Breakspeare RBA RBSA ROI, William Arthur (1856-1914)

Breakspeare RBA RBSA ROI, William Arthur (1856-1914)
Breakspeare RBA RBSA ROI, William Arthur (1856-1914)

William Arthur Breakspeare was a distinguished British painter of figures, genre scenes and portraits. Hailing from Birmingham, his cunning observational humour became a trademark characteristic of his finely rendered works.

From an early age, young Breakspeare was surrounded by creative endeavour. His father, John Breakspeare, was employed as a ‘japanner’, which involved applying a Japanese-style finish to furniture or metalwork. Undoubtedly, he helped his son to develop a keen eye for detail and hone his draughtsmanship.

During his formal education, he received numerous awards, including at least two national prizes for life studies. These were impressive achievements and indicated his emerging talent for drawing. A work from 1872, ‘Waiting For Her Lover’ demonstrates his advanced handling of posture and colour. It depicts a young continental lady resting her left elbow on a mossy bank at the edge of a wood while gazing wistfully into the yonder. She’s been there for an eternity and her expression speaks of quiet resignation. It’s rendered finely akin to a tale of exalted romance yet carries a sharp wit. The edges are softened, yet the message is direct.

This blending of precise lines, radiant colours and subtle humour underpins many of Breakspeare’s works. His subjects are playful and often appeal on two levels. When he describes courtship, his women are all-knowing rather than subservient. Radiant ladies look towards the viewer with a raised eyebrow, while gentlemen flounder, besotted, and confused. One can imagine such works decorating the windows of high-end London galleries, popular with female buyers.

Perhaps the only males to get off lightly were burly, chest-out, cavaliers, dressed to the nines in sparkling doublets and breeches. He produced various self-portraits dressed in this manner so probably owned the outfits. Although, even his cavaliers carried a certain ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour. Examine their expressions and you might discover conceit and an inflated ego.

During the late 1870s, he moved to Belgium to study at Charles Verlat's Academy in Antwerp. Verlat was a master - producing exquisitely detailed scenes and Royal commissions. He also spent time in Paris and became influenced by Thomas Couture (1815-1879).

A sociable character, he ultimately settled in London and lived at the famous Mall Studios in Hampstead for many years. He was good friends with Edwin Harris (1855-1906), a fellow ‘Brummie’, and one can imagine the anecdotes extending well into the night.

William Arthur Breakspeare exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Scottish Academy and regularly at the Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham where he was a member. He’s represented at the Ashmolean Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, and Russell-Cotes Art Gallery.


Dowdeswell Galleries, Fine Art Society, Grosvenor Gallery, Manchester City Art Gallery, Royal Academy in London, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal Scottish Academy, Royal Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street), Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Public Collections

Ashmolean Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Milntown House, Museum of Croydon, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, The New Art Gallery in Walsall.



Born in Birmingham to John Breakspeare, a japanner, and Emma Breakspeare.


Lived in Birmingham with his parents and siblings.

Apprenticed as a decorator to Halbeard and Wellings.


Lived in Birmingham with his parents and siblings. His profession was listed as ‘flower painter’ - so too was his father’s.


Awarded a prize at the ‘National Competition’ at South Kensington for his drawing of an ‘antique head’.


Debuted at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. He exhibited a total of 34 works between 1874 and 1899.


Awarded a prize at the ‘National Competition’ at South Kensington for a life study.
Moved to Paradise Street, Birmingham.


Awarded a prize by the Birmingham School of Art.
Awarded a prize at the ‘National Competition’ at South Kensington for a life study.


Studied in Paris reputedly under Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900).

Studied at Charles Verlat's Academy in Antwerp.


Lodging at The White Swan in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster, London. His good friend, the artist Edwin Harris (1856-1906), was also a resident.
Elected an associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
Moved to Haverstock Hill in London.


Debuted at the Royal Society of British Artists with ‘Une Petit Blanchisseuse’, ‘ A Little Housewife’ and ‘Une Merchante Enfant’.


Elected a full member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
Travelled to Newlyn, Cornwall.


Mentioned in Tinsley's Magazine following an exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists.

“The Royal Society of British Artists have done an excellent thing in getting up their extra summer exhibition of decorative work. The show is a very good one and is well worth a visit. There is naturally some very crude and bad work, but there also is some very good. It is not all what we understand as purely decorative, but much of that which is excellent. There are some first sketches for large works by Leighton and Burne-Jones, but they are not the most notable things in the exhibition. One of the best things there is a drawing from the nude, by William Breakspeare, which for tone, delicacy of colouring, and life-likeness of the skin and flesh is superior to anything that has been exhibited this year. Mr. Breakspeare, as was said in a recent issue of this magazine, is one of the Newlynites, and one of the most talented. Indeed, he has so much talent, and does such conscientious work, that the wonder is that he is not already an A.R.A.”


Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘At The Tournament’. Address given as The Mall, Park Road, London. He exhibited a total of 21 works between 1891 and 1914.
Occupation listed in the census as ‘artist (figure)’.


Lived at The Mall Studios, Hampstead, London, along with several other artists.


Lived in Hampstead, London.


Died in London.


Birmingham Daily Post

“The death has occurred at his residence in London of Mr. W. A. Breakspeare, a well-known Birmingham artist, who achieved more than a local celebrity. He was born in Birmingham, and studied with distinction at the City School of Art being a gold medallist for painting. After teaching in the school for two years he went to Paris, and became a pupil of the celebrated Hungarian painter Munkacsy. In 1881 he settled in London, where he attained a well-recognised position in his profession. He was a member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, and a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. Visitors to the Birmingham Art Gallery will be familiar with his graceful picture, ‘A Daughter of the House.’ The profession and art-loving public in Birmingham will be sorry to learn of Mr. Breakspeare's death, for his works are in many local collections, and as a teacher at the Birmingham School of Art his work was much appreciated.”

Birmingham Daily Post

“The Birmingham Art Circle, which was founded over thirty years ago, may now claim to be one of the established institutions of the city, and the exhibition which opens to the public today in the new galleries of the Royal Society of Artists may without hesitation be pronounced to be the best which that body has ever brought together. Few of the foundation members survive, and of these only three exhibit, so that on the whole the exhibition may be regarded as an index to the work and progress of the younger Birmingham artists. 

The Royal Society of Artists as a rule make their elections from the membership of the Circle, and so a fair proportion of the exhibitors are connected with both bodies, but as each body is under separate management the exhibition is entirely separate and distinct from that of the older society. Since their last exhibition, the Circle has lost by death four valued members, Charles Morgan, C. T. Cox, Thomas Patrick Spall, and W. A. Breakspeare, the latter of whom achieved a wider reputation in London than in his native city, and the committee have been fortunate in securing two of the best of his earlier works which were executed about the same time as the formation of the Circle. 

The solidity and sound craftsmanship of ‘An Eastern Maid’ should be an object lesson to our younger artists who are too impatient of the yoke to master their material, and the lesson would be re-enforced by careful study of his ‘Rift in the Lute’ and ‘A Stranger in the Village,’ pictures which mark successive stages in the development of artistry in an accomplished painter.”

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