Charles Augustus ('Owl') Howell, entrepreneur, was born of an English father and a Portuguese mother around 1840. His marriage certificate of 21 August 1867, lists his father as Alfred William Howell, merchant. The certificate, signed by Murray Howell, gives Howell's profession as 'gentleman'! Howell described himself as of high rank and related to the da Costa or Posser family and wore the red ribbon of the Order of Christ to prove it. His death certificate gives his age as 50, address as 91 Southampton Row and cause of death from Pneumonic Pthises Asthemia at the Home Hospital, 16 Fitzroy Square, on 21 April 1890.
Howell was an Anglo-Portuguese dealer and collector. Despite his often dubious dealings, he was regarded with friendly tolerance by artists. He worked as Ruskin's secretary during the 1860s until his dismissal in 1870, and for Rossetti from 1872-76. He met JW through Rossetti, though the date is unknown, and commissioned him to paint his mistress Rosa Corder in c.1874 (see Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder (YMSM 203)). He helped JW 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 JW (see Study of 'Arrangement in Brown and Black: Miss Rosa Corder' (M.713)-Sketch of 'Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder' (M.714)). He was charming, persuasive and unscrupulous, described by JW as 'the genius, the superb liar, the Gil-Blas, Robinson-Crusoe hero out of his proper time, the creature of top-boots and plumes - splendidly flamboyant' (Pennell, 1921, p. 58). He came to JW's aid during his financial crisis in 1878-79 and acted as agent for a series of etchings of Chelsea and the Thames.
Material in the Kreitman Research Centre at Tate Britain contains many flattering references to Howell by Frederick Sandys, the Rossettis, Swinburne, Millais, JW and others (MacDonald, 1995). Ford Madox Brown on 1 March 1872 called Howell 'second to no one in England in his intimate knowledge of ancient and oriental furniture, china, tapestries', while W. M. Rossetti commended his 'quick and accurate discernment of the merits of works of art and decoration of many various kinds, along with extensive practical knowledge of their market value' (6 February 1872). D. G. Rossetti stated that 'I can express complete confidence in his judgement on questions of art' and commended 'his striking gifts and energy in business' (29 April 1872).
These commendations avoid any question of Howell's unscrupulousness and self-aggrandisement, which led first Rossetti and later JW to part with him on less than amicable terms. Yet in the end, Howell made little profit from JW and was one of the chief creditors at his bankruptcy. In 1882, JW published Whistler, James McNeill, Correspondence. Paddon Papers. The Owl and the Cabinet, London, , concerning an obscure quarrel over furniture which ended their relationship.
Howell lived at Chaldon House, Fulham in 1877, 91 Southampton Row from 1878 and Old Danner, Selsey Bill, Sussex from about 1879 on.
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Whistler Journal, Philadelphia, 1921; Angeli, Helen Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite Twilight: The Story of Charles Augustus Howell, London, 1954; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; Maas, Jeremy, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995.