The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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11th June 2003 - Death of the 'Owl'

Charles Augustus ('Owl') Howell died on this day in 1890.

Howell was a dealer and collector who, despite his often dubious dealings, was generally regarded with friendly tolerance by artists. He worked as Ruskin's secretary during the 1860s until his dismissal in 1870, and for Rossetti from 1872-6. He met Whistler through Rossetti, though the date is unknown, and commissioned him to paint his mistress Rosa Corder in c.1874. He helped Whistler in his tangled affairs, to pawn, sell and engrave his pictures, print and sell etchings, and meet clients and dealers. He also bought paintings from Whistler, and came to the artist's aid during his financial crisis in 1878-9.

Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell (in The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908, pp. 81-2), offer the following enigmatic comments on Howell:

"Quarrels and distrust never made Whistler deny the charm of Charles Augustus Howell, remembered for the part he played in the lives of some of the most distinguished people of his generation. Who he was, where he came from, nobody knew. He was supposed to be associated with high, but nameless, personages in Portugal, and sent by them on a secret mission to England: he was said to have been involved in the Orsini conspiracy [a failed assassination attempt on Napoleon III in 1858], and obliged to fly for his life across the Channel... Rossetti called him 'the cheeky.' ... Ford Madox Brown described him as the Münchhausen of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. The unquestionable fact is that he was a man of great personal charm and unusual business capacity."

His death certificate gives his age as 50, his address as 91 Southampton Row, and the cause of his death as Pneumonic Phthises Asthemia.