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Artist of the month: November 2014

Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA

Published 1 November 2014

Though famous for his vignettes of high society in elegant interior settings, perhaps the most enduring of William Quiller Orchardson RA’s works is of his daughter on a billowy cliff walk.

  • William Quiller Orchardson was born in Edinburgh and trained at the Trustees’ Academy in the city from 1845 onwards. There, he joined a circle of young artists - including William McTaggart, John Pettie and Thomas Graham - inspired by Robert Scott Lauder, the Academy’s director. Lauder encouraged his students to work on colouring and composition at an early stage but generally took the approach of ‘wise neglect’. However, Orchardson required little coaching by this time as he had already finished the official course, winning numerous prizes for his work. Life study of a seated male nude viewed from the back is one of his early studies from the life class at the Trustees’ Academy.

  • Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA, Life study of a seated male nude viewed from the back

    Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA, Life study of a seated male nude viewed from the back, c.1840s.

    Given by Lady Orchardson, 1916.

    Black and white chalk. 55 X 38 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • In 1848 Orchardson began exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. After moving to London in 1862, with John Pettie and Thomas Graham, he also exhibited at the Royal Academy every year. Orchardson’s portraits and his paintings of historical and literary subjects were well-received in both cities. His success in London was cemented in 1868 when he was elected an Associate of the RA. Contemporary critics noted a ‘sketchy’ quality in Orchardson’s paintings, a feature - along with his muted palette and unusual spatial compositions - which they attributed to his training under Lauder. The same qualities can be found in his later drawings and in the fluid handling of watercolour.

    In 1877 Orchardson was elected a full member of the Royal Academy. By this time his focus had moved from historical scenes to painting vignettes of life in modern high society set in elegant interiors. However, it was his Napoleon on Board the ‘Bellerophon’ (1880; Tate collection) that captured the public’s imagination, showing the defeated French leader standing isolated on the deck of the ship on his journey to exile on St. Helena.

  • Ralph Winwood Robinson, Photograph of Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA

    Ralph Winwood Robinson, Photograph of Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA, c.1889-1891.

    Platinotype print mounted on off-white card. 20 X 15 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Orchardson also departed from the stylish ballrooms of London for the subject of his Academy Diploma picture, On the North Foreland. Painted thirteen years after his election, this painting replaced his original offering, The Reveller, which was turned down by the Royal Academy Council. Instead he painted his daughter, Hilda, on a windswept clifftop near the family’s home in Kent. She later recalled, “The scene is on the cliffs between Westgate and Epple Bay, where my Father often walked with us, and where I was often rendered serious and silent by the intensity of my enjoyment - which, I suppose, suggested the picture.”

  •  Sir William Quiller Orchardson, RA, On the North Foreland

    Sir William Quiller Orchardson, RA, On the North Foreland, 1890.

    Diploma Work given by Sir William Quiller Orchardson, R.A., accepted 1890.

    93 X 78 X 2.5 cm. © Copyright protected.

  • Orchardson was also an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, a chevalier of the Légion d‘honneur, and an honorary Doctor of Law at Oxford University. He was knighted in 1907 and died at his London home in 1910.

    Orchardson’s On the North Foreland can be seen at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum until 24 November 2014 as part of the Royal Academy Collection touring exhibition Genius and Ambition, The Royal Academy of Arts, London 1768-1918. See more works by Sir William Quillier Orchardson RA in our Collection.