Evans (Connor)

William Evans of Eton
Louisa M Connor

Bicentenary Exhibition at The Brewhouse Gallery, Eton. 1998

William Evans in 1842 by George Richmond (1809-96)


William Evans of Eton (1798-1877) was a late-Georgian and early-Victorian landscape artist of real distinction, who painted exclusively in watercolour. Further qualification is needed, however, to explain why he was remarkable. Numerous watercolour artists augmented their income by teaching privately, including his own teachers William Collins and Peter de Wint, as well as his rival at the Old Watercolour Society, JD Harding. But as a Drawing Master teaching at Eton, then the premier public school, he stood above most of his peers, occupying an office which had been held by that innovative teacher Alexander Cozens in the previous century. He came second in a painting dynasty which through four generations lasted over 120 years.

He was the ardent supporter of institutions, both of his own school and of the Old Watercolour Society, where he never quite achieved official recognition. His signature, William Evans of Eton, was developed after 1845 when another member with the same name joined the Society. Throughout his life he remained loyal to watercolour painting, finding that the medium was capable of everything he wished to express, and considering those who experimented in oil renegades. His quarrels became bitter and absolute, and few of his artistic friendships remained intact. It was a period when the inventive quality of the British School of watercolour painting gradually ossified, and critics such as Ruskin damned the annual formula exhibition pictures which were sure of their market. By the 1850s William was himself producing ambitious, large pictures which lack the freshness of those painted in the 1830s and 1840s; but he reacted with a rush of inspiration to the south of France in a group of pictures painted in 1867-8, which have since been lost. As ill health inhibited his output, he became more and more involved with the administration 0f the Old Watercolour Society and was one of those who insured it retained its elite exclusive character, keeping out the more progressive ideas emerging in the mid-century.

His name at Eton has lived on in Evans’s, the boys’ house he took over in 1839. His liberal management of the boarding house started a tradition which was developed even more memorably by his daughter Jane Mary (Jennie). This role in the School brought far more cachet and security than his Drawing Master position. Sons of some of his earlier pupils were placed in the house, and he often saw two generations through the school. Inevitably this was a rich source of patronage of his work. He also was invited to paint on the estates of some of his favourite pupils during the holidays.

Physically he was large and active, and he always found time to pursue the outdoor sports he loved. He shot in the woods at Burnham, Hedgerley and Richmond, as well as in the Highlands where he also stalked deer, and hunted otters. He fished at Holywell and boated on the Thames. He won a great reputation as a safe, strong swimmer. He painted well into his last decade, his bath chair being positioned near beech trunks in Burnham Beeches to allow him to draw the subject of his last exhibition picture, and again in the window of Pugin’s house in Ramsgate to allow him to watch the sea and sky. The glints and gleams of landscape in the Highlands, in Ireland, Wales and Scotland inspired some of his finest pictures, while the series he made recording the sporting activities at Blair Atholl was painted in the shadow of his early friends Edwin Landseer and John Lewis. His paintings of Eton boys at play remain his most original work, where he depicted the idealised world of youth he loved and knew at first hand.

Evans. The Brunswick & Winchester Towers from the locks, Windsor. 1828


There is no doubt that William benefited hugely from his contacts in the school and that the school provided a constant source of patronage. His old tutor, ‘the kindest friend of my life’ Thomas Carter, commissioned the Montem Portrait of his young son Thomas Thellusson in 1817. He was commissioned to paint a lost portrait of Dr Hawtrey when he became Provost, and his small watercolour of Hawtrey’s library in the Lodge is probably connected with this. Head Master Balston, who was a fellow guest of the Duke and Duchess of Athole, owned both Eton and Scottish works. Several fellow members of staff bought exhibition work, above all Edward Coleridge (1800-83) who, besides being an amateur artist, was an avid collector of watercolours, acquiring early pictures by William’s contemporaries John F Lewis and George Cattermole. It was Coleridge who brought the news to Head Master Keate when William was voted Associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1828. And it was Coleridge who thirty years later tried in vain to smooth over the quarrel arising from Lewis’s surprise resignation from the Presidency of the Society. Coleridge was always extremely generous and bought William’s first really expensive Irish picture for 80gns in 1836. After selling his first collection of watercolours to help finance St Augustine’s Canterbury, he started all over again, and was still interested in his friend’s work in the 1870s. Even the Dancing Master Venua bought a picture in 1832. The College Registrar Thomas Batcheldor bought one in 1852. William also appears to have taken pictures in lieu of rent for a field, in much the same way that he paid with a picture for work done by his dentist, Sanders. Ellison, his doctor, also owned work both by him and by his son Sam. By the time that Edward Balston was made a Fellow at the end of 1868, however, William noted, ‘I am selfishly glad to have him in a responsible position – I am scarcely known among the younger men’.

Pupils and the parents of boys in his house provide another category of patron. The Smyth Pigotts commissioned the lavishly framed Montem pair of 1844 with portraits of their four boys then at Eton. In February 1848 the Duke of Athole dropped by and found him ‘at work in his study’. Thomas Gambier Parry, who had bought his first Evans picture in 1837, called on him in his studio in 1856. Both had been taught by him, and later sent their sons to his house. Among the names listed as buying his work was the mid-nineteenth century collector Richard Barnett, whose son was in his house. Barnett built up a fine collection of watercolours in the 1850s including one of William’s finest works, a Deer Drive in Glen Tilt. On September 15th 1862 William visited Patshall, the home of his old head of house, the Earl of Dartmouth, and he borrowed back his preliminary study of the house from the High Park to show at the Old Watercolour Society in the Winter Exhibition 1865-6.
On the advice of Thomas Gambier Parry and Lady Herbert, he spent two winters in San Remo which revived both his health and inspiration. Lord Brougham, a former parent who had been closely involved in devising the first national programme of art education, was responsible for transforming the little Italian fishing village into a health resort packed with villas for expatriates, and, William himself became involved in laying out the public gardens. He found new patrons there, including Mr Telford, a kind liberal old gentleman of about 76, and his diary records a commission of two large 100gn watercolours of Bordighera and Mole. ‘Set to work at once, & am anxious meet his wishes & liberality’. Telford asked him to make a drawing of Lord Brougham’s villa Beau Site just a few days before Brougham died in May 1868.

The proximity of Windsor to Eton might have been expected to bring royal patronage, and he began well with the sale of three of his 1829 Old Watercolour Society exhibits to George IV. Queen Victoria bought a local view in 1838, and two more in 1840, an auspicious opening for William in June 1844 she commissioned him to record the celebrations put on for the visit of the Emperor Nicholas I and the King of Saxony, at Windsor and Buckingham Palace. He sent in four sketchy watercolours, unlike Joseph Nash with whom he shared the project. This was the summer he had the fall which smashed his jaw, and that may account for the careless finish of his group. While Nash went on to receive further commissions, William was only presented with a handsome and much-prized writing box. He continued to try to win royal favour, painting a presentation watercolour for the Duchess of Kent’s album following her visit to Blair in 1850. He sent the Queen a sketch of Windsor Castle seen across the flooding Thames in November 1852. He did manage to sell the queen two late and small Scottish views at the end of 1871 which he borrowed back for the Old Watercolour Society winter exhibition the following year.

His own relatives were always very loyal and evidently took great pride in his work. His brother-in-law, Captain Caleb Jackson, bequeathed his ‘Capel Curig’, painted in 1854, to William Mason Fenn his son-in-law in 1874. William also took out an old picture he had begun of The Eagles’ Nest, Killarney, and worked on that for Grace, over-painting damage from damp. Grace and Sam were the two children who most carefully built up William’s reputation, Grace taking her own extracts from his diaries, and Sam preserving most of the contents of his studio. The careful allocation of pictures in his will reflects their particular interest, while Jane was offered her pick of pictures to adorn Evans’s.

William had two commercial outlets for his picture. In Eton he sold direct to the High Street bookseller and supplier of artist’s materials, H Ingalton & Son, part of the family of builders he also used. Ingaltons published his first lithographs, and he borrowed one picture back from them to send to the 1855 Paris Exhibition, evidently a large work. In London he came into contact with Thomas Griffiths, who had a gallery in Waterloo Place, through the Old Watercolour Society, and used him for the next forty years. Griffiths, best known as Turner’s agent, built up his own large collection at Norwood, which included work by John F Lewis and George Cattermole, WA Nesfield, and G Robson. It was a generous association, and William noted his death on March 15th 1868 with the comment ‘he was my kind friend’. Just before Griffiths had his operation for cancer of the throat in 1867, he took some of William’s later and more gaudy pictures of the Cote d’Azur and paid him in advance. His daughter Miss Griffiths stands with the family group in Evans’s Hall painted by Joseph Nash in the 1870s, and when she died in 1887 there were nine framed and three unframed pictures by William in her sale as well as a Coastal Scene by Miss Keate. […]

William was always very interested in the prices fetched in sales. He noted that a Cox fetched three times as much as a de Wint in 1863 while his own work never went above 100gns. By and large his own works have changed hands surprisingly little since they were first bought.

Evans. Cricket on the College Field. 1830s

Evans's House
William grew up at Eton, returned to work in the school and died there. He developed the taste for institutional life there, which is reflected in his dealings with the Old Watercolour Society. At his boys’ house, Evans’s, which was named after him, he created his own establishment, liberal but with rules, a place for opportunity which recognised the aspirations of each individual. His children became involved in the running of the house and each contributed to the success of the family team. It is this aspect of his life in Eton which is best known, thanks to the affectionate Annals of An Eton House, 1907, a compilation of memories and diary extracts written by former boys in the house. His artistic achievement has inevitably been distorted by this glowing testimonial to his success as a house master.

When he started his appointment he lived at Ballards on Keate’s Lane, called the Old Cottage. He did not receive a regular salary but a piecemeal income according to the number of pupils he took. If his income from this work was small, he was free to develop his London contacts, and he enjoyed mixing his two worlds. In a letter to his sister Susan written on 17th February 1830, the poet W Mackworth Praed, who had just left his position as a private tutor at Eton, described one such occasion:

I dined by invitation of Wm Evans, who was himself of the party, with Lewis the watercolour painter. I met there Edwin Landseer, who told me that he as well as Hayter formerly designed some illustrations of Lillians. We all adjourned in the Evening to a meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern, called the Artist’s Conversazione, where I was made acquainted with Stanfield, Prout, Copley Fielding and some more of such folk.

Jane Evans as a child also remembered Cattermole and Landseer staying to paint at Eton in the 1830s. Joseph Stark turned to him when in need of a reference when he first moved to Windsor in 1836. Other guests encountered at Evans’s included Margaret Carpenter and George Richmond, WM Thackeray and his daughters, John Forster and Charles Dickens. Artists, poets, writers and gentry all accepted his hospitality.
Edward Coleridge, nephew of the poet, helped him integrate into the school too. Although Margaretta Brown, the Head Master’s sister-in-law, wished he ‘did not make such friends of all the extra masters’, Coleridge became one of William’s closest and most lasting friends and seems to have counselled him on the key moves in his career. Coleridge married Head Master Keate’s oldest daughter Mary, one of William’s first pupils, in 1826. As a house master, Coleridge later moved into Keate House, next door to Ballards, and in 1838 he made an agreement with the elderly Dame, Mrs Vallencey, whose house was opposite. She would take the extra boys waiting to join his popular house. ‘A good thing for Mrs Vallencey as he now patronises her,’ commented Margaretta Brown.

William’s beloved wife Jane Grace Jackson died in 1837, together with the twins that briefly outlived her, leaving the widower with a young family of eight living children. He had just £60 set aside. He was tempted to leave Eton and try his luck in London, where his latest Irish pictures were selling well, and where he was already becoming closely involved with the organisation of the Old Watercolour Society. Later he seems to have regretted not taking up the ‘inducements’ he was offered to make a fresh start as a professional artist. But he was still in Eton in 1839 when Mrs Vallencey was ready to retire, only needing a naive buyer to meet her steep asking price. Coleridge’s comfortable arrangement was threatened, and he suggested that William buy Mrs Vallencey out. His own experience was that an Eton house master -or dame- could make an ample regular income, far greater than any teaching salary.

William agonised about his decision. On 12th January 1839 he paid a call on his old Head Master Keate, now retired in Windsor, and ‘sat till near 12 telling of his arrangements with Mrs Vallencey whose house he is to take and become Dominie under the patronage of his great friend Coleridge’. The College Registrar, Batcheldor, who drew up the settlement a fortnight later, considered it ‘a tight agreement’, and William’s old tutor Thomas Carter acted as his sponsor. Mrs Vallencey made new difficulties up until 13th February, when William again called on the Keates. ‘With the best intentions neither Evans nor Coleridge nor Selwyn have given satisfaction. She gives up the house to Evans at Easter, & Evans gives up his to Mr and Mrs Selwyn’. Thus the detailed arrangements had been made, by which William kept on Ballards, renting it out to the Selwyns for the time being, while he moved across the road after Easter 1839.

Vallencey’s was now renamed Evans’s, and a complete rebuilding programme was undertaken to modernise the facilities and double the intake of boys, adding to William’s original outlay which he never entirely recouped. The house was now to be connected to a separate cottage into which William put his children. Here he incorporated Mrs Vallencey’s wash house and converted it into the new studio which he ‘fitted up with the Elgin Marbles’. […]
Evans’s always had a family atmosphere, with brothers encouraged to share rooms. In 1853 William resigned as Drawing Master and Sam took over, moving into Ballards and setting up his own studio there. Up until Sam’s marriage, August 1st 1863, Ballards took up to nine boys from the remove waiting for their place at Evans’s, which was acquiring a fine reputation as a civilised boys’ house. Sam was never a strong disciplinarian, and the future of the house was questioned whenever William’s health, increasingly poor since his jaw was smashed in 1844, meant he was barely in charge. From 1858 he was absent for increasing periods from Eton, and only a few boys remembered visiting him in his study, a kindly, heavy figure, always smoking and with few traces of his former strong physique. His daughters began to take a role in the running of the house, first Annie his oldest, temperamental daughter, who had broken off her engagement with Edward Coleridge’s son Charlie, then Jane, who became Eton’s most famous dame. William Mason Fenn, husband of William’s youngest daughter Grace, also helped out after Annie’s last illness, which started in 1869. Sometimes Jane Evans would bring a group of boys out to visit William at Burnham Beeches, where he rented a cottage for painting.

William was most concerned about Jane’s future and that of the house. He left careful instructions in his will that she should take what she wanted to furnish her own apartments, and in particular to keep the Hall intact. Nonetheless he left debts never fully paid off since the purchase of Vallencey’s, and only the generous legacy of Caleb Jackson, her uncle, secured the future of Evans’s. […]

After his death a move was made by Lord Derby, and the Duke of Newcastle to raise by subscription from the old boys of Evans’s for a fitting monument, and the site chosen was the prestigious ante-chapel to College Chapel. […T]he sculptor R Belt … reproduced Michelangelo’s popular Kneeling Angel from San Domenico, Bologna[…]. It now pairs significantly with the memorial to Edward Coleridge, his friend and mentor.

Evans. Cliff View, Isle of Wight. 1865

Family Connexions

The Artist's World

‘I am an artist, and I was going to London under the impression that I should get on in London. I had great inducements to go there.’

William apparently never had any formal training as an artist, and instead learnt most of his technique from his friends and colleagues. His first teacher was his father. From him he learnt by copying to drawl to etch, ‘and to make watercolours, which were for the period already old-fashioned. His first dated work was produced in 1817, when he was nineteen, and is a portrait of Thomas Thellusson Carter, the little son of his tutor. This consists of the lightest of tinted washes painted over a careful chalk drawing washed in monochrome; the figure of the child occupies the frontal plane of the picture, disconnected from the perspective setting of School Yard. A group of tinted watercolours for his brother-in- law William Burrows, all based on popular prints of genre scenes such as children playing with toy boats, also belong to this period. Some of his early work seems to mirror that of Edmund Bristow, who painted similar portraits against a steep back drop, animated genre scenes and straightforward local views in oil. Bristow’s work is realistic and gently humorous, slightly Dutch in character, particularly in his interiors. Though the reclusive Bristow did not apparently mix with William, he was later intimate with a mutual friend James Stark who lived in Windsor 1839-49, and William noted the date of his death in his diary.

An early sketchbook shows the progress William had made with simple pencil-and- wash work in two years. The book opens with two sketches of Eton, followed by two of Droxford, the Hampshire village to  which his father had retired and from which his wife’s family came, dated 1st and 5th August 1819. These are beautiful, finely graded pencil works, punctuated with details such as a black top hat. The rest of the book is devoted to views of Hastings. Colour notes are scribbled into a rough study of trees, but most are neat panoramic views, many spreading across both pages of the book, which capture the glistening sands, fishermen by their boats and picturesque buildings. Amongst the many artists who discovered Hastings in the early nineteenth century was William Collins, who lived there in 1815. ‘I must,’ he wrote in his diary for that year, ‘get the sparkle and vigour of objects in the sun’.

He had also painted in Windsor and Eton and is one of the artists who are said to have taught William. ‘Collins is now all the cry,’ Farington noted on 4th May 1818, and Constable added in 1820 that he was by then ‘much noticed by persons of rank’. The sort of subjects tackled by Collins anticipate those tried by William, and he may well have given him the occasional lesson in the period when he was acting as his father’s understudy. Collins’ early watercolours depicting children playing outside seem particularly close.

In later years William remembered his struggle to keep ahead of his better pupils, often allowing himself only four hours sleep.’ His 1820 Windsor views however, show him already capable of producing highly-finished but soft pencil drawings, on a satiny waxed paper, which are far ahead of any pupil work. William Tatton Egerton’s childish outlines of 1820 bear no comparison. Between 1819 and 1825 William also took the older daughters of Dr Keate out to sketch; they then produced more finished black and white chalk drawings on buff and grey paper. Eton scrap-books show that this remained his preferred teaching medium. In this period he also published his first soft-ground etchings, perhaps also with teaching in mind. He did not relinquish his precision pencil work, however, and was still using a simplified version in his Irish sketchbook of 1836. Later small sketchbooks of coloured paper allowed him to sketch immediately in black chalk and wash in white highlights.

Another artist said to have influenced William was Peter de Wint, who also first visited the area in the second decade of the nineteenth century. He too was becoming a very popular if strict teacher, who always ad vised a regular progression from drawing to monochrome, and only then to colour. Coarse, thickly green Eton landscape sketches owned by William’s brother-in-law William Burrows are close in style to anonymous drawings in the Eton Drawing School portfolio, also of local views. Contact with de Wint took place in the 1820s, and William certainly owned watercolour sketches by de Wint, both of landscape and of vegetation. The two artists were never very close, but William recommended de Wint to Thomas Gambier Parry when he left Eton in 1832. Quite as influential was David Cox, a kindly teacher, who rarely said an ungenerous word about any contemporary and who painted classic pure watercolours all his life, though he later experimented with the paper and surface. His manuals on watercolour painting with step-by-step instructions were being published in this very period, and his Young Artist’s Companion, 1825, included an Eton view later used by William. During his lifetime Cox’s popularity soared, a phenomenon which William, who had bought one of his pictures in 1833, followed closely.9 By 1847 Cox considered William’s exhibition pictures ‘very interesting, but too much white body colour’.

from the Locks exhibited the following year. Two years later, in 1830, he was made a full Member of the Old Watercolour Society. During the 1820s William began to mix with a group of bohemian artists who all joined the Old Watercolour Society in the same period. This circle of friends visited Eton to paint, to lark with William’s young family and meet his friends in the College including potential patrons. George Cattermole (1800-68), the dandy, had trained as an illustrator and was beginning to specialise in depicting historical events, often inspired by Scott. Edwin Landseer (1803-73) began as an animal painter, but quickly explored landscape and narrative painting and, after 1824, Scotland. His outstanding talent meant that he was equally at home in chalks, watercolours and oils and mixed the ways he applied these different techniques. John F. Lewis (1805-76), who had been Landseer’s neighbour as a child, also started out by specialising in painting animals, and first came with a commission to paint George IV’s menagerie in Windsor Great Park in 1825, staying at the Squirrel Inn, Winkfield. At this time he was probably the closest of the three to William and led the way in experimenting in painting styles, having decided to concentrate on watercolours. William owned a few early watercolours by him, including an interior with armour and a little study of the heads of two roe deer painted in this period, which he greatly prized. 

In 1826 William contributed a small Eton picture to the first volume of Mrs Haldimand’s ‘celebrated Albums’ of British watercolours. Compiled with the help of George Robson, these three volumes were devised to demonstrate the phenomenon of a national school of watercolour painting based upon the work of the Old Watercolour Society. The collection was exhibited in 1827, ‘all framed alike in rich frostwork, and offering in profile the a ppearance of an immense mass of gingerbread: drawings by members and consequently rather wanting in figures’. Two years later in 1828 William was elected Associate of the Society and began exhibiting his work at the London Galleries in Pall Mall. He had arrived. Now established as a landscape specialist, that year he showed two more local and two Welsh views along with a genre landscape, Thames Fishermen  Windsor. The following year he exhibited a picture of a gamekeeper from his brother-in-law’s parish, Corhampton, which he had already sold to King George IV, together with an Eton view and one of two views of Belgium. This was apparently his first trip to Europe, and he chose an area which Collins had also just visited. His Haldimand watercolour of Wyattville Tower and his Thames Fishermen, shown at the Old Watercolour society in 1828, are his earliest important watercolours to survive, along with his views of Liege and The Brunswick and Winchester Towers

In 1828 and 1829 John Lewis exhibited two early portraits of William and Landseer, depicting each as a young sporting gentleman. That of Evans, was acquired by Edward Coleridge, and left to Jennie Evans, his god-daughter. The love of outdoor pursuits certainly provided another bond between the group and provided the artists with extra sensitivity toward animals, their keepers and their natural terrain. John Lewis’s Highland Hospitality was the big success of the 1832 Old Watercolour Society exhibition. Here he depicted Cattermole and William in a Scottish cabin, separated from their hosts by an open fire. On the one side the sassenachs are shown in their city dress, seated and at ease, William smoking and Cattermole with a glass in his hand, as they regale the attentive Highlander’ s family. The picture was painted after William’s first tour of Scotland which, covering the Trossachs and Isle of Arran, was made with his friends, probably in 1831. His own Irish interiors, painted five years later, would be heavily influenced by John Lewis’s treatment of such genre subjects.

The classic method of painting in watercolour practised by the first members of the Old Watercolour Society, notably de Wint and Cox, emphasised the transparency of the medium and incorporated the white of the paper as a colour. William’s circle of friends had access to more colours and experimented in brighter tints. They favoured opaque colour, especially white, in combination with a darker paper. They were still using broad washes, but they often worked up one part of the picture in particular, where they began to paint over and over or try smaller brush strokes. The presentation of each watercolour was significant. Informal coloured sketches would generally be given a white mount, with perhaps a simple washed border. Cattermole liked all his drawings to be shown in this way. More elaborate exhibition pieces were created entirely in the studio on paper which had been stretched over a wooden board, like a canvas over a frame. These were then close mounted in an elaborate composite gold frame, costing one tenth of the picture. John Lewis always liked to show his pictures this way, and William followed suit. This generation of watercolourists were very anxious that their watercolours should stand comparison with oils and sought to find new ways of heightening the brilliance of the surface. However, the under-drawing and even notes and pentimenti were often left visible intentionally to emphasise the transparency of the medium.

All the different stages, from pencil sketches and portfolio watercolours suitable for presentation, to his small and large-scale exhibition pictures, can be illustrated by his Irish pictures produced at the end of the 1830s. The detail in his portfolio work was sufficient for his engravers, while the only large watercolour as yet identified shows William was now technically well able to reproduce his compositions on a large scale, even if the figures became insubstantial. It was one of these that his friend Coleridge bought for a princely 80gns. When his wife died at the end of 1837, he had managed to save only £60 from the sale of pictures, and yet he perhaps did have reason to believe that he might have risked leaving Eton at that point. Instead he became a dame in 1839, with a safe income and with a circle of patrons and friends. Selling pictures was no longer a necessity, nor was teaching, though he remained Drawing Master till 1853. His major Eton works, leading up to the Montem pair of 1844, were produced in this period. Now that he could afford to work slowly at his larger pictures over the winter months, these show increasing evidence of over-painting and body colour.

Under the long Presidency of A. Copley Fielding (1833-54), and under John F. Lewis (1855-8), the Old Watercolour Society ossified. Ruskin became scathing of the dull ‘Potted Art’ that was shown year after year. William himself put forward a motion to limit the number of pictures exhibited each year, which Fielding took as a personal affront. In the same period William became involved with the detailed affairs of the Society: the lighting of the gallery, the hanging of pictures, their insurance or the reception to welcome the royal party at an opening. He was known for using intemperate language, and he quarrelled with fellow members, such as J.D. Harding, an irascible man if brilliant teacher, and as such his obvious rival. Harding was technically a traditionalist, like William, who had no time for ‘art which is no art -’ oil art’, and all that sort of thing’. William was intensely loyal to the Society and to the medium it represented, apparently never once experimenting with oils. He begrudged the departure of members who left the Old Watercolour Society to try oil painting generally with the hope of entering the Academy. He also vetted new candidates applying for membership, welcoming Miles Birkett Foster and inviting Frederick Burton and Carl Haag to stop over and paint at Eton. He increasingly tried to keep the peace between different factions. ‘I cannot tell you how much I felt the vain & wicked attempt to foster a quarrel between Landscape & Figure Painters’, he commented on a dispute between the Fripp brothers and Tayler.

By now he was fully established as a landscape painter, but he also kept models for teaching and to use. He had the prize otter he had caught, stuffed and exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. His Ballards ‘study’ was full of casts from Greek and Italian sculpture, and when he moved into Evans’s, he acquired a cast of the Parthenon frieze. In the winter of 1847-8 William went to Paris, intending to improve his figure painting, very aware that this was a weakness. He went fired by hopes of patronage from the previous summer’s visitor at Blair Atholl, the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, who had come ‘very keen about kilts and highlands and deer stalking’ . While in Paris he was gratified to learn that the master narrative painter Horace Vernet, then at the peak of his fame and busy with a major Russian commission, had recently seen and admired his ‘Deer Stalking’ pictures in London. He immediately arranged for his son Sam to study at Vernet’s atelier, before going up to the Academy Schools.29

During the 1830s William had served as the Society’s link with John Lewis, and their friendship was resumed on Lewis’s return in 1851 from Cairo, bringing radical new paintings, which consisted of tiny brilliant strokes of juxtaposed colour, the product of ‘intense and painful industry’, and introduced exotic figurative subjects which arrested the public’s attention. Although William was now painting some of his best Scottish work, Ruskin singled out Lewis for particular praise. He was the obvious candida te to become the Society’s next President after the inter-regnum of F. Tayler and the Society’s disappointing showing at the Esposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. William championed him with generous enthusiasm and acted as unofficial Vice-President. Lewis proved a poor President, wrapped up in painting his own work and increasingly attracted to try oils, which were far more remunerative. At the annual dinner of 1857 William rudely interrupted Lewis’s after-dinner speech, ‘saying that the ‘shades of our predecessors must be watching with disgust’ -this was strong & not cheering’ and provoked the blue devils mood which led to Lewis’s resignation early the next year. It was only now that William discovered that his friend was ‘occupied with works which can have no relation to the Society’ that he was ‘pledged’ to work for the Academy. This word ‘pledge’ caught William on the raw, while he was confined to his rooms with neuralgia, for was not Lewis’s position as President more important than any other undertakings? Their friendship snapped, leaving only’ painful feelings’. Neither Ruskin, nor Griffiths and Coleridge, could smooth over the quarrel or persuade Lewis to remain at his post till the next election. Any chance William might ever have had of holding the Presidency also vanished because of his close association with Lewis. Afterwards he refused all Lewis’s overtures and only received Mrs Lewis at Eton to learn about her time in Cairo after his former friend’s death.

The presidency returned to Tayler, a fluent and informal painter of sporting subjects, with a technique very close to William’s. He never really liked Tayler, a slightly younger contemporary at Eton who had been trained at Sass’s, the Vernet atelier and the Royal Academy Schools, which William himself never enjoyed. William, increasingly diffident about his own pictures and often inhibited by illness’ buried the hatchet and worked hard on the Old Watercolour Society Committee at a fresh campaign to persuade Parliament to include the Society in plans for the new Academy in Burlington House. Tayler and he each drew up a long list of influential public figures who might care to be involved when the matter was debated. These included members of the government, such as Lord John Manners and the Duke of Newcastle who introduced him to the editor of the Saturday Review. John Forster would help with a notice in the Examiner. William tried his old boys Lord Lyttelton and Lord Derby, and, with the excuse that he was a distant relative through marriage, Gladstone. The reply from Ricardo, 3rd March 1859, was not promising and reveals the reasons for any hostility against the institution:

You have not achieved popularity either with the profession or with the public-You have excluded from your walls the production of a great many deserving men, and you have neglected the patrons of art, because it was found more pecuniarily advantageous to put yourselves in the hands of the trade. I can only say that I have not received a ticket for a private view at the Exhibition, and that I am absolutely compelled to go to a dealer rather than to an artist if I wished a drawing.

Ricardo was not to be moved from his hostile position, in spite of admitting the contribution of the Society in bringing watercolour painting to prominence. And it did not occur to the Committee even now to join forces with their rivals, the New Watercolour Society.

Excluded from the Academy site, the Old Watercolour Society Committee renewed their lease on their Pall Mall property. They now had sole possession of the premises, and were forced to consider how best to make the rooms pay. Harding favoured creating a teaching school, rather like the Academy schools, for ‘we the great painters in watercolour are the teachers of the public’ . William was opposed to this. The Society was his escape from teaching. He therefore suggested that they try biannual exhibitions retaining the main spring exhibition as the showcase for the large exhibition work, while adding a supplementary winter show which might also include sketches. As a result of the need to provide pictures twice a year, a new informality and relaxed standard of finish was apparent in work exhibited. He organised the 1863 presentation volume of work by each member to give the lawyer Edwin Field who had helped the society through this period, perhaps in conscious imitation of Mrs Haldimand’s albums which had been sold just two years earlier.

When William sent five pictures to the 1857 Manchester Exhibition, the critic Hammersley included them in his detailed analysis of all the watercolours at the exhibition in The Examiner. His comments provide a rare assessment of William’s art in this decade by an unbiased contemporary. The pictures on show consisted of an early work, Felling Timber, ‘only valuable as suggesting a remnant of an older school of watercolour art’, a stormy Welsh view of Lake Ogwen, and a Scottish view with ‘a most successful rendering of driving rain as it traverses the heathery valley’, but also with upper clouds that ‘are unsuccessful-they look brushy, and are too laminated for their situation so near the zenith.’ It was when he I got on to his delightful Eton with its sunny meadows, its solemn groups of trees, and its placid stream’ that Hammersley waxed content. IHe here associates with the calmer character of scene such treatment as befits it, and throws a glow of genial and cheering sunshine over the whole’ .

William’s diary and letters illustrate the constant search for fresh subjects to catch the attention of the public. He had shown considerable originality in painting Connemara, and was unlucky that the terrible famine closed the area to tourism. When he discovered Glen Tilt in Perthshire, it was already very popular with fellow watercolourists, and he went to some pains to find new subjects and aspects. He began Highland Shearing, Glen Tilt, one of his largest pictures, with immense enthusiasm, but eventually was worn down by his desire to include portraits. He described his difficulties with candour to the Duchess of Athole. He also involved her in his plan to paint a picture of a curling scene, begging her to send details. 0 In the case of the Atholes he was painting for patrons who required him to make an exact rendering of the animals and occupants of their wild landscape. While they amassed a large collection of his presentation watercolours, it is perhaps significant that they never acquired one of his exhibition pieces in which picturesque licence hugely exaggerates the actual landscape.

Most landscape artists followed a seasonal routine, collecting new subjects in the high summer and early autumn, and painting them up over the winter months ready for the annual spring exhibition. But after 1844 William could not manage this. That year he fell when out sketching and smashed his jawbone. An operation under anaesthetic, a remarkably early example, failed to put things right, and for the remainder of his life he suffered from ‘brow ague’ or migraines, loose teeth and a crippling pain running down his painting arm. To relieve the pain he was prescribed opium. He suffered most in the winter, just when he needed to complete work begun enthusiastically after his early autumn break. Inevitably his productivity was affected. His Old Watercolour Society exhibits for example, never very numerous, fell to just two or three a year, with none in 1852 and 1860, and the following year the Duchess of Athole wrote, ‘he has half killed himself with laudanum’. By submitting earlier material or, after 1862, slight sketches, he was able to take advantage of the Society’s relaxation of the standard of finish at the winter exhibitions he had helped introduce. His health was particularly poor from 1864-6, when he spent a great deal of time on the Isle of Wight. His seascape The Gleam of Hope painted there in 1866 was aptly named.

Friends, including Thomas Gambier Parry, advised him to try the South of France as a cure for his ‘lethargic feeling’ and here in the winters of 1867 and 1868 he discovered fresh inspiration, fired by the ‘gorgeous colours’ of a new landscape. The lost pictures he painted! some for Mr Telford! can only be guessed at from the late South of France sketchbook. He proudly noted that his pictures paid for his stay. Not all his former friends liked them-Coleridge did! Liddell did not-and his agent Tom Griffiths showed great generosity in paying in advance for those placed in his window in London. That proved his last burst of energy, and Sam helped him finish some of them.

He now painted directly on to the rough paper of his South of France sketchbook with bright pigments, or drew in coarse black and white chalk. He chose charcoal as the medium for his commemorative drawings of the 6th Duke of Athole in 1868, and for the last picture he ever exhibited, in 1874. He was wheeled out in his bath chair to make this picture of a burnt-out beech trunk in Burnham Beeches-’ it is a wonderful advantage to work upon the spot’. The subject is reminiscent of the early picture he sent to Manchester. Spending his last summer in Pugin’s house in Ramsgate he looked out of the window contentedly: ‘When you look up at the Sky & Clouds-and then out to sea-what can you wish for more?’ and then took up his pencil and made ‘an exquisite little sketch of some fishermen in a boat nearing the harbour,’ just as he had done nearly fifty years before at Hastings.

By his will he bequeathed specific pictures to his surviving children, now the family firm! and in addition he left Sam the contents of the studio. When his grandson died! many of the pictures remained fresh and unframed alongside work by the rest of the family. Even now! only a small percentage of the pictures he exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society, let alone the pictures he painted privately for friends, has been identified. The powerful intensity and sheer scale of his mountainous landsca pes whether clothed in hea ther or washed by driving rain, his headlands, his reflecting water meadows with their locks, his lofty elms, all dwarf the human activity they contain. He never really mastered the human figure! even in his Eton pictures, but he caught the activity and the costumes unerringly. He painted for his friends, and all his best pictures grew out of a remembered experience. Peasants and children were cleaned up and idealised, trees were moved and altered. A letter he wrote on May 18th 1850 to the Duchess of Athole illustrates his intentions:

‘Your Grace will be pleased to know that my vivid recollection of the Day on the Moors has enabled me to give the Public a faint idea of the beauty of the Scene of the ‘rest’. It is somewhat allegorical  inasmuch as his Grace is represented contemplating with satisfaction a dead otter-he is supposed to be saying to the Person standing near him ‘Now I am dammed [?] if you shan’t eat him’. I intended to call the Picture by this name. But the Goths who use the Catalogue would not understand it’.

In spite of their scale even his largest works were painted with a particular public in mind and illuminate best the worlds of school and sport of the upper classes. They were never intended for the ‘goths’ or the innovators.

Steer Family Connexions
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Parry memoirConnor
Catharine Biddlecombe Steer Memoir 1850
Elsa Steer Memoir 1957
Prospectus of Forelands sale 1919
Charles Steer IV Memoir 1999
Inventory of the Limpsfield Rectory 1931
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