Louis Ginnett (1875-1946) was a painter primarily of portraits and interiors, a mural painter and a designer of stained glass. He exhibited widely in his lifetime, including at the Royal Academy, and was one of the British artists selected to be exhibited by the British Council in 1912 in Venice. 

He is of particular interest in the context of Brighton and Sussex in a number of respects, having been a member of the Society of Sussex Painters, produced a series of mural panels on the history of Sussex for the hall of Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar School, now BHASVIC, and taught for many years at the Brighton School of Art.1

Perhaps drawn, in some sense, by the idea of living in a village where crafts and arts activities were already so strong, Ginnett took up residence in Ditchling, of which, along with his friend and colleague Charles Knight, he could be termed an ‘independent’ artistic resident, connected to the community in terms of activity and identity but not a member of the Ditchling Guild. Ginnett was already teaching at Brighton School of Art when Knight joined in 1919 and the two men had a long association as friends, colleagues and members of the Brighton Art Club and even ran private painting classes together in Ditchling village.

Ginnett was born into a large circus family and educated at Brighton Grammar School [latterly Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar School]. He studied art at Brighton and then at the Academie Julian in Paris and began teaching at Brighton School of Art as early as 1909. There is some archival reference to him by students at Brighton in the 1930s, but it is ‘Past and Present’, the Grammar School magazine, that provides a more substantial appreciation of Louis Ginnett, written shortly after his death in 1946. Here it said that, “His students testify with enthusiasm, and by their own success, to his teaching ability and to the encouragement and inspiration they received from him.”

It seems therefore that Ginnett was a talented teacher. The same appreciation in ‘Past and Present’ also mentions that he was a founder member of the Brighton Arts Club, a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, a frequent exhibitor, including at the Royal Academy, a campaigner against building development around Ditchling, a mural painter, a designer of stained glass and, it adds, a Freemason.

In a letter of thanks thought to have been addressed to Charles Alfred Morris, President of the Society of Sussex Painters, Ginnett commented that ‘an empty picture is what I can’t abide. I suppose my boyhood study of the Pre-Raphaelites is responsible’. His murals and stained glass window designs in the Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar School hall also show an Arts and Crafts awareness of keeping decoration in proportion with utility, as the panels in the Hall were designed specifically to harmonise in scale, shape and subject matter with the room. The paintings for which Ginnett is perhaps best known are the portrait studies of his daughter Mary, in which the use of colour and emphasis on the strong form of the neck and shoulders recollects elements of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work.

Two paintings by Louis Ginnett, left, portrait of girl with short, bobbed hair, also full length figure of girl in a coat standing in a hallway near a mirror.

Louis Ginnett. LEFT: Portrait of Mary Ginnett. RIGHT: The Coat of Many Colours

Ginnett’s oil painting ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ was completed circa 1926. It is normally on display in the 20th Century Art & Design Gallery of Brighton Museum and was included in the 150th anniversary exhibition at the University of Brighton Faculty of Arts in 2009. Also gathered for the 2009 exhibition were Ginnet’s ‘Portrait of Mary’, held by Ditchling Museum, and a self-portrait completed in the 1920s, which was loaned, along with a Louis Ginnett handmade, handwritten book, by Louis’ grandson Chris Ginnett.

The images Ginnett painted of Mary in particular have a sense of simultaneous intimacy and distance. They are carefully composed and structured, highly finished pieces that concentrate on depicting character and relationships in interior, often domestic, settings. Ginnett was eventually President of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters, yet portraiture was very much only one dimension of his work.

He also painted murals in his old school, now Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College (BHASVIC), where the School Hall is decorated with nine huge mural panels that circumnavigate the walls, showing detailed scenes symbolic of Sussex’s role in English history. As a project Ginnett worked on it over a period of some 25 years, and was adding a war memorial piece to it shortly before his death. In terms of the scale of the piece, the panoramic qualities and the sense of loyalty to the region and the school it is quite remarkable.

When speaking at the beginning of the Autumn Term, 1928, Louis Ginnett told the School of his feeling that, through all the changes of history, there remained something enduring in types character.  Again and again in the murals the artist brings this out, not only in his principal figures, but also in the crowds, whether they surround the Roman prefect, William the Conqueror, Henry III, William Coxon, or George IV.2

The series begins with primitive man returning from a hunt, Sussex having become a centre of prehistoric interest in 1913 as a result of the recent discovery of the Piltdown skull. In the second panel, the Marshall Memorial Panel, native onlookers watch a Roman prefect as he inspects building work on a new villa, a symbol of Roman order brought to an outlying province. Conquest and the fluctuations of governance are again the themes of the third and fourth panels: in the third panel, the Saxons conquer at the ‘Siege of Pevensey’ in A.D.490, destroying symbols of both Roman power and Christianity; in panel four, ‘After the Battle of Hastings’, the Duke William refuses the body of the defeated Harold a burial in consecrated ground in 1066.

The War Memorial takes us through panels 5 and 6. In ‘Rye – After the Armada’, the trophy of a captured Spanish flag symbolises the part that Sussex men and the ships of Sussex oak played in protecting the nation from the invader. ‘The Old Boys’ War Memorial’ then includes two flanking panels showing characteristics of the English nation in the Middle Ages. The central picture shows Simon de Montfort, who in defiance of kingly excesses defeated Henry III, and here supervises ‘The Signing of the Mise of Lewes’, forcing the king to dismiss foreign favourites and to cease to be the tool of the Papacy.

The last three panels display (chronologically anticlockwise) ‘Sussex Ironworking – Parliament Emissaries Question the King’s Gunfounder’, in which the Sussex ironworks are visited by Cromwellian representatives; ‘The Pavillion – George IV Receives a Loyal Address’, in which the loyal folk of Sussex express loyalty and gratitude to the new King George IV in front of the Royal Pavilion; and, rounding off the series, ‘Hollingbury Camp, “Full Circle”‘, wherein excavation of an ancient Briton’s skull is displayed to locals of the 1920s including the Grammar School’s Old Boys’ Association president Thomas Read.

Although not an official war artist, Ginnett’s sketches and paintings from the First World War show his interest in trying to capture the phenomenon of devastation on the Western Front: the denuded, barren environment and alienation from what might be thought of as ‘normal’ civilized peacetime life for a middle class man of the early twentieth century.

Sepia photograph of male group in early twentieth century clothing

Sussex Arts Club members including Charles Knight (middle row, 4th from right) and Louis Ginnett (middle row, 3rd from right), with kind permission of Ditchling Museum.

According to catalogue information in the Imperial War Museum, Ginnett initially volunteered for service in 1915 with other artists from the St John’s Wood Arts Club, serving as a private with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. He was made lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1916, serving in France, and was probably promoted in 1918. He seems to have been very keen to continue drawing and painting throughout his period of service. A note on the flyer of one his diaries, signed by his Major, gives official permission for this, saying that 2nd Lt Ginnett wished to make his sketches “while off-duty…He does so merely as a recreation, and is willing to submit his sketch book to the censor.”

Chronologically, of course, it is the war work that comes before the better known paintings and murals. The sketches themselves capture a range of subjects including studies of bombed buildings: they have a spontaneous and loose quality. At the same time they suggest an almost journalistic eye for recording the feel of different moments and scenes from a combatant’s point of view.

However, when we come to his wartime oil painting ‘Ypres Salient, Dawn, February 1918’, held by the Imperial War Museum, it is noticeable that, despite the desolation of the subject matter, it is a strangely beautiful image. This painting was apparently produced in the studio after the war from sketches, and perhaps this explains why in some ways it seems to have almost as much in common with the style of his more domestic, peacetime work as it does with his war drawings.

Drawings showing broken architecture of churches.

Louis Ginnett, war drawings

Apart from the period of service in the forces during the First World War, Ginnett taught at Brighton School of Art for over 30 years, seeing many changes. In the thirties the progressive new Principal, Sallis Benney, was keen to develop the School’s international outlook. He was also keen to provide a better artistic training for students so that they would have an impact in industry and help fuel demand for better-designed goods. Not everyone in the town felt quite so in tune with these ambitious aims, however, with some seeing the art school as financially wasteful and its staff appointed through favouritism. In 1939, 30 members of part-time staff, including Louis Ginnett and Charles Knight, were sacked on the basis of this accusation of favouritism, although the decision was rescinded less than two months later.

Two pictures of Louis Ginnett's work, the cover and spine of his book, Gleanings and a landscape painting

Louis Ginnett, LEFT: Gleanings from Upper Gardner Street. RIGHT: landscape.

Ginnett produced a manuscript book, Gleanings from Upper Gardner Street, which offers a satirical and playful sense of a man who seems to have been at times endearingly unconcerned with formality and respect.  Louis Ginnett was married to Sir Herbert Carden’s sister Lillian, and local commentators believe he may have collaborated with John Denman on the ‘pylons’ that were erected to mark the northern limit of ‘Greater Brighton’ on 1st April 1928 and which still stand at either side of the southbound carridgeway of the A23.

He died in 1946 and is buried in Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton, where the figure of a horse represents his family’s background in the circus.

Material for this page adapted from the research and ‘Ditchling lecture’ by Dr Philippa Lyon and from the BHASVIC ‘Past and Present’ online information on the Ginnett murals.


[1] Photographer and painter Thurston Hopkins recalled Louis Ginnett’s presence at Brighton School of Art in the 1930s and said ‘we were aware of Ditchling. Very much.’ (Interview with Woodham and Lyon, 31st July 2008).

[2] Summary of the panels at BHASVIC. Further details of Louis Ginnett’s murals available on the BHASVIC school website

Panel 1 ‘Prehistoric Man in Sussex’, gift of Old Boys accepted January 20 1913,

Panel 2 ‘The Roman Prefect Builds at Bignor’, Marshal Memorial Panel, accepted January 20 1913

Panel 3 ‘The Siege of Pevensey’, gift of Old Boys accepted January 20 1913

Panel 4 ‘After the Battle of Hastings’, Ellen Read Memorial Panel,

Panel 5 ‘The Signing of the Mise of Lewes’ which together with painted side panels and flanking rolls of honour make up the ‘Old Boy’s War Memorial’, gift of Old Boys dedicated in 1923 by Right Rev H K Southwell, Bishop of Lewes to the sons of the School who gave their lives in the War,

Panel 6 ‘Rye – After the Armada’, commissioned June 1927, financed by War Memorial Fund, gifts from parents and Old Boys

Panel 7 ‘Sussex Ironworking – Parliament Emissaries Question the King’s Gunfounder’, Read Memorial, unveiled November 1936 as part of the memorial to former headmaster Mr T. Read

Panel 8 ‘The Pavillion George IV Receives a Loyal Address’, Read Memorial, unveiled November 1936 as part of the memorial to former headmaster Mr T. Read

Panel 9 ‘Hollingbury Camp, “Full Circle”‘ gift of the artist Louis Ginnett ROI, presented 1939.