Oh, Mr Howell, how very spendid to see you. Charles Augustus Howell is one of those people who is fascinating, intriguing and rather seductive, and the undoing of many a person, both ladies and gentlemen. Born in 1840, he lied his way through the next 50 years before being found in a gutter with his throat slit and a shilling shoved between his teeth. Or was he? Now that's the problem with Howell...
|Charles Augustus Howell (1882) Frederick Sandys|
We can be vaguely confident that he was born around 1840. He claimed to be the son of an English drawing master who was living in Lisbon, and a Portugese mother, but he was a bit vague about detail. By the time of Charles' marriage to his cousin Frances Catherine Howell, or 'Kitty', his father has obviously had a career change and is listed as a 'merchant'. But we'll gloss over that... The stories he told of his youth in Portugal are pretty fabulous: card-sharping in Oporto and diving to loot Spanish Galleons of booty. Sigh, he sounds dreamy. No wonder Whistler called him 'the creature of top-boots and plumes, splendidly flamboyant.' My own youth in 1970s Wiltshire contained very little in the way of card-sharping and Galleoning looting, so I'm easily impressed. As were many others, as we shall see...
Howell entered Pre-Raphaelite circles in the 1860s when he began to work as Ruskin's secretary, and also modelled for Rossetti, being a rather handsome fellow...
|Study for Found D G Rossetti (Yeah, but who hasn't modelled for bloody Found?)|
|Study for Dante's Dream D G Rossetti|
|Mrs Charles Augustus Howell (1873) Frederick Sandys|
According to Georgie Burne-Jones, Howell was 'one who came among us in friend's clothing...but inwardly was a stranger to all our life meant.' Now, that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement. While Charles and Kitty Howell were a golden couple, much beloved by all, there was another side to Howell which was not so beguiling. Sacked by Ruskin in 1870, Howell failed to keep the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal a secret, thus causing scandal and unhappiness from an already terrible event. He also took a lover in 1873, the artist Rosa Corder, another beautiful woman. Some chaps get all the luck...
|Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Rosa Corder (1876-1878) J A M Whistler|
|Mr. ___ and Miss ___ nervously perpetuating the touch of a vanished hand (1922) Max Beerbohm|
Apparently, it was Fanny Cornforth who gave Howell his nickname 'Owl', albeit inadvertently. When asked if she had seen Howell while she was out of town, Fanny replied that she had 'see'd no 'Owl', and it stuck. It's ironic that for all his big stories of heroic daring-do and involvement in a political assassination (the attempt by Felice Orsini to assassinate Napoleon III), he was undone by some rather silly forgeries. However, neither his wealth nor his amazing reputation (or rather infamy) seem to have suffered too much. Conan Doyle apparently based Charles Augustus Milverton
|Charles Augustus Howell Mortimer Menpes|
So, what can be made of this figure? Was he a rotter, an opportunist, a liar and blackmailer? Possibly. Should he be played by Kiefer Sutherland in a film? Almost certainly. Would I wear Kitty Howell's dress? Given half a chance. In the end, he does rather enliven events and in many ways we fulfil his wishes in still talking about him. What ever else Charles Augustus Howell may have wished to be, he obviously wanted to be immortalised by his reputation.
Congratulation Charlie, you may well have got your wish.