The Life and Art of Charles Doyle

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Above: Doyle at age 33

Doyle was born on March 25, 1832 in London England. He grew up in a very artistic family: his father, John Doyle, was the famous political cartoonist "HB" while his older brother, Richard "Dicky" Doyle, was a prominent illustrator, best known for his work with Punch magazine. His other brother, Henry Doyle, was also an accomplished artist who would go on to become the director of the National Gallery in Ireland.

Although Charles exhibited a great deal of artistic talent, he was not able to earn a living from his artwork. At the age of 17, he moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and started working in the Scottish Office of Works as an architectural draftsman. His most famous accomplishment was designing the Fountain at Holyrood Palace. Doyle would hold a position in the Scottish government for 30 years, supplementing his income by illustrating books and magazine articles.

In 1855, Charles married Mary Foley whose mother owned the boarding house where Charles was living. Together, Charles and Mary would raise seven children together. Their eldest son, Arthur Conan Doyle, would grow up to become a well-known author and creator of the famous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes.

It would seem as if Charles Doyle had the perfect life: a reliable job, a budding artistic career, and a large loving family. However, Charles had a weakness--riddled with feelings of inadequacy, and low self-esteem, Charles found solace in alcohol. Over time, he became so addicted to drink that his health began to decline. He started to suffer from both physical and mental exhaustion which resulted in the loss of his job at the Scottish Office of Works in June of 1876. Over the next several years, his condition deteriorated rapidly into acute delirium tremens. In addition to the delusions and hallucinations usually associated with this condition, Charles also suffered from epilepsy and bouts of depression. After years of failed rehabilitation, he was committed to a mental institution in 1881. He would spend the next twelve years in asylums for the mentally ill.

Below: Doyle's Gravestone

Ironically, it was during his time in institutions such as the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, that Charles created some of his best artwork. He kept  several sketchbooks which he filled with watercolor drawings and pen-and-ink sketches. Most of this artwork featured elves, faerie folk, and other fantastical themes. In addition, the illustrations also featured clever wordplay, and visual puns. Doyle created this artwork to prove his sanity, sending the drawings to his family as proof of his wrongful confinement. In spite of his efforts, Doyle would remain in an asylum for the rest of his life. On the morning of October 10, 1893 Charles Altamont Doyle suffered from a severe epileptic fit which proved too powerful for his weakened heart. After a life long struggle with alcohol, Charles Altamont Doyle finally found peace. He was buried in a graveyard in Dumfries, Scotland.

In 1924 Doyle's oldest son, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, held an exhibit of his father's works. The exhibit attracted the praise of numerous critics. Perhaps the greatest compliment was delivered by author George Bernard Shaw. He noted that Charles Doyle's artwork was so good that it deserved its own special room in a national museum.