Village overlooking an Estuary
Research by Marie Riley Ed A Matthews
This painting is listed in Stephen Sartin’s catalogue (2001) as by H Williams. (1) It is not clear how or when it was attributed as it is unsigned and there is no information about when, or by whom, it was given to the Lytham St Annes Art Collection. Council minutes recording the donation would normally include the name of the artist and painting and without this reference it is difficult to verify any details.
The Public Catalogue Foundation for Lancashire (2011) attributes this painting to Harry (John Henry) Williams (1807-1877).(2)
'The Dictionary of Victorian Painters' by Christopher Wood lists a Harry Williams active 1854-1877. It reads:
'Liverpool landscape painter. Painted coastal scenes around Liverpool and North Wales. Came to London, where he died in poverty. Exhibited at R.A. [Royal Academy] twice, BI [British Institution] and elsewhere.' (3)
There is also an entry for John Henry Williams, active from 1852 to 1856, which states that he exhibited a coastal landscape at the BI and had an address in Liverpool. (4)
The Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) entry seems to be based on the belief that John Henry and Harry Williams are the same person. This is a reasonable assumption given that Harry was commonly used as a nickname for Henry in the nineteenth century and both artists were Liverpool-based and painting around the same time. The 1877 date of death given in the PCF catalogue is the same date that Wood cites Harry Williams as being last active, which suggests that may have been a source for this information.
More information about Liverpool artist, Harry Williams, can be found in H C Marillier’s 'Liverpool School of Painters' (1904). (5) Biographical details are scarce but Marillier does record that he was the son of a Liverpool tradesman and that he married Lavinia Jones, the daughter of a well-known publican in Liverpool. Marillier states that Williams painted mostly landscapes and coastal scenes, one of his finest being the tower of Wrexham Church. He also refers to a view from Hoylake beach looking across to New Brighton dated January 1858. According to Marillier:
'He never frequented the art schools of Liverpool, nor shared to any extent in its artistic life; and he is chiefly remembered as a rather burly man of medium height, who had the peculiarity of painting with his left hand (p230).'
Marillier believed that Williams had enough promise to have made a name for himself and to have become a very capable artist, ‘but fortune seems not to have smiled upon him'. He notes that Williams later went to London where he died in poverty (p231). Marillier is referenced as a source for Christopher Wood’s entry on Williams, although this is not where he obtained his dates for the artist as Marillier does not cite any, other than in relation to two of his paintings, A View of Penmaenmawr in 1855 and A View from Hoylake Beach in 1858.
Marillier, who was born in 1865, could not have known Williams personally but in researching his book spoke to several surviving members of the Liverpool Academy, including William J J C Bond (1833-1926), who would have been contemporaries of Williams.
Fortunately, Marillier provided sufficient clues to enable tracking down the artist he refers to. The 1851 census has an entry for John H Williams, aged 19, living in Williamson Square, Liverpool, artist and architectural student. (6) He is the son of John Williams, a furniture fringe manufacturer. John Henry Williams, as listed above in the census, married Lavinia Jones, daughter of Thomas Jones, Licenced Victualler, in Liverpool in 1853 (7) which confirms that this is indeed the Harry Williams referred to by Marillier. He gives both Christian names - Henry John - on his marriage certificate.
The dates for this artist however, do not tally with the PCF entry (1807-1877) or with Christopher Wood’s assertion that he was active until 1877. A further source on Williams is a joint publication by the museum services of Blackburn, Burnley and Lancashire County Council citing Williams as active between 1845 and 1877. This states:
'Williams is thought to be the son of a Liverpool furniture broker. He exhibited views of Lancashire, Cheshire and Wales at the Liverpool Academy during the years 1845-1858, but by 1856 had moved to London and later in 1873 to Penzance.' (8)
Marillier’s Harry Williams was born in 1831 in Liverpool (9) and died in London on
5 December 1866 at the age of 35. His obituary in the Liverpool Mercury specifically refers to the fact that he was an artist ‘late of the Liverpool Academy'. (10) Harry Williams was not in fact a member of the Liverpool Academy, although he did exhibit there,(11) but neither was there any other artist of that name between 1810 and 1867. Harry is the only Williams acknowledged by Marillier to have been painting in Liverpool at that time and known to the Academy. (12)
On that basis it seems reasonable to assume that the artist cited by the PCF is the same Harry Williams referred to by Marillier but that the dates previously ascribed to him have been incorrect.
The BBC Your Paintings website includes five paintings by Harry (John Henry) Williams. One of which, owned by Hampton Palace, Old Hampton Court Bridge, is dated 1875, nine years after his death. (14) Another painting, Dolbadarn Castle, attributed to an artist named Harry Williams, but not collated with those of Harry (John Henry), is listed as dated 1877. (14) These paintings may have either been misattributed or misdated.
Another artist operating around this time was Henry Williams (1807-1886), who painted a number of river scenes and views of the Thames and the New Forest. (15) Henry’s birth year of 1807 is, suspiciously, the same as that incorrectly ascribed to Harry (John Henry) so it is likely that these two artists have become confused. Another Henry Williams, with an address in Penzance, is listed by Wood as exhibiting two paintings in 1874. It is difficult to establish whether or not this is the Henry Williams above (1807-1877), but he may well been also confused with our Harry Williams.
To further complicate matters, Fylde Council have advised that Christies have suggested that this painting may be by an artist called T Braggs and that the scene is Brading on the Isle of Wight. This seems to be a speculative judgment. The words ‘attributed to’ are not used, simply the artist’s name followed by a question mark in brackets, which suggests a great deal of uncertainty on their part. There is no signature or evidence attached to the painting to associate it with Braggs. The scene does resemble views of Brading Haven (16) but it is difficult to identify this definitively. If the artist is indeed Harry Williams it is more likely that the setting might be somewhere in Wales, given that Williams was known to paint in North Wales and that his father originated from Denbighshire. (17) The scene is reminiscent of the Mawddach Estuary in Snowdonia.
Correspondence with John Ball, who manages a website featuring extensive images of Wales, elicited the following response:
'It's very difficult to be certain because of the generous artistic licence taken by these 19th century romantic painters, but I think you may be right about the Mawddach Estuary. The "village" in the middle distance could be Dolgellau (formerly spelt Dolgelly). Dolgellau has an old church with a square tower located in roughly the same position as the one in the painting. The scene, looking westwards towards Cardigan Bay, could have been painted from a viewpoint such as the 2100 foot Craig y Ffynnon, about six miles due east of Dolgellau.' (18)
Further work needs to be done to establish the location of Village overlooking an Estuary and it may never be satisfactorily proven.
The scene is divided into a number of different areas delineated by a series of undulating curves and lines, further distinguished by the artist’s groupings of similar colours in discrete sections of the painting; for example warm earthy colours in the foreground sections, mostly rich browns, moving into browns and gold in a section on the left that takes the eye further back into the painting. The middle ground is mostly greens: grass and trees at the edges punctuated by the clear waters in the middle, while the background is dominated by blue sky and cloud. Concentrated pools of light draw attention to different areas of the painting, almost acting like spotlights to gently guide the viewer section by section around the whole. A dusty red path, mirroring the colour of the roofs, curves around the village. Behind it there is a drop in ground level to the water below.
The artist uses several groupings of three to add harmony to the composition. In the foreground to the right a drover herding three cows raises his stick. A trio of sheep are positioned immediately in front faced by a sheep dog.
On the left of the painting two men are harvesting wheat in a field and a third figure, that looks like a woman, is sitting or kneeling, probably bundling sheaves together. Three stooks of sheaves are lined up ready to dry before threshing. The people in the painting not only enables the viewer to judge perspective because of their relative size, but gives the sense that this is not simply a picturesque scene but a working rural environment.
At first glance the estuary appears to form an enclosed figure of eight, but closer inspection reveals it to be snaking around a bend where it forms a third stretch of water, seemingly at the point where it merges into the open sea. The village above is densely packed with houses positioned closely together. Apart from a large cottage (or possibly two close together) in the foreground and one on the left, slightly less detailed, the houses are sketchily drawn and impressionistic in style. A rectangular tower, possibly part of a church but difficult to distinguish, rises above the other buildings.
(2) Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Lancashire,
The Public Catalogue Foundation, p269
(3) Wood, Christopher,
The Dictionary of Victorian Painters,
Antique Collectors Club (1978), p518
(4) As above, p518
(5) Marillier, H C,
Liverpool School of Painters,
John Murray, London (1904), p230-1
(6) John H, Williams,
1851 Census Ref: HO107/2184/F70 /54
(7) Marriage Ref: Liverpool July-Sept 1853,
(8) Lancashire South of the Sands: The changing Lancashire landscape through the eye of the artist 1. The Rural Landscape 1750-1950, Lancashire County Council (1986), p25
(9) I have been unable to trace a baptism entry for Williams to verify this date but census entries, marriage certificate and age at date of death all point to him being born in 1831.
(10) Obituary Notice: Liverpool Mercury,
Monday 10 December 1866. The obituary reads: Williams – Dec. 5th in London, aged 35, Mr Harry Williams, artist, late an associate of the Liverpool Academy.
(11) Liverpool Mercury, Saturday 8 November 1856, mentions a piece by ‘Harry Williams of Liverpool’ at the annual academy exhibition.
(12) Marillier, p257-259, gives a complete list of artists who belonged to the Academy during this period. He then lists a further six artists, including Williams, of whom he notes ‘although Liverpool artists in every sense were not members of the Liverpool Academy …’
(17) John Williams,
1851 Census Ref: HO107/2184/F70 /54