The Williams family of painters played an prominent role in English art throughout the nineteenth century. The family's involvement in the visual arts began when Edward Williams (1782-1855) was sent to live with his mother's brother, James Ward, RA, in 1792-93. Ward was a well-respected figure painter who introduced young Williams to the academic art world of late eighteenth century London. Ward's brother William worked as an engraver, and their brother-in-law was the brilliant, but raucous painter George Morland. Young Williams' father was also an engraver, but frequently unemployed due to his excessive drinking; he seems to have had little interest in being a parent.
The Ward family lived in the Tottenham Court Road arts community near the British Museum and the University of London, a neighborhood that would remain home to the Williams family well into the middle of the nineteenth century. In spite of being surrounded by artists, young Williams was not taught by any of his uncles, but instead was apprenticed to Thomas Hilliard, a gilder based in Carnaby Street. Based on the few documented dates available, it appears that Williams worked for Hilliard a number of years while simultaneously studying painting. Sometime in the early 1800s he seems to have begun exhibiting his work professionally, and it was also in these years that he married Ann Hildebrand, who gave birth to their first son, Edward Charles, in 1807. Five more sons followed between 1811 and 1824. All of them became artists.
Beginning in 1815, Edward Williams exhibited his canvases in the most prestigious venues of the London art world: the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Suffolk Street Galleries of the Society of British Artists. His sons would follow in his footsteps in this respect as well. The family continued to live in the Tottenham Court Road neighborhood, where the children grew up in their father's studio, learning first hand about their future profession.
Sidney Richard Percy Williams was the fifth son, born in 1821. Following his older brothers' example, he learned to paint from his father, and was launched as a professional artist by the 1840s, debuting at the Royal Academy in 1842. By the time he was twenty, Percy had moved to his own lodgings and had dropped "Williams" from his name in order to avoid confusion with the rest of the Williams brothers painters. It should be noted that two of his brothers, Henry John Boddington and Arthur Gilbert, also changed their names for the same reason. During these years, all of the Williams painters remained in their childhood neighborhood, working together and sharing studios. In 1846, however, their father Edward decided to move the entire family to Barnes on Thames, then a country resort area in what is today southwest London. Once there, all of them shared a studio at 32 Castelnau Villa and essentially formed the core of what became known as the "Barnes School" in the nineteenth century.
Percy's career was well established by the time he moved to Barnes, where he enjoyed growing success, both critical and public, in the decade between 1846-1856. He was increasingly recognized as a gifted landscape painter, with a particular interest in the romantic wilderness scenes found in Wales and Scotland. One critic from the Art Journal commented on Percy’s work at the Exhibition of Modern Art at the National Institution in 1851, noting that: “We are struck by the aspiration of some of the works—some of these by young painters—not as to subject, but as to manner. They are too masterly. Since no painter ever did stand still in the degree of execution, we are curious to know what phases of change are left for those, who begin, as it were, their art, already possessing the power of masters.” [i] The value of an early art education becomes evident in this observation.
During this time Percy also became an amateur photographer, using his images as source material for his paintings. Unlike many artists, the painter made no apologies for his use of photographs as a tool for creating compositions; in fact, he seems to have ignored comments by art critics who objected to his inclusion of ‘photographic’ figures in his landscapes. A canvas such as A Rest on the Roadside (1861) exemplifies this approach clearly; Percy photographed two young women resting on the grass near his home and then transformed that image into the figures for his landscape scene in Wales. Such straightforward use of photographs was unusual in the 1850s when many painters, both in England and on the continent, went to great lengths to hide the fact that they used photos as a method of organizing their canvases.
Percy’s reputation as an artist reached a memorable pinnacle shortly after the Royal Academy exhibition in 1854 when Prince Albert purchased A View of Llyn Dulyn, North Wales for his wife, Queen Victoria. Such royal patronage further solidified the painter’s status as one of the leading landscapists of the era. It also assisted Percy in creating a sound financial foundation for the future as art collectors sought him out not only for the quality of his work, but also for the status of owning a painting by an artist who counted the Prince Consort among his patrons.
As an established artist with a promising future, Percy decided to marry in 1857. His bride was Emily Charlotte Fairlam, who reportedly informed her father, a local jewller, that she would consider only suitors who could offer her a minimum of ?2000 per year. [ii] Sadly, this statement would prove to be only too accurate about the future Mrs. Percy’s desire for material possessions. The couple were married in the parish church in Barnes on June 30, 1857, and moved immediately to Florence Villa in Wandsworth, Surrey not too far from Barnes. The following April, Emily gave birth to their first son, Gordon Fairlam; two daughters, Edith Maude and Amy Dora were born in quick succession in 1859 and 1860, followed by another son, Herbert Sidney, in February of 1863.
With a considerably larger family, Percy moved further out into the country to an imposing Regency-style home called Hill House near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. There he established the lifestyle that his wife preferred with servants, horses and carriages, and elegant interior design. Perhaps more importantly for the painter, the location of Hill House afforded him easy access to the landscapes of the Misbourne Valley and a variety of wooded hills where he could work. One of his neighbors, the watercolorist William Callow, R.S.W. (1812-1908) recalled Percy as a man “...of a gentle disposition and a retiring nature.” [iii] Certainly, his long journeys to Wales and Scotland suggest that he enjoyed the solitude of riding through mountainous landscapes in search of motifs and weather conditions that captured his attention.
WIth his work regularly on display at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy, the British Institute and the Suffolk Street Galleries, Percy enjoyed the respect of his colleagues in London as well as an active market for his paintings. Perhaps because of the confidence that came with success, Percy decided to submit A View on the Banks of the Thames—After the Storm (1851) to the annual Salon exhibition in Paris in 1863. It was well received by both the public and the critics; one reviewer for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts wrote that: “We are happy that Mr. Percy has today deserted Trafalgar Square for the Champs-Elysées.” [iv] In spite of the warm welcome, however, 1863 was also the year of the Salon des réfusés in which Edouard Manet’s “scandalous” images of contemporary Parisians dominated the art world conversation, overshadowing much of the other work on display.
Undoubtedly, this modest success at the Paris Salon encouraged Percy to agree to a European trip with WIlliam Callow’s family in the fall of 1865. The destination was Venice, a city that Callow had visisted often and was eager to introduce to his friend and neighbor. On their return to England, the travelers journeyed through Switzerland—with its awe-inspiring Alpine landscapes—and then stopped in Paris so that Percy could acquaint himself with the arts community there.
Back in England, Percy started to travel more extensively to Wales, Scotland and the Hebrides. Any plans he may have had for a return trip to the continent were delayed by what were essentially wars of independence in Germany, Austria and Italy beginning in 1866. However, his increasingly far-ranging journeys within Great Britain brought him in contact with the dramatic landscapes that characterize Victorian painting. In his canvases from the 1860s Percy seems to be more interested in creating a mood rather than simply a romantic scene. The paintings from his 1868 tour of the Scottish highlands illustrate this shift. In On the Road to Loch Turret, Crieff (1868) or the paintings of Loch Awe from the same year, Percy abandoned his typical distant perspective of scenery and focused his attention on the figures in the foreground. By doing so, he invited the viewer to identify with the people in the landscape and to participate in it rather than simply observe it. The paintings become evocations of a place and a mood rather than records of topographical and meteorological phenomena.
Whether or not Percy would have developed this new approach further remains an open question. In 1870, his personal life was tragically disrupted by the death of his oldest son, Gordon, at age twelve. Simultaneously, Percy’s income was declining, whether because his style was no longer as fashionable as it had once been, or because his wife’s expensive tastes had diminished his resources to a perilous level. By 1872, the family was obliged to move to more affordable, albeit still very comfortable, quarters at Bickley Lodge in Redhill, Surrey; and in 1879 to 34 Mulgrave Road in Sutton, Surrey.
The next decade brought additional sorrow in 1883 when Percy’s oldest daughter, Edith Maude died at age twenty-four. However, his second daughter, Amy Dora, must have brought her father a sense of pride and pleasure when her painting, At Stragnel—Cornwall, was hung prominently at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1884. Percy himself continued to paint regularly during these years, but his sales never achieved the prices that he had received during the 1850s and 1860s. In the spring of 1886, he badly injured his knee in a riding accident, and as a result required a leg amputation. He died of a heart attack due to complications from the amputation surgery on April 16, 1886 at age sixty-five.
Janet L. Whitmore, Ph.D.
Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, Merseyside, England
Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
Hartlepool Art Gallery, Hartlepool, Durham, England
Hertford Museum, Hertfordfordshire, England
MuseumSheffield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England
Leicester Arts and Museum Service, Leicester, England
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Northumbria University Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland
Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, England
Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Penrhyn Castle Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales
Salford Museum and Art Gallery, Salford, Greater Manchester, England
Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England
Sunderland Museum & Winter Garden,Tyne and Wear, England
Tate Britain, London
Temple Newsam House, Leeds, England
Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, England
Wolverhampton Art Gallery, West Midlands, England
York Art Gallery, York, England
[i] Cited in Jan Reynolds, The Williams Family of Painters (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1975) 31. From Art Journal, (1851)138.
[ii] Jan Reynolds, The Williams Family of Painters (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1975) 31. Jan Reynolds, who reports this story in her history of the family, was the great-granddaughter of Sidney Richard Percy
[iii] Ibid., 31.
[iv] Ibid., 32. From Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1863. “Nous sommes heureux que M. Percy ait aujourd’hui deserte Trafalgar Square pour les Champs-Elysées.”