Weatherhead, William Harris (1843-1911)

Weatherhead, William Harris (1843-1911)

British genre painter William Harris Weatherhead produced works in which the test of human endurance in the face of struggles and challenges figure as the focal point. His often moralising images present varying scenes of Victorian society and offer a glimpse into both Victorian life and the contemporary interest into how such life was presented.

Weatherhead was born in St Pancras, and would live in London for his entire life, settling in nearby Kentish Town. It is not known whether he attended any art classes or received a formal education. His father, William Weatherhead, was a steel plate engraver, perhaps suggesting he would have given his son some artistic guidance. Weatherhead is listed as an artist at the young age of 17, indicating much about his passion for the practice as well perhaps a pragmatism and determination to begin his professional career.

Weatherhead began exhibiting his works from a very young age. He was only 19 when his first oil painting was shown at the Royal Academy. The following year he would also begin to exhibit at the British Institution. Further showings would take place at the Suffolk Street Galleries, and his relationship with the Royal Academy lasted for over 30 years.

Weatherhead’s exhibiting success was owed to his skill and subject matter. In his voluminous oeuvre of works, Weatherhead presents scenes in which the varying aspects of human life are explored. Ranging from historical to contemporary, his genre scenes focus on figures struggling with challenges and issues ranging from poverty to loss and grief.

There is a strong moral thread running through these works. This was very much to the taste of Weatherhead’s Victorian audience. They appreciated works in which the reality of human life met an endurance of spirit and tenacity of goodness very much suited to their sensibilities.

Weatherhead approaches each work with careful detail which lends realism to his subjects and their surroundings. This only further enhances the misery of their situations. A family huddles in a dim interior, worriedly staring out the window, waiting for the return of the fisherman's father from the daily catch. A gaggle of women cluster on a wet and windy beach as sea spray coats them and waves roil dangerously.

Yet it also emphasises their tenacity and strength of spirit. The women on the beach stand in defiance of the tempestuous weather. The baskets at their feet indicate they are waiting for the catch to return, ready to stick into their hardy work. They have a job to do and come hell or high water, they will do it.

Weatherhead also emphasises that this strength of spirit is indicative of moral goodness through the presentation of his subjects. Whilst rooted in realism through their clothing, their posturing is at times valiant, their framing heroic. A scene of RNLI Lifeguards going out on a rescue mission, striding down the harbourfront in line presents them like soldiers, valiant, fearless.

In the case of many of his female subjects, they have a beauty of composure also redolent of their moral goodness. In a selection of scenes depicting these women hard at work, oftentimes engaged in the chores of rural life, this beauty becomes admirable. Despite the hardship of their life, they have retained their spirited morality, which is reflected in their physical beauty.

The number of works which focus on life on the coast suggests Weatherhead perhaps spent some time living and studying in coastal areas. Indeed, the varied nature of his oeuvre suggests travels which allowed him to cover more themes and subjects across his art.

Weatherhead began his career painting predominantly in oil, however this progressively transitioned to an affinity for watercolour. So much so, in 1885 he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. He would remain with this institution until he resigned in 1903 for unknown reasons.

It is clear that the works of William Harris Weatherhead appealed to his 19th-century audience for their morality-imbued themes. The spirited strength of his figures also resonates within the artist himself. A voluminous output of works which execute the same strength of message and of style is truly impressive. They offer an intriguing insight into the Victorian art world.


Born in St Pancras, London, Britain.


Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.


Married Emma Chilton.


Exhibited with the Society of British Artists at the Suffolk Street Galleries, London, Britain.


Elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.


Resigned as a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.


Died in St Pancras, London, Britain.

Stay In Touch
Subscribe to our Wednesday newsletter for the latest finds and 10% off your order.