sketcher, cartoonist, amateur photographer(?), architect, squatter and civil servant, was born on 26 February 1826 at Castle Carey, Somerset, second son of Frederick Norton, a retired captain of the 11th Hussars, and Hannah, née Birch, who died when Charles was twelve. He and his father moved to London in 1839. They sailed for Victoria in the barque Glenswilly in 1842, arriving on 13 December. A pencil self-portrait drawn soon after his arrival is in the La Trobe Library together with the major collection of his work – all watercolours or pencil sketches.
Having gained experience on the land at Cardinia Creek (near present-day Cranbourne), Norton took out a pastoral licence in 1844 for his own run, Tooralle, near Clunes. It was close to the Seven Hills station, which his second cousins Arthur and Cecil Birch had taken up on the Loddon River in 1836. Norton drew Interior of Mr Birch’s Old Hut, Seven Hills Estate 1844 and interior and exterior views of Tooralle (1846-47). He also drew other properties in the district, including Clunes – the Station of Donald Cameron, Esq. J.P. and Smeaton Hill the Station of Captn Hepburn . Tooralle did not prove financially viable, so in 1847 Norton took up a run on the Barwon River, outside Geelong, which he said he named Carlsbadt after his father’s birthplace in Germany. The following year he married Susan Meade, governess to the children of Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe . They had three children; Joanna Kate later annotated several of her father’s drawings, including one of the hut in which she was born.
Norton’s Carlsbadt watercolours of 1847-49 include both interior and exterior views of the homestead such as View from Front Door Carlsbadt on the Barwon , Old Kitchen at Carlsbadt and Woolwashing on the Barwon . He also drew views of the surrounding landscape, especially the Barwon Falls. As Norton noted in his diary on 30 May 1844, he normally 'Drew, read and smoked’ after dinner and this evening occupation perhaps explains the several interior views of his home, a comparatively rare subject in colonial painting.
Carlsbadt proved no more successful than Tooralle and in 1850 the Nortons moved to 1 Spring Street, Melbourne, where Charles remained until his death, finding employment as a clerk in the Treasury. The house was designed by his wife’s brother-in-law, John Gill . Although Norton himself was variously listed as architect and draughtsman in directories from 1854 to 1871 and called an architect on his death certificate, no buildings are known. (He may have worked for Gill.) He gave his profession as 'artist’ when he showed watercolours at the first exhibition of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1857. His exhibits, Victorian Insects and four flower studies, were reviewed in the Age : 'Mr Norton supplies some very well executed flower pieces in watercolours, and careful drawings of Australian Insects… The latter are painted with the most commendable care, but want smoothness, from over elaboration’.
Norton showed Flowers from Nature at the 1862 Melbourne Exhibition of Fine Arts, which the Argus considered 'distinguished for their literal truth’. He also sent watercolour drawings of feathers, flowers and insects to the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. As the Tatler noted in 1898, Norton 'had great artistic ability and his numerous watercolour and pen and ink sketches are interesting memorials of some of the first homesteads and events of interest in the early days of the colony’. The views include one of his own house and another of John Gill’s residence, Gwyllehurst, East Melbourne (1859 LT).
The Tatler stated that Norton had managed to 'hit off passing events in a very humorous style in some striking cartoons which attracted considerable attention in their day when Punch was unknown’. One, a pen-and-ink drawing with sepia wash titled Hail Victoria the Free 1851 , celebrates the separation of the settlement from New South Wales. Two illustrations were published in a later issue of the Tatler , View of Melbourne (Eastern End) in 1842 and Review of H.M. Troops and Volunteers near Sandridge, June 1861, from the “Butts Station, St Kilda Railway (watercolour, Bridget McDonnell Gallery, ill. 1997 cat. cover). He may also have been the photographer of a collection of hand-coloured albumen prints of his family (LT), including his own portrait (1858), John Gill [and] Joanna Kate Norton (1856) and Arthur Birch’s wife, Annie (d.1859). Charles Norton died at his Spring Street home on 27 March 1872 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.