William Lionel Wyllie RA

William Lionel Wyllie R.A. (1851 – 1931)

A biographical outline by Nigel Grundy,

William Lionel Wyllie R.A. is considered by many to be the leading British marine artist of his period, his work is in the Royal collection, the Tate, the Royal Academy, the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, the Royal Naval Museum and many provincial galleries, he also has a wide international following.

Though a superb painter in oils and master of the technique of watercolour painting, it is probably for his etching skills that he is most revered. He used a burin, a sharp point, to draw in reverse on copper plates, usually direct from life, sometimes drawing on tracing paper first, then reversing it and taping it to a window as a guide. It is a technique known as dry-point etching, sometimes the etched plate was also immersed in acid to give a deeper etch, known as a bitten etching. The plate was then coated with ink and wiped clean, retaining ink only in the etched line. The etched plate was then placed in contact with a sheet of paper and run through a press to give a correct mirrored image print.

Wyllie was the son of the genre painter William Morrison Wyllie and singer Katherine Benham, a widow with two children. He was born in Albany Street, London, on July 5th, 1851. As a child he suffered from a bronchial condition, so with his parents, brother Charles, and step-brother Lionel Smythe, he spent summers at Wimereux, a coastal village near Boulogne in northern France. They lived in an old Napoleonic guard house on the wide sandy beach, behind the house a narrow track led through high sand dunes to the small village of Wimereux, in front, the sea, from where Wyllie and his younger brother and step-brother, eleven years his senior, saved the lives of many ship-wrecked sailors.

As the village grew, the track behind the house widened and houses were built on either side, in recognition of the lives the brothers had saved, the Mayor named the road La Rue des Anglais, it retains the name to this day.

Encouraged by his artist father, Wyllie made sketches and paintings of the French coast and local fisher-folk. He wasn’t formally educated until 1865 when he studied art at Heatherley’s, prior to attending the Royal Academy Art Schools from 1866-69. At the age of seventeen Wyllie had, Dover Castle and Town, a study in oil, hung in the old Academy in Trafalgar Square, the following year he won the Turner Gold Medal for Landscape with a picture entitled, Dawn after a Storm. In 1868 he had his first picture accepted by the Royal Academy; during the following 63 years, two hundred of his paintings were exhibited there.

Wyllie met his wife to be in Boulogne harbour when, looking up from his boat, he saw her watching him from the quay; he was nineteen years old, Marian Carew was ten.

From 1870 to 1890 Wyllie was an illustrator for the Graphic, principal rival to the Illustrated London News, and visited Portsmouth Harbour, the Solent and Spithead on commissions. He was elected to the Society of British Artists in 1875 and in 1883 produced etchings for Robert Dunthorne the owner of London’s Rembrandt Gallery, their meeting led to a lifelong friendship and Dunthorne introduced Wyllie to Sir John Wolfe-Barry, KCB, architect of Tower Bridge, who would commission and buy many of his paintings.

Wyllie and Marian became engaged in 1876 and married in Switzerland in 1879, then sailed from Wimereux to Dover in Marion, his 14 foot dinghy; the coastguard had difficulty believing the pair had crossed the Channel in such a small boat! They set up home in London at 70, Carlton Hill and in 1880 their first son Harold was born – he was to become a marine artist and a leading authority on the rigging of wooden-wall ships and was later responsible for the rigging of HMS Victory during her restoration.

In 1882 their second son Bill was born. The following year, Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide, Wyllie’s large oil of shipping on the Thames was bought by the Tate Gallery through the Chantry Bequest.

Dick, their third son, was born in 1883 and that year Wyllie had five solo shows at the Fine Art Society and also produced etchings for Robert Dunthorne’s Rembrandt Gallery.

In 1884 Wyllie illustrated, The Tidal Thames, by Grant Allen, the Magazine of Art reported: ‘At the present time he is in the front rank of English painters of sky and water and has hardly a rival as an exponent of the fact and wonder of our glorious Thames.’

That year the family moved to Gillingham House, near Chatham, but were not happy there, so rented a large house at Hoo St Werburgh, Rochester, Kent, where Eva, their first daughter, was born. Wyllie’s boats were kept on the foreshore of the Medway at the end of the garden and frequent painting trips were made aboard them to Portsmouth, Northern France and Holland. Wyllie developed a good relationship with the Royal Navy at nearby Chatham that was to benefit him when the family moved to Portsmouth and he was allowed access to restricted areas within Portsmouth Dockyard.

In 1886 the Wyllie’s fourth son Robert was born and though painting extensively, Wyllie found time to design small yachts, “for men who have no money to spend on expensive boats.”

In 1888, accompanied by Marian and son Harold, Wyllie made a third painting trip to Holland in his yawl Ladybird. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1889 and sailed the West Coast of Scotland in a new yacht called Grey Mare. He sold the sixty-nine watercolours he made during the cruise to the Glasgow art dealers, Brown and Phillips. In 1891 Wyllie began a long association with the RNLI and on behalf of other artists, acted as spokesman in discussions with the Institute over the colour of their boats as it clashed with the tints of the sea the artists used within their paintings. The RNLI changed the colour of their boats, but eventually returned to original colours. Two years later Wyllie visited the West Indies and the Mediterranean aboard the Orient Line ship Garonne and crossed the Atlantic twice.

In 1894 he held a major exhibition at the Bond Street Galleries of Dowdeswell and painted The Tower Bridge, London’s Water Gate, to commemorate its opening. A year later he bought a Thames barge and renamed it, The Four Brothers, and painted and etched scenes on the River Thames, visited Santa Pola to witness the total eclipse of the sun, painted major historical events including The Battle of the Nile, bought for the Tate Gallery, made his first major picture of The Battle of Trafalgar and painted and illustrated the pageantry surrounding the death of Queen Victoria.

Eric, the Wyllie’s fifth son was born in 1901 and that year Cassell’s published Marine Painting in Water Colour, an instructional book containing twenty four examples of his work; to capitalize on the success of the book Cassell’s published a similar work, Sketchbook, in 1908.

In 1902 Wyllie wrote and illustrated, Nature’s Laws and the Making of Pictures, a comprehensive manual describing how he used geometry to get accurate perspective in his works.

Wyllie’s second daughter Aileen was born in 1904 and he painted water colour views for his wife’s book, Norway and its Fjords. In 1905 George Bell and Sons published Wyllie’s, J.M.W. Turner, his biography of an artist he very much admired, and A. & C. Black published London to the Nore, written by Marian and illustrated by Wyllie, describing a voyage along the London River from Westminster to the Nore lightship. That same year the French Fleet visited Portsmouth and Wyllie painted L’Entente Cordiale, showing the ships entering Spithead; Marian thought it was one of his strongest pictures.

In 1906 Wyllie brought his family to Old Portsmouth where they lived in an old boat store next to Henry VIII’s Round Tower at the harbour entrance. He spent time converting the building to a family home and studio and named it Tower House.

1907 he was elected a Royal Academician and as the leading marine artist of his time, the Art Journal devoted the whole of its Christmas issue to him and his artwork. Admiral Cyprian Bridge, G.C.B. wrote: ‘To the seaman’s eye, a picture declared by artists to be of the highest merit seems of little worth if the spars, or sails, or rigging, or other parts of the equipment are not correctly represented….errors of that kind are as disagreeable to a sailor as a false note in music is to a musician. Mr. Wyllie would stand the most searching examination in this matter and would come out of it with brilliant credit.’

In 1907 Baden-Powell asked Wyllie if he would initiate and lead a troop of sea scouts, a request he agreed to, allowing the 1st Portsmouth Sea Scouts to use a room in Tower House as their headquarters; the troop is still in existence. While living in Kent, Wyllie had been in the Territorial Army, on his move to Old Portsmouth he was appointed Captain, Hants Fortress, RE, (T). His men were given bicycles as transport, as they cycled around the streets locals nick-named them, “Wyllie’s Weary Wobblers.” During the years leading up to 1914 Wyllie painted and etched naval scenes and travelled extensively with the White Star Line, the Union Castle Line and the Orient Company for whom he produced ship portraits and travel posters. During the First World War the whole family were engaged on war work, tragically Bill and Bob were killed on the Somme. Wyllie was an accredited war artist, sailed with the Fleet and wrote and illustrated two books, Sea Fights of the Great War and More Sea Fights of the Great War. He also painted accurate aerial and sea battles based on fastidious research of events and sketches sent back from the Front by his son Harold, a pilot in the R.F.C., who sketched the battlefields below. Over a period of six years Wyllie exhibited twenty-two pictures of the First World War at the Royal Academy.

Wyllie was a founder member of Portsmouth Sailing Club (1920) and Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron and Royal Victoria Yacht Club. In 1922 he was invited to join the ‘Save the Victory’ Committee and became involved with her dry-docking and restoration. In 1930, at the age of 80, he spent a year painting the 42’ x 12’ Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar for Portsmouth’s Victory Museum to help raise funds to maintain Victory. Wyllie spent his time sailing, painting and exhibiting his work until his end in April 1931. He was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard, within the grounds of Portchester Castle. Four years later Marian wrote, We Were One, the story of their life together.

I have known the Wyllie family for over twenty-five years, during which time I have had access to the family’s archives, enabling me to produce three documentary DVD programmes about the artist; two narrated by his great-grandson John Wyllie, the other documenting the 1998 restoration and conservation of Wyllie’s oil painting of the Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar. My latest publication is, In the Footsteps of W.L. Wyllie R.A., The Old Portsmouth Trail, 1906-1931. Through the reminiscences of the Wyllie family, a trail map, 335 photographs, including Wyllie’s etchings and paintings and views of Old Portsmouth at the turn of the century, I take the reader through the historic streets to visit places and properties linked to the Wyllie family and trace local and world events they were involved with. I am currently preparing a publication documenting the Wyllie family’s involvement with the First World War.

Further information about Wyllie by Nigel Grundy, BA (Hons), MSc. can be found on his website at www.imagesafloat.com.

To see a selection of William Wyllie etchings for sale on this web site, please click here