Charles Altamont Doyle

Charles Doyle was a gifted artist, a tormented soul, and father to a famous son who tried to aid him. In 1889, during his incarceration at the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, Charles put together an album of drawings and watercolors that was rediscovered in 1977 by Michael Baker and published as The Doyle Diary: The Last Great Conan Doyle Mystery. The book attracted a number of readers and has formed the base for further investigation of The Curious Case of the Mad Artist.

Charles Altamont Doyle and six-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle, 1865. This is one of only two photographs of Charles known to exist.

Charles Doyle was one of a batch of artist brothers fathered by John Doyle, an artist who had found success as a political cartoonist. His sons went in different directions: James illustrated the arms of the peerage; Henry became director of the National Gallery of Ireland; Richard (“Dickie”) was a much-admired illustrator who established the graphic style of Punch and came to specialize in fairytales. Charles, born 1832, was the unsuccesful son.

Richard Doyle, illustration for Andrew Lang’s Princess Nobody, 1886.

At the age of 17, Charles Doyle took a position at the Scottish Office of Works in Edinburgh. He soon met Mary and the two married in 1853 when Charles was 22. They began having children, probably ten altogether, with seven surviving infancy, but the numbers are disputed. One of these — the second or third or fourth — was Arthur Conan Doyle, born 1859.

Charles was unsuccessful at his work and began a course of heavy drinking. By 1862, he had become so debiliated that he was put on half-pay. It may be that, during this time, his supervisor helped him keep his job. At any rate, when that man retired in 1876, Charles shortly afterward left the Office of Works.

Mary Doyle, sketch by her brother-in-law, Richard. [Doyle Dairy]

In order to support her large family, Mary began taking in boarders. One of these was a comparatively well-off young fellow named Bryan Waller. Meanwhile, in 1869, the young Arthur Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder, a Jesuit boarding school, by his uncles. There, Doyle learned to loathe religion. During this period, the police were summoned to the Doyle household to settle a domestic dispute during the course of which Charles broke a window. He may also have struck Mary.

Charles continued his downward slide. His supervisor got his name on one plan for a fountain but that was as close to success as he could manage. It may be that Bryan Waller had an affair with Mary Doyle, fifteen or sixteen years older than he. Her last child, a daughter, was named Bryan Julia Doyle. “Julia” was the name of Waller’s mother. 

“I believe this is technically known as a ‘Pick-Me-Up’. — Wonderful effect of what the Dr. gave me at my last gasp.” Charles Doyle drawing of effects of a drug administered to counter a headache at Montrose, 1889. The next page is a death scene. [Doyle Diary]

In 1881, the out-of-work Charles was sent off to the first of a series of hospitals where he was kept for the rest of his life. In 1883 Mary Doyle and two of her daughters took up residence at Bryan Waller’s estate in Massongill. Mary lived there as a rent-free tenant until 1917. Waller married someone else in 1896. Arthur Conan Doyle visited his mother at Massongill a number of times and it might be relevant that the name “Sherlock” was prominent in the area at the time.

It was apparently Waller who steered Conan Doyle toward the study of medicine. Whatever the relationship between the two men, Arthur Conan Doyle never spoke of it except to say that he and Waller once had a great fistfight. Doyle also made the enigmatic statement that: “My mother had adopted the device of sharing a large house, which may have eased her in some ways, but was disastrous in others.”

Study of a servant working at Montrose. She asked for a copy of the watercolor which Charles gave her, then he speculated about the “delicious little romance this opens up” when her boy friend receives it. [Doyle Dairy]

Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t all that interested in the practice of medicine. He wanted to write. In 1887, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was serialized, and the following year Doyle wrote what he considered a more substantial work, Micah Clarke, an historical novel set in the 17th Century Monmouth Rebellion.

Charles had been held at Blairernoe House, a “Home for Gentlemen” who were “intemperate”. But, in 1885, somehow Charles got hold of some booze and became a problem. The authorities were called in and had Charles certified and transferred to the Montrose Asylum before Mary heard of it.

Montrose Asylum as painted by Charles Doyle. [Doyle Diary]

Arthur Conan Doyle went to his father in 1887 and asked him to illustrate the upcoming book publication of A Study in Scarlet. Charles produced eight drawings, his last paying work. I don’t think that anyone looking at these illustrations would think that Charles Doyle was the proper Sherlock artist. It is interesting to note how much Sherlock resembles Charles.

That’s Sherlock Holmes in the center. Illustration by Charles Doyle for A Study in Scarlet, 1887

The book of illustrations reproduced in The Doyle Diary has several recurrent themes. First, there is fairydom, the realm of successful brother Richard Doyle. There are constant pointers that this or that drawing or idea might be capable of  bringing in some cash. And there are the plaints that Charles was ignored by his family and a sane man held captive.

“The Dreadful Secret” is the upper right portion. Other parts: at left, top “Man of Great Breadth”, “Striking Example of Carroty Hair”, bottom “This dog has such a twist in his tale that it’s turned him right over.” below,Center, “What’s he after? — You may think it’s the flower — but — I think it’s a kiss –, Right, bottom “Bow-wow” [Doyle Diary]

For all the sympathy one might have for Charles, I find his fairy paintings not very interesting. Some, I think, are rather blatant ripoffs of his brother’s work. The drawings of life at Montrose are an interesting record of a Victorian asylum. But the most compelling work comes from the margins of Charles Doyle’s reason: he shows himself meeting death (“…to a Catholic, there is nothing so sweet in life as leaving it…”) in several ways and he has some symbolic work such as “The Dreadful Secret” or “The Artist Worried by a Sphinx” that was never given the care and polish of the fairy stuff.

“Horrible fate of the artist worried by a sphinx.” The writen area above the drawing mention “Dick’s Diary” (?),and goes on to describe Sunday practices of the Catholic Doyle family and extends into an argument about Union and Irish independence. The sphinx is a notion sometimes used by Doyle for England. [Doyle Diary]

Embracing Death. Doyle’s annotation: “July 1889 tho’ drawn at an earlier date. The actual accomplishment of the event is today I believe.” [Doyle Diary]

When Greg Stacy was allowed to view another of Charles Doyle’s notebooks at the Huntington Museum he was struck by one drawing:

One simple drawing in the Huntington archives stopped me cold: Beneath a full moon, a fat, leering drunk tipped his glass to the viewer as he tottered atop a horse with a frenzied, mirthless grin. The caption was, “Hurrah! For the jolly night mare!” It was a phrase that aptly described Doyle’s work, perhaps his entire life: the jolly nightmare.

Ah, yes, the jolly nightmare. And perhaps, before we sentimentalize Charles we should consider the domestic not-so-jolly nightmare. Mary Doyle wrote in a letter to the director of the Crichton Asylum where Charles was confined in1892:

My poor husband’s condition was brought on by drink, he has had delirium tremens several times. Just thirty years ago – Decr. 62 – he had such a bad attack that for nearly a year he had to be on half pay and for months he cd [could] only crawl and was perfectly idiotic, could not tell his own name. Since then he has been from one fit of dipsomania to another. Using the most awful expedients, many times putting himself within reach of the law – to get drink – Every article of value he or I possessed carried off secretly, debts to large amount contracted to our trades people, bills given etc. – all for goods which never entered our doors, but were at once converted into money.

He would strip himself of all his underclothes, take the very bed linen, climb down the water spout at risk of his life, break open the children’s money boxes. He even drank furniture varnish…

And, it should be noted, that for all Charles’ whinging about the family ignoring him, Mary also wrote in another letter about how she consulted with her son, Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, about when his worst symptoms came on. And a daughter, who died in 1890, left all of her estate (400 pounds) to provide for his care — he was costing 42 pounds a year to be kept at Montrose at the time. It was Arthur who signed the papers that changed his father to the Crichton Asylum — such changes were thought to be beneficial at the time. He stated that his father was not dangerous (“Certainly not”) and paid the 40 pounds a year that the place cost.

Picnic at Montrose.”Any nicer sandwiches and beer I never met, and tried to prove.” [Doyle Diary]

Charles clearly had problems that went beyond alcohol addiction. He had suffered brain damage and it seemed to be getting worse. His doctors suggested epilepsy but modern analysts lean toward Korsakoff’s Syndrome — but when a guy is drinking varnish, who knows what the final diagnosis will be. Whatever it was, it caught up with Charles in 1893 in the form of heart failure.

Charles Doyle’s case is of interest because of his famous son and because it sheds some light on Victorian practices and attitudes. The complete reticence of everyone in the family about every aspect of the case is, in itself, informative. How this affected the creator of the world’s greatest detective can only be speculation.


The Doyle Diary is long out-of-print but can be had very cheap from used booksellers.
The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is very helpful as is
A. Beveridge, “What Became of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Father?”


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