to the distinctive styles of painting in the United Kingdom during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901).


a Sharples’s father and both grandfathers had also been blacksmiths.[1]
b A half-crown is 12½p in decimal currency, equivalent to about £100 of labour value as at 2019.[6]