WILLIAM LIONEL WYLLIE (1851-1931) was a prolific English artist and painter of maritime themes in oils, watercolors, etchings, and aquatints, his artistry respected to the point of his being acknowledged as "Britain's premier marine artist of the later Victorian and early 20th century." Wyllie primarily painted seascapes and coastal landscapes, in which his treatment of light and atmosphere was the main feature, bringing to the paintings a feeling of peace and tranquility. His work portrayed a wide range of maritime subjects, from destroyers and battleships to fishing boats and sailing dinghies. It was his etchings and watercolors showing working life on the Thames and the Medway that first brought him widespread popularity.
He was born on July 5th, 1851 at 67 Albany Street, Camden, London, the eldest son of William Morrison Wyllie, a prosperous minor-genre painter who decided, partly for health reasons, that the family would spend part of the year in France (at Wimereux, on the coast just north of Boulogne) and the remainder of the year in a winter home in London. Other members of the family also shared artistic inclinations: Wyllie's half-brother, Lionel Percy Smythe, and his younger brother, Charles Wyllie, were accomplished artists in their own right, and his son, Harold, went on to become a successful marine artist.
Most of Wyllie's childhood summers were spent in coastal France, where he developed a lifelong love of the sea, and, by extension, sailing. His natural artistic aptitude was evident at an early age, when he first began to draw, and his talent was encouraged by both his father and his half-brother Lionel. His knowledge and ability at capturing the essence of maritime life was greatly enhanced by the trips the family took to and from England and France on an old paddle-wheel steamer. While at the shore in Wimereux, much of the young man's time was spent making sketches of the sea and sky, of gulls, fishing-boats, and square-rigged vessels of all sorts, many of the latter drawn with the aid of a telescope. Shipwrecks also provided artistic foil for the future marine painter.
Wyllie's formal artistic education began in 1865 at the Heatherley School of Fine Art on Newman Street in London, where he concentrated on making drawings from antiques. Then, in 1866, at the age of fifteen, he was enrolled in the Royal Academy School, which he attended until 1869, studying under Edwin Henry Landseer, John Everett Millais, Frederic Leighton and many other highly notable painters of the Victorian era. His first canvases were exhibited in 1868, one of which was purchased by the Academy itself. In 1869, at the age of eighteen, he was awarded the Turner Gold Medal for his painting "Dawn after a Storm".
In the early 1870s Wyllie became an illustrator for the 'Graphic', as well as an illustrator of books for Cassell's. With his brother Charles, he began a series of cruises along European waterways in an old, modified longboat christened 'The Moonlight'. Hundreds of pictures and studies were made on these expeditions, including a picture painted at this time of a foundered brigantine with a great flock of seagulls, which was purchased by the celebrated painter, John Singer Sargent. The paintings "The Goodwins" and "Blessing the Sea" appeared in 1873, and "The Silent Highway" the subsequent year, followed by "Coming up on the Flood". In 1881 "The Rochester River" was bought by J.C. Hook, R.A., and "Our River" and "The Port of London" came next. In 1883 the Council of the Royal Academy bought "Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide" for the nation under the terms of the Chantry bequest. The subject of this picture - tugs and working barges - was something of an innovation, as painters had formerly concentrated on more decorative types of vessels; however, Wyllie's love of the sea and anything that floated on it embraced every type and size of vessel. It moved him to cover every aspect of the working river and set a fashion other artists followed. The publisher Robert Dunthorne was so enamored with this picture that he gave Wyllie a commission for a large etching. Wyllie then set out to learn the technique of this branch of the arts. In 1886 and 1887, respectively, "Work-a-day England" and "The River of Gold" appeared. An etching of the latter was a great success, and the same can be said of "The Highway of Nations". In 1889 he exhibited "Davy Jones' Locker" and "The Phantom Ship". The etching of "Kit's Hole Reach" and "The Calliope steaming out of Samoa in the teeth of a hurricane" were published in 1892, and "The Roaring Forties" in 1894. "London's Water Gate" was painted in 1895 for Sir John Wolf Barry, the architect of the Tower Bridge. The etching, "A Southerly Gale, Brighton", showing the old chain pier in the midst of breakers, was published just before the pier's destruction. The Chantry Collection purchased a second picture in 1899, "The Battle of the Nile". In 1901 "The Passing of a Great Queen" was bought for the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The Art Union of London published the etching of "The Battle of Trafalgar" in 1905, and in 1907 Wyllie became an Academician, sending "The Wind Falls Light" as his diploma work. At about this time his first drypoint was exhibited at the Royal Society of Painter Etchers.
During the First World War, Mr. Balfour, the First Lord of the Admiralty, gave permission to Wyllie to cruise in His Majesty's ships, and in the North Sea, Harwich, Rosyth, Cromarty, and Scapa Flow, where he made hundreds of studies of the doings of the Royal Navy. He saw the German Fleet surrender in the Forth and went with the last convoy of battleships to Scapa Flow. A number of etchings and drypoints resulted from all these cruises. His book, "Seafights of the Great War", gives some of his experiences of flying in early airplanes, cruising on battleships, being submerged in a submarine, and even taking a trip on a Q-ship.
In 1926 the United Service Club asked Wyllie to paint an enormous picture of the Battle of Jutland, and this was exhibited at the Royal Academy and at the Walker Gallery. From a sketching expedition to Northumerland and the East Coast of Scotland, two series of drypoints were published for private circulation only. These are now out of print and the plates destroyed; the same is true of "The Pass of Glencoe", which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1928. After his visit to Scotland he toured the Mediterranean, from which the famous aquatint, "The Parthenon" resulted.
His largest painting, and one of his last, is the semi-circular, 42 foot panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, which was unveiled in 1930 by King George V, and which now hangs in the Royal Naval Museum within the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, where it is viewed by an estimated 100,000 people every year. One of his final tasks was his work as member of the committee supervising the restoration of the H.M.S. Victory to her Trafalgar state, in a dry-dock in the Portsmouth Dockyard. Following his death in London on April 6th, 1931, he was buried with full naval honors, and, in a moving ceremony reminiscent of Nelson's state funeral in 1806, his body was rowed up Portsmouth Harbor in a naval cutter past battleships with dipped colors and quaysides lined with dockyard workers.
Following his death, the watercolors that remained in his studio were purchased for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; on counting, these were found to number around five thousand. In 1985 the Society for Nautical Research was able to present the National Maritime Museum with about seventy etchings, including many working-proofs acquired from Wyllie's daughter Aileen.
During his lifetime, Wyllie held memberships in many prestigious organizations. He became a member of the Society of British Artists in 1875, and of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolors in 1882. In 1887 he became a member of the New English Art Club. He was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1889, and in 1907 was elected as a full member. In 1903 he became a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.
Wyllie's exhibition history was extensive, with paintings and etchings shown at the Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolors, the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, the Grosvenor Gallery, the New English Art Club, the Society of British Artists, the Dowdeswell Galleries and the Fine Art Society. To this day, his work remains in great demand.
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