Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Orchardson, William Quiller
ORCHARDSON, Sir WILLIAM QUILLER (1832–1910), artist, born in Edinburgh on 27 March 1832, was only surviving son of Abram Orchardson, tailor, by his wife Elizabeth Quiller. The artist traced his father's family to a Highland sept named Urquhartson. His mother's family of Quiller was of Austrian origin.
On 1 Oct. 1845, when thirteen and a half, he entered the art school in Edinburgh known as the Trustees' Academy on the recommendation of John Sobieski Stuart [q. v.]. He enrolled himself as an 'artist.' The master of the Academy, Alexander Christie, A.R.S.A., taught ornament and design, and John Ballantyne, R.S.A., took the antique, life and colour classes. They were not inspiring teachers, but Orchardson made rapid progress. Erskine Nicol, Thomas Faed, James Archer, Robert Herdman and Alexander Eraser were amongst his fellow students, and gave him the stimulus of friendly rivalry. In February 1852 Robert Scott Lauder [q. v.] succeeded Christie as master, and Orchardson, whose name remained without a break on the roll until the close of the session 1854-5, enjoyed in his final years of pupilage the benefits of Lauder's fine taste and wide knowledge of art. The younger students who gathered about Lauder — Chalmers, McTaggart, Cameron, Pettie, MacWhirter, Tom and Peter Graham — while they influenced Orchardson's work, regarded him as their leader. At this period Orchardson was neither a very regular attendant nor a very hard worker. It is said that he seldom finished a life-study; but when he did it was masterly and complete, and it evoked the applause of his fellows. He took an active part in the sketch club founded by Lauder's early pupils, and formed enduring friendships with the members, more especially with Tom Graham [q. v. Suppl. II] and John Pettie [q. v.].
Orchardson began to exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy as early as 1848, and his pictures showed great promise 'George Wishart's Last Communion' (exhibited in 1853) was a wonderful performance for a youth of less than twenty-one, yet his work failed to impress academicians. His temperament combined ambition with a certain aloofness; and after a short trial of residence in London, he settled there for good in 1862. Within a few months he was joined by his friend John Pettie, and from 1863 to 1865 these two, with Tom Graham who had also gone south, and Mr. C. E. Johnston, another Edinburgh friend, shared a house, 37 Fitzroy Square.
For some time the art of Orchardson and Pettie, while each possessed qualities of its own, was very similar in character. Both found their subjects in past history, with its picturesque costumes and accessories, and shared the technical qualities due to Scott Lauder's training. Their work soon attracted the attention of connoisseurs, Orchardson's 'Challenged' (1865) being his first popular triumph. Orchardson's pictures proved subtler and more distinguished than Pettie's, and in a greater degree he devoted himself to subjects directly suggested by literature. Shakespeare and Scott were favourite sources, and amongst his work of this kind were 'Hamlet and Ophelia' (1865), 'Christopher Sly' (1866), 'Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne' (1867), 'Poins, Falstafif and Prince Henry' (1868), and 'Ophelia' (1874). Like most of his early associates, Orchardson was no mere illustrator of his text. His pictures had always a true pictorial and aesthetic basis for the dramatic situations they embodied. In 1868 Orchardson was elected A.R.A., and in 1870 he paid along visit to Venice — his only stay abroad of any duration. The result was a number of pictures, 'The Market Girl from the Lido' (1870), 'On the Grand Canal' (1871), and 'A Venetian Fruit-Seller' (1874), of a more realistic kind than any of his previous paintings. 'Toilers of the Sea' (1870) and 'Flotsam and Jetsam' (1876) showed a like character and suggested a growing independence of literary suggestion. To the Academy of 1877 he sent 'The Queen of the Swords,' which, while originating in a description in 'The Pirate,' belonged in conception and sentiment to the painter alone. In it his earlier style culminated and it inaugurated the work on which his reputation finally rested. Orchardson was at once made R.A. When the picture was exhibited in the Paris Exhibition next year, together with his 'Challenged' (1865), it evoked in the French art public an admiration which his later work made lasting.
Every year now added to Orchardson's reputation. His drawing, always constructive and real, attained a more incisive elegance ; his sense of design grew thoroughly architectonic, especially in the use of blank spaces ; his colour lost its tendency to greyness and became, in M. Chesneau's happy phrase, 'as harmonious as the wrong side of an old tapestry' ; and his appreciation of character and dramatic situation acquired an absolute sureness. His technical equipment, if limited in certain directions, was eventually wellnigh perfect in its kind. Henceforth his subjects were divided into incidents in the comedy of manners (sometimes gay but more often grave, and usually touched with a deUcate irony) and incidents from the careers of the great. The situation was always an epitomised expression of the interplay of character and circumstance rather than a rendering of a particular event, and the effect was highly dramatic. The first of his social pieces, 'The Social Eddy: Left by the Tide' (1878), was followed a year later by the intensely dramatic 'Hard Hit,' one of his most notable achievements. In 1880 'Napoleon on board the Bellerophon' — purchased by the Chantrey Trustees — made a deep and enduring impression and became through engravings perhaps the most widely known of his works. Other themes from French manners or history were 'Voltaire' (1883), 'The Salon of Madame Recamier' (1885), 'The Young Duke' (1889), and 'St. Helena, 1816 ; Napoleon dictating the Account of his Campaigns' (1892). With these may be grouped the dramatically conceived and coloured 'Borgia' (1902), and some hghter pieces such as 'A Tender Chord' (1886), 'If Music be the Food of Love' (1890), and 'Rivalry' (1897), in which the actors wear the costume of the past. During this period the artist also presented with poignant feeling domestic drama in modern clothes and surroundings. Notable examples of such work are the 'Mariage de Convenance' series (1884 and 1886), 'The First Cloud' (1887), 'Her Mother's Voice' (1888), and 'Trouble' (1898).
At the same time Orchardson's insight into character, subtlety of draughtsmanship, and distinction of design made him a fascinating portrait painter. The more important of his portraits belong to the last three decades of his career, and during his latest years he painted little else. The charming portrait of Mrs. Orchardson (1875); the 'Master Baby'—the artist's wife and child (1886) ; the spirited rendering of himself standing before Ms easel, painted for the Uffizi in 1890 ; 'Sir Walter Gilbey' (1891); and 'H. B. Ferguson, Esq.' in the Dundee Gallery are splendid proofs of his skill in portraiture. Save 'Master Baby,' these were all three-quarter lengths ; but the full lengths of 'Sir David Stewart' (1896), in his robes as lord provost of Aberdeen, and of 'Lord Peel' (1898), when speaker of the House of Commons, are hardly less effective. Later portraits like 'Sir Samuel Montagu' (1904) and 'Howard Coles, Esq.' (1905) were often only of the head and shoulders, but if rather weaker and thinner in handling than earlier efforts they revealed an even subtler apprehension of character.
After his marriage in (1873 Orchardson lived successively at Hyndford House, Brompton Road, at 1 Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, and at 2 Spencer Street, Victoria, and in 1888 or 1889 he settled finally at 13 Portland Place, where he built a splendid studio. For some twenty years from 1877 he had also a country house, Ivyside, at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, where he built another studio, in which some of his most famous pictures were painted. After 1897 he occupied Hawley House, Dartford, Kent.
Besides honorary membership of the Royal Scottish Academy, which was conferred on him in 1871, Orchardson received many honours from foreign art societies. He was made a D.C.L. of Oxford in 1890, and in 1907 he was knighted. He died at 13 Portland Place, London, on 13 April 1910. Only a fortnight before he had completed, with an effort, the portrait of Lord Blyth, which appeared in the Academy after his death. He was buried at Westgate-on-Sea.
Orchardson married on 8 April 1873, at St. Mary Abbots, Kensington, Ellen, daughter of Charles Moxon of London ; she survived him with four sons and two daughters, and was granted a civil list pension of 80l. in 1912. The eldest son, Mr. C. M. Q. Orchardson, is an artist.
Of distinguished appearance, if of slight physique, Orchardson was very active and lithe. In early life he hunted, and at Westgate he became a devotee of tennis, for which he had an open court built. He was also a keen angler, especially with the dry fly, and latterly took to golf. Indoors he played billiards and talked with penetrating insight. Apart from the portrait of himself in the Uffizi, there are others by Tom Graham (seated half length, in Lady Orchardson's possession), by J. H. Lorimer (in Scottish National Portrait Gallery), and by his son, as well as a bronze bust by E. Onslow Ford [q. v. Suppl. II], which belongs to Mrs. Joseph. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in ’Vanity Fair' in 1898. By way of memorial, a reproduction of Ford's bust is to be placed by public subscription in the Tate Gallery and a plaque in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Four of Orchardson's best pictures are in the Tate Gallery, London, and he is represented by characteristic examples in the permanent collections in Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. The 'Voltaire' was included in Mr. Schwabe's gift to Hamburg and the larger version of 'The First Cloud' was acquired for the art gallery at Melbourne, Victoria. Sixty-eight pictures, illustrating every phase of his art, except the charcoal drawings and studies in which his draughtsmanship was often seen at its best, were brought together at the winter exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1911.
[Private information; Registers of the Trustees' Academy; Graves's Academy Exhibitors; Exhibition Catalogues; The Art of W. Q. Orchardson, by Sir W. Armstrong (Portfolio monograph, 1895); Art Annual, 1897, by Stanley Little; Scottish Painting, by J. L. Caw, 1908; Martin Hardie's John Pettie, 1908; The Times, 14 April 1910; Athenæum, 23 April 1910.]