Etty, William (DNB00)

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ETTY, WILLIAM (1787–1849), painter, born at York on 10 March 1787, was seventh child of Matthew Etty and Esther (Calverley) his wife. His father was a baker and a miller, and it was at the shop in Feasegate, famed for its gingerbread, that William was born. His mother had ‘a face for a Madonna,’ according to Sir Thomas Lawrence; his uncle William was ‘a beautiful draughtsman in pen and ink.’ His eldest brother (also named William, who died before our William was born) had a taste for design, but otherwise there is nothing specially to account for the strong tendency towards art which he showed when a child. ‘My first panels on which I drew’ (he tells us in his short autobiography published in the ‘Art Journal’ in 1849) ‘were the boards of my father's shop-floor; my first crayon a farthing's worth of white chalk, but my pleasure amounted to ecstasy when my mother promised me next morning, if I were a good boy, I should use some colours, mixed with gum-water. I was so pleased I could scarcely sleep.’

In 1798 he was apprenticed to a letterpress printer at Hull, and he served his full seven years, adding three weeks' work as a journeyman printer. His uncle, in answer to his repeated requests, sent for him to London, and he was free to follow the first and last aim of his life. The whole of his little leisure during his apprenticeship was spent in drawing and reading. He always ‘thought to be a painter,’ he wrote, ‘dreamed of nothing else.’ A strong sense of duty alone kept him to his distasteful employment. He speaks of ‘harassing and servile duties,’ and adds, a year before his death, that he still sometimes dreamt that he was ‘a captive, and wake and find it luckily but a dream.’

His uncle belonged to the firm of Bodley, Etty, & Bodley, of Lombard Street, and was ‘bountiful and benevolent’ to him. At home at his uncle's, and furnished with cash by his brother Walter, he set to work in earnest, drawing from the antique at Gianelli's plaster-cast shop in Cock Lane, Smithfield, and soon achieved a ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ which, with the aid of Opie and the favour of Fuseli, procured him entrance to the school of the Academy at ‘dear Somerset House,’ where he worked with Collins and Haydon. A hundred guineas paid by his kind uncle gave him the privilege of a room in Sir Thomas Lawrence's house in Greek Street, Soho. He retained his admiration for Lawrence, though he seems to have had little instruction, except what could be gained from copying his master's pictures. Charles Leslie speaks of his earlier pictures as ‘black and colourless attempts,’ and it was not till 1811, after six years' regular study, that he succeeded in getting any of his pictures exhibited. In this year, however, his ‘Sappho’ was accepted at the British Institution, and his ‘Telemachus rescues the Princess Antiope from the fury of the Wild Boar’ at the Royal Academy. Some nine years later he was looked upon by his companions ‘as a worthy plodding person, with no chance of ever becoming a good painter.’

In 1816, with the help of his brother, he set out for Italy, but did not get further than Florence, for he was love-sick, home-sick, and in ill-health, but the short visit seems to have been of some advantage to his art, for his pictures of 1817 and 1818 attracted some attention, and in 1820 he achieved a real success by ‘Pandora’ at the British Institution and ‘The Coral Finders’ at the Royal Academy. This success was followed up the next year by a ‘Cleopatra,’ which made a great impression. ‘He awoke famous,’ says Leslie, but he did not relax his efforts. In 1822 he paid his second visit to Italy. He went to Florence, to Rome (where he met Canova, Eastlake, and Gibson), to other places, but half of his time during an absence of eighteen months was spent in Venice. It was a time of continuous study. ‘He paints,’ said the Venetians, ‘with the fury of a devil and the sweetness of an angel.’ He returned to London in January 1824, and the night afterwards ‘saw him at his post on the Academic bench.’ Indeed, life was one of such perpetual work that, except the death of his father in 1818 and his occasional attacks of love, which were all on his side only, there is little to record in his personal life during these years.

Though poor and in debt till late in life, his brother Walter relieved him of all pecuniary anxiety. In 1831 he still owed this brother 804l., and it was not till 1841 that he was able to turn the balance in his favour. The mutual affection and trust of the two brothers were perfect. The artist never looked in vain for the necessary remittance, and spent every farthing towards the object for which it was lent—the perfection of his skill. Etty left England an accomplished student, he returned the perfected master. His picture of 1824, another version of ‘Pandora,’ was purchased by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and in October he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy.

In 1825 he completed ‘The Combat; Woman pleading for the Vanquished,’ his first very large picture. It was 10 ft. 4 in. by 13 ft. 3 in., and was purchased by John Martin, the painter, for 300l. In 1827 he exhibited a still larger picture, his first of the ‘Judith’ series, all three of which were purchased by the Scottish Academy, and are now in the National Gallery of Scotland, and in February 1828 he was elected to the full honours of the Academy.

After his return from Venice in 1824 Etty changed his lodgings from 16 Stangate Walk, Lambeth, to 14 Buckingham Street, Strand. Here his mother came with a granddaughter on a visit to set his house going for him, but the young girl stayed and kept his house till his death. Now, though his position was secure, his days were spent in painting, and, till almost the end of his life, he attended the life school of the Academy like a student every night. For many years after he was an academician he could not command large sums for his pictures. His price for a full-length portrait in 1835 was but 60l., and it was only by strenuous industry, rigid economy, and the painting of numberless small pictures for dealers and others, that he was able to pay off his long arrears and lay by provision for his old age. Moreover, he would not raise his prices to those dealers who befriended him when he was poor, and a great part of his time was spent in painting nine large heroic compositions, designed with a high moral and patriotic aim. ‘In all my works,’ he wrote, ‘I have endeavoured to exercise a moral influence on the public mind.’ ‘In the “Battle” [‘The Combat’] I have striven to depict the beauty of mercy; in “Judith” patriotism and self-sacrifice to one's country, one's people, and one's God; in “Benaiah, David's Lieutenant,” courage; in “Ulysses and the Sirens” resistance to passion, or a Homeric paraphrase on the text “The wages of sin is death;” in “Joan of Arc” religion, loyalty, and patriotism.’ For all these works, except the ‘Joan of Arc’ series, he received but small sums. The Scottish Academy paid him 500l. for the three ‘Judiths,’ 200l. more than he received for ‘The Combat.’ He received 475l. for a large picture of ‘The Choice of Paris,’ painted for the Earl of Darnley, but the payments were spread over several years. One of his largest and finest pictures, ‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ (now in the Royal Institution, Manchester), and another of ‘Delilah,’ were sold for 250l. the two.

In 1830 he went to Paris for the fifth time, and went on ‘painting in the Louvre when grapeshot were pouring on the populace by the Pont Neuf and musketry rattling everywhere.’ The death of his mother in 1829; the return of his brother Charles from Java in 1843, after an absence of thirty-one years; his efforts against ‘the destructive demon of modern improvement,’ which was laying hands on his beloved York Cathedral and other remains of ancient architecture in the city; a visit or two to Belgium and France; two letters to the ‘Morning Herald’ (1836) on the protection of art by the state; a lecture (1838) on the ‘Importance of the Arts of Design,’ and another (1840) on English cathedrals; the establishment of a yearly exhibition and a school of design at York; an unsuccessful attempt at fresco-painting in the summer-house in the gardens of Buckingham Palace; a meeting between himself and his four brothers in 1844; a visit to Edinburgh, where he was invited to a banquet by the Scottish Academy, delivered an address to the students, and, with his brother Charles, founded two small prizes for original design, are the most extraordinary events of Etty's life from 1828 to 1846.

The number of pictures of all sizes which he produced in these years was very great. They were, like his previous pictures, nearly all poetical compositions, designed to display the beauty of the female form. At first he had thought to paint ‘Landscape.’ ‘The sky was so beautiful, and the effects of Light and Cloud. Afterwards, when I found that all the great painters of antiquity had become thus great through painting Great Actions, and the Human Form, I resolved to paint nothing else; and, finding God's most glorious work to be Woman, that all human beauty had been concentrated in her, I resolved to dedicate myself to painting,—not the Draper's or Milliner's work,—but God's more glorious work, more finely than ever had been done.’

His health had been long declining when, in October 1846, foreseeing the end, he left off the production of small pictures, and devoted himself entirely to the completion of his last large triad, the ‘Joan of Arc.’ He sold them easily for 2,500l., a large price in comparison with what he had obtained for his earlier and finer large pictures. They were separately exhibited in 1847, and though they showed signs of failing power, and drew more blame than praise from the press, they won much admiration from his brother artists and those who could appreciate their nobility of design and beauty of colour.

In 1848 his health compelled him to break his lifelong, but now dangerous, habit of attending the life school, and he retired to York, where he died in the following year on 13 Nov. He was buried with public honours in the churchyard of St. Olave's, near the ruin of St. Mary's Abbey, at York.

In his last years he reaped the fruit of his long devotion to art. His pictures fetched high prices. ‘It was said last week,’ he writes, in reference to a sale at Christie's, ‘Etty sells for more than Raphael.’ A few weeks before his death he came up to town to see the exhibition of his collected works at the Society of Arts, and enjoyed a triumph which seldom befalls an artist. In his last eight years he had accumulated a sum of 17,000l., and the contents of his studio sold for 5,000l. He left his niece his house at York and 200l. a year, and the rest of his property to his brother Walter, who died three months afterwards.

If we have none of his greatest pictures in our national collections in London, the galleries at Trafalgar Square and South Kensington contain a number of his minor works, which display to advantage his peculiar qualities as a painter, his rich and radiant colour, his exquisite flesh painting, and his grace of composition. One of these, ‘Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm,’ is one of the best and most characteristic of his more fanciful works.

[Art Union, December 1839; Art Journal, January 1849; Gilchrist's Life of Etty; Eclectic Review, vol. xxvi.; Redgrave's Century of Painters; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Cunningham's British Painters (Heaton); Pictures by William Etty, R.A.; Masterpieces of British Art.]

C. M.