Alexander Williams (artist)
Alexander Williams RHA (1846–1930) is best remembered as a landscape and marine painter, but he was also an ornithologist and taxidermist of note and a professional singer. He was born at the house of his aunt in the Diamond, Monaghan town. His mother, Alice Williams had gone to visit her sister-in-law, Anne Whitla. Both women were heavily pregnant and went into labour almost simultaneously, with the result that Alexander arrived just before midnight on April 21, 1846 and his first cousin early the following day. Family legend had it that, after the two babes had been placed on red plush cushions to be admired by one and all, their mothers reclaimed the wrong babes! If that was the case, then Alexander was the man who, as Robert Whitla, emigrated to North America to distinguish himself in the Canadian Rifles. Another first cousin was Sir William Whitla, physician and politician, after whom the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University Belfast is named.
Alexander Williams was raised in Drogheda, Co. Louth, where the family lived over the family business, a hat manufactory and shop; the Williamses having been hatters for generations past. Alexander described his boyhood in Drogheda as halcyon days. He and his next brother Edward roamed the abundant slobs on the River Boyne and surrounding countryside in search of game, both being keen shots. From their father, an avid amateur naturalist in true Victorian tradition introduced the boys to ornithology and gave them a taste for taxidermy. Alexander also sketched along the busy quays of the town and recalled his fond memories of Mornington at the mouth of the Boyne. These experiences established his abiding love of sailing ships of all kinds and of the sea, which formed a major part of his work in later years.
In 1860, his father, William Williams decamped with the family to Dublin, renting No 19, Westmoreland Street then a fashionable shopping precinct. However, after a promising start, misfortune followed when, in 1866, the shop was entirely destroyed by a fire that claimed the lives of several members of the family of Williams’ landlord in the adjacent premises. Underinsured and under capitalized, the family business now struggled at Bachelor’s Walk, a less fashionable address. In an attempt to take some of the pressure off their father, Alexander and Edward started a sideline in taxidermy. It proved to be exactly the right business at the right time. Starting with a single taxidermy specimen set among the hats, the boys' little business quickly progressed to the point that while one window in their new shop at No 1 Dame Street was devoted to hats the other was given over to birds. Thus began what the eminent ornithologist R.M. Barrington described in the Irish Naturalist magazine as ‘the battle of the hats and birds’, remarking that:
- [...] one could readily perceive that Mr Williams senior, while proud of his sons' achievements, was most reluctant to permit his own occupation to be interfered with, for Edward was anxious to banish the hats and fill the window with birds. The struggle between the hats and birds was renewed with the result that there were two windows one for hats another for birds. Gradually however (fortunately for Irish naturalists) the birds, assisted by the beasts and fishes, swept their enemies the hats away altogether, and when another change of residence was made to the adjoining premises No 2 Dame Street, the entire front was filled with interesting and attractive specimens so lifelike and natural that their novelty in Dublin attracted the attention of many foot passengers, and a group was always collected on the pavement outside the window. It is unusual for a competition such as I have described to terminate so conclusively in favour of natural science.1
The business which became Williams & Son of No 2 Dame Street remained in the hands of the family until 1942. A significant proportion of the bird and small mammal collection in the Natural History Museum, Dublin, came from the Williams studio which had, besides, a world-wide clientele.
While he served his apprenticeship as a hatter and then pursued a career in taxidermy, Williams nurtured an ambition to become a professional painter. He was supported by his father in his ambitions until William Brocas (1794–1868), an established artist of the period, made one of his visits to the hat shop. William Williams suggested that Alexander show the elderly artist some of his work, asking Brocas what he thought of the idea of making him an artist. Alex never forgot the old artist’s response:
- Brocas gazed at me intently, brushing back with his hand the thick hair on my forehead and remarked, “He has a fine head! Make an artist of him is it?” Then in a tone of withering contempt that I have never forgotten, he added: “Make a sweep of him first.” This pronouncement from a well known Dublin artist, who my Father considered eminent in his profession, was a finishing stroke and I need hardly remark that my Father seem[ed] inclined to throw cold water on my further efforts.2
Instead, Williams turned to a photographer and artist by the name of Forster in Westmoreland Street for advice. 'His reply was concise and to the point and I never forgot it. "Sit down in the first ditch you come to and try and paint what you see!"3 In other words, get on with it, there is no substitute for practice. It was to the young man’s credit that he continued to persevere. He remained largely self-taught, attending only the RDS night school for some lessons in drawing. He was good at marketing his wares and found shops along the Dublin quays prepared to take some of his boating pictures. He had 'Hard Times' a winter scene with birds painted from nature accepted for the Royal Hibernian Academy annual exhibition of 1870, and had his first sales at the RHA the following year. He continued to exhibit at the academy every year, without missing a single year, until his death, an unbroken record of sixty-one years in all.
Alexander Williams left the taxidermy business when he was appointed as an alto at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, at £30 per annum in 1874. His duties were not arduous as he was required only to sing at one Sunday morning service, for the Lord Lieutenant. This provided him with plenty of time to paint. A pivotal experience for him came the previous year when he visited Achill island, off the coast of Mayo. It is Ireland’s most westerly island with some of the most spectacular cliffs in Europe, where the golden and white-tailed eagles once bred. Alexander was enthralled with the island from the moment he saw it, writing back to his father to say:
- I had found a part of Ireland where there was an immense field for the activities of an artist, and that I intended to make it peculiarly my own, and devote myself to making its wonderful scenery known.4
Dublin Sketching Club
The following year he was one of the founder members and first secretary of the Dublin Sketching Club (a post he was to hold for half a century). The club flourishes to this day. He also exhibited regularly with the Water Colour Society of Ireland, and contributed pictures to various other societies more sporadically.
Following his election to the RHA as an associate member in 1884, he held his first solo exhibition at the Leinster Hall, Molesworth Street. What began as a two-day private affair with entry by invitation only, evolved into solo public exhibitions (preceded by private viewings) that ran for several weeks. These were prodigious affairs in which he thought nothing of showing a hundred pictures, sometimes more. He was adept at raising publicity for exhibitions, obtaining enduring patronage from successive Lord Lieutenants and their wives, and what were known as ‘the castle set.’ This worked well as nobody more than the titled set trends, where they went and what they bought were of keen interest to the press and the public at large. These solo exhibitions of Alexander Williams became eagerly awaited events in the social calendar of Dublin, drawing, at the height of his popularity crowds of a thousand and more. He maintained his solo exhibitions in Dublin, missing few years, until 1926. Outside Ireland, Williams made a number of forays into a number of English provincial towns, including Manchester and Birmingham and he exhibited for a number of years in Bond Street, London. Further afield, although he never himself travelled beyond the British Isles, his work was shown in Switzerland and Canada; and in America, at the World Fair in Chicago in 1893 he was represented by ‘Sweet Dublin Bay’, while at the St Louis World Fair of 1904, in association with the Congested District Board, he showed an extensive collection. (His two brothers Edward and William also exhibited at the St Louis World Fair, contributing a taxidermy collection of marine birds).
In 1899, Williams took a lease on a ruined cottage and three acres of land on the edge of Bleanaskill Bay, Achill island. Over a period of years, working shoulder to shoulder with local labour, he built a sizeable house (since remodelled as a modern bungalow, following a fire in 1993) and laid out a garden. It is the only surviving garden on the island made before the First World War. Much added to in more recent years, this woodland and water garden, with a fine shrub collection and sculptures in various materials, has been opened to the public and is now one of Achill islands leading attractions (www.achill-art-garden.com). Surviving among his papers, is a unique day to day diary that Williams kept between 1906 and 1913, of Achill island. The diary provides an evocative picture of the man, both as artist and naturalist. Here he is on a summer evening in July, looking across Bleanaskill bay:
- The air is perfectly still and a dreamy silence prevails but as I sit sometimes with closed eyes voices of the children of the village opposite travel over the placid water. There is the occasional bark of a dog. The mooing of cattle. The voice of the Corncrake, and the following birds can be detected Curlew, Herring Gull, Black Headed Gull, Common Gull, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Blackbird singing, Common Bunting, Yellow Bunting, Sparrow, Twite, Pied Wagtail, Rook, Wren, Common Linnet, Skylark, Pipit. As the afternoon light of copper coloured sun slants over the Bay the hillside glows with a golden refulgent light and as the other birds become quiet the liquid notes of the Blackbird echo across the water. There are no trees nor even low bushes on the other side but the beautiful singer instead perches on the stone walls and fences. As the tide ebbs the Curlew are heard over head calling, and the quarrelsome cry of the Herring Gull is also heard. The King of Great Britain and Queen Mary today reside in full state in Dublin Castle with their gold plate and splendid retinue including for the first time in Ireland the Yeomen of the Guard. From the papers I read that never before has a Royal Visit of such splendour been seen in Dublin. Just now the exquisite delights of my “Island Home” compensate me for my absence from Dublin and I simply revel in it although I feel I ought to be in town and attend the King’s Levee.
- The shadows of evening approach; and only the upper part of the hill is lighted by the declining sun. The blue smoke from the cottages steals forward. The cattle are being driven by gaily coloured peasants, and the gulls that always arrive at the fall of the tide are busy at one particular part of the shore. The Blackbird has left off but the Robin now charms the ear. The sun’s fiery light lingers about the hill summits but all in the valley is becoming dull and grey and soon the light of another beautiful Sabbath will fade.5
Williams continued to paint to the end of his days, but with the First World War and galloping inflation, and changing fashions in art, his best days were behind him. Although the last three decades of his life belonged to the twentieth century, he was essentially a representational artist of the late nineteenth. While some of his work showed heightened effects, he had little affinity with mid century romantic painters, preferring a more literal style. Nevertheless, he experimented freely, showing on occasion modern influences, including the Impressionists. His style became less formal with time, as he came to use broader brushstrokes in a more telling way. He was not swayed by the Irish nationalism that emerged late his career, which tended towards idealising the western landscape and his work is notable for its repudiation of sentimental effects. He showed the cottages, cabins and hovels of those living on the western seaboard exactly as they were, not as perfectly white washed cottages in serried ranks. Similarly, his work was often characterised by louring clouds which are so typical of the Atlantic climate. The authenticity of his work is compelling, showing the west as it was. Known as a bon viveur with a ready stock of humorous anecdotes, Williams nevertheless in his art showed the melancholy side to the west of his day, capturing as few have done since, its sense of remoteness and solitude. He died on November 16, 1930.
While mountainous landscapes, often including lakes and rivers along with coastal and boating scenes made up the greater part of his output, a smaller part of his work consisted of Medieval and Old Dublin. He made a point of painting buildings and streets knowing they were about to be demolished. A number of these remain as a valuable historical record. His output overall was prodigious. The best of his work perhaps ranks with the best of the period, although being often such a rapid worker, his work was not consistent. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he painted over the whole of Ireland (producing illustrated volumes of the four provinces of Ireland for Blackie & Son in 1911). He was much praised during his lifetime for concentrating on, and revealing the beauties of Ireland (much of it then unknown to the wider public), as opposed to travelling on the continent as so many of his contemporaries did. Following his solo exhibition in Dublin in 1901, the Irish Times had this to say:
- Mr Williams has devoted his life to depicting the beauties of Irish scenery of every phase, from the rugged coasts of the West to the quiet rural scenes nearer home. In this he has done the nation service. He has helped stimulate public taste in the appreciation of native scenery. Many who knew nothing of the enchantments of Achill Island have been led to find them from first seeing the Cliffs of Meenaun or the Valley Strand upon the walls of the Leinster Hall. His devotion to Ireland in his art is worthy of all praise.6
Alexander Williams left some 35 volumes of papers. These include several volumes of memoirs, diaries, exhibition and guest books, financial accounts, and innumerable letters. The collection is believed to be the largest of its kind ever left by Irish painter. Two further ornithological diaries are in the possession of the Ulster Museum, Northern Ireland and there may be further diaries and memorabilia in private hands. The records of Williams & Son, used by the Royal Academy during the Clare Island Project, and a once valuable research resource for naturalists, appear to be lost.
Viewing his work
The National Gallery of Ireland and The Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, each own a work, as does the Monaghan County Museum. The National Library of Ireland and the Crawford Gallery, Cork, both have a number of his sketches, The largest collection on public display is to be found at the Lake Hotel, Killarney where the artist often stayed. Taxidermy work from the family business abounds in the Natural History Museum, Dublin (the tableaux of foxes, badgers and so forth remain among the most popular exhibits, especially among children); and at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
- Williams, Alexander Beautiful Ireland: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught, published in single volumes and together. Text by Stephen Gywnn. Various editions, initially Blackie & Sons, 1911; also the Gresham Publishing Company.
- Snoddy, Theo Dictionary of Irish Artists 20th Century, 2nd Edition, 2002. Merlin Publishing.
- Baker, Audrey Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) entry for Alexander Williams, 2010
- Butler, Patricia The Silent Companion, An Illustrated History of the Water Colour Society of Ireland, 2010. Antique Collectors' Club.
- Ledbetter, Gordon T. Privilege and Poverty, The Life and Times of Irish Painter and Naturalist Alexander Williams RHA (1846-1930), The Collins Press, 2010
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1. Memoirs of Alexander Williams, Vol I p127
2. Ibid Vol I pp97–98
3. Ibid Vol I p118
4. Ibid Vol I p132
5. Achill Natural History Notes & Diary, 9 July pp140–141
6. Irish Times, 21 January 1901