William Lionel Wyllie is regarded as Britain’s premier marine artist of the later
Victorian and early twentieth-century era. His was a full life and his large output
stands testament to a highly driven and motivated artist, highly proficient in both
oil and watercolour although perhaps best known for etchings of stunning atmospheric
He was an enthusiastic student of the sea and a keen sailor himself, reflected in
the accuracy with which he depicted the various vessels in his work, be they long
retired men-of-war from the age of Nelson, his favourite Thames barges, or later
the vessels of the Grand Fleet during World War One. This accuracy was combined with
a lightness of touch and the ability to capture the beauty and wildness of the sea
and the light upon it; a style that suggested the inspiration of Turner, the artist
whom Wyllie held in highest regard.
After his marriage Wyllie lived for many years on the Medway in Kent and became the
foremost chronicler of the shipping of the lower Thames and Medway during the 1880s
and 1890s. He converted the hull of his yawl, Ladybird, into a floating studio and
would often spend weeks aboard on voyages to France or the Dutch canals, painting
He moved to Tower House in Old Portsmouth in 1906, which still stands prominently
next to the Round Tower at the entrance to the harbour, and his grandson John writes
in his excellent monograph that during a storm the ‘South-Westerly gales blew the
waves green over the windows on the ground floor and sent spray up three stories
to drum on the windows upstairs’. John even remembers Wyllie in the studio painting
barefoot with his trousers rolled-up, the raging sea just feet away.
Wyllie was a prolific printmaker and his etchings are notable by their vivid contrast
of deeply-bitten blacks and bright whites. He would later use drypoint more and more,
his technique being so good it is sometimes indistinguishable from his etching. Most
of his etchings were published by his friend, the art dealer Robert Dunthorne, and
those sold at Richard Martin Gallery are all original signed etchings from the plates
worked by Wyllie.
Wyllie’s work records a busy maritime nation which at the time commanded a vast global
empire, the vessels ever changing as sail continued to give way to steam. He recorded
all aspects of maritime life including the beginnings of pleasure sailing and the
great racing yachts of the period.