James Charles was born in Warrington and went to London aged fourteen to work as a lithographer. He then studied at Heatherley’s School of Art and from 1872 at the Royal Academy where Henry H. La Thangue was a contemporary.
Afterwards he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, his fellow students being George Clausen and Fred Jackson. Like them, Charles came under the influence of the French plein air painters. In 1875 he returned to London and had his first painting accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy. Along with close friends Clausen and La Thangue, Charles was involved in the establishment of the New English Art Club in the 1880s. He later moved to East Ashling in Sussex, visiting France and Italy and painting in Yorkshire during the winter months.
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