George Wilson (1840-90) and Late 19th-Century Landscape Watercolour Painting
Frederick, Margaretta S., British Art Journal
The recent reintroduction to the work of the late Pre-Raphaelite painter, George Wilson (1848-1890) (1) offers the opportunity to consider this unrecognized artist's position within the known canon of Victorian art. Approximately 70 oils and watercolours have now been documented, although very few of these reside in public collections and until recently the existence of a significant number in private collections was not widely known. (2) Wilson was born in 1848, the year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, and his working life coincided with late Pre-Raphaelitism and the rise of aestheticism in England; nascent impressionism in France; and the early murmurings of continental Symbolism, all of which provided fertile and diverse ground for the development of his mature style. Wilson worked in both oil and watercolour but segregated media by subject, painting only allegories in oil, reserving watercolour for landscape. The subject pictures, such as Spring Witch (Delaware Art Museum, RF 14, PI 1) were large scale, and painted either for exhibition or on commission. Detailed landscape elements are often included in the background of these dense, often ambiguous, allegories, but the existing watercolours do not suggest that they served as preliminary compositional aides. Two sketchbooks, filled with pencil drawings for many of the large allegorical works survive (Private Collection, Edinburgh) suggesting compositional studies were worked out in this format, rather than in the watercolours which have been documented to date. The watercolours are, for the most part, finished views, existing as unique works of art. They vary in size, but do not exceed approximately 10 x 14 inches. The media is watercolour, often with touches of gouache. They were created 'outside the studio,' both literally and psychologically, as they were painted beyond the confines of London, during the off season. The contextualization of the watercolours within, and possibly external to, the rich British tradition of landscape painting is the focus of this paper. (3)
The record of Wilson's work has largely been lost to the cultural history of the period for several reasons. During his lifetime he exhibited his work both sparingly and sporadically, (4) and on the rare occasions when it was on view, not surprisingly, it received scant critical notice. (5) He was fortunate in having a loyal core of patrons who purchased his oil paintings regularly, (6) allowing him some freedom from financial concern. In addition, it is probable that a significant amount of his work was lost in a warehouse fire sometime after the Second World War. (7) Were it not for Wilson's inclusion in Percy Bate's The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters (London, 1899) the artist would have effectively disappeared from the art-historical record. Wilson's erasure is surprising given his existence, albeit on the fringes, of several high-profile artistic circles.
He was born near Cullen, Banffshire, and spent three years at Edinburgh University (1865-68) studying Fine Arts before travelling to London to enter Thomas Heatherley's School of Fine Art. At Heatherley's he befriended fellow painters John B Yeats, John Trivett Nettleship and Edwin John Ellis, joining their loosely aligned group, 'The Brotherhood'. While the name implies a reference to the earlier Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, their shared convictions were somewhat amorphous (although several of the members were associated with the aging Pre-Raphaelite circle). In July of 1871, Wilson entered the Royal Academy as a probationer but the following year moved to the Slade School. Wilson's biography places him at the centre of the London art scene in the 1870s and 1880s as well as in Edinburgh, in northern Scotland and on the continent. He is documented as having visited Italy as early as 1873 and travelled there on painting trips of several months' duration almost every year until 1889. On his way south he passed through Paris and the French countryside. …