Williams, Charles Frederick (1810-1894)

Williams, Charles Frederick (1810-1894)

The British coastline and countryside is in thrall in the works of Charles Frederick Williams. An artist of enterprise and progress, both Williams’ works and his actions speak of a man with a passion for his craft, keen that others should also be able to chase such a passion.

Little is known about William’s early life. After finishing his school studies, he established himself as an art teacher and drawing instructor in Exeter. During this time, he gained the attention of eminent watercolourist and landscape painter David Cox (1783-1859). Over the span of 16 years, the two artists would go on sketching tours together to North Wales.

These trips with Cox are reflected in Williams’ submissions to the Royal Academy. Two pieces displayed scenes from the Caernarfonshire countryside. Represented, too, were his familial Devonshire surroundings. Fishing boats upon the tide and the beach at Beer were successfully admitted submissions for Williams. He even earnt the praise of renowned art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). As well as exhibiting at the Royal Academy over the course of 35 years, Williams’ work was also displayed at the British Institution and at Suffolk Street, all prominent London galleries.

From the works of Williams’ that remain, Cox’s influence is clear. A watercolour view of Dartmoor captures a broad, sweeping vista of rippling green. Moorland undulates, cupping in crevices rich flocks of trees and rising to crack slate grey rocks above its precipices. Set above all this is a wan sky which allows Williams to illuminate the scene with rich colours and provide delicate detail in the foreground.

Williams’ oil paintings are also invigorated with the same energy that possessed Cox’s works. Storm clouds are summoned by agitated brushstrokes, infected with a tempestuous nature, and injected with moody greys which suffocate the struggling sky underneath. Trees which bow to the path of a spitting river are bustling and busy. Strong character spans the canvas and invigorates impressions of nature with an ephemeral quality. One gets a sense of the scenes being alive.

These comparisons with Cox are not done in order to take away any originality from Williams. Quite the opposite, Williams clearly had natural skill enough to impress the other artist, seeing as they had so many holidays together. It is a credit to his skill that his connection with Cox was so tenacious. It also says much about his progressive ideas as an artist.

Cox, and the group of artists he associated with, were innovators in the art world. Not only had they raised the reputation of watercolour painting, but they were also experimenting with new kinds of landscape art. His works have often been seen as anticipating the impressionists who would come later in the 19th century. They departed from established ideas about what a landscape should be and instead turned to nature as art’s first guide, creating works with energy, and originality.

That Williams worked in the same vein says much about his innovative approach. This innovation and want for progress were also reflected in his actions. Not only did Williams share his skills through his work as a teacher, but he also spoke publicly in favour of better arts education across Britain.

In a talk to the Exeter Literary Society, Williams stated his ‘encouragement of the unprofessional public to the study of art.’ He shunned ideas that art should be ‘accessible only to a few,’ stating it could be for anyone, even women. ‘The School of Design at Somerset House’ was, he argued, ‘a better resource for women than the laborious and scantily remunerated profession of the governess.’ Art could be useful for many trades and skills, Williams believed, for the ‘carpenter, cabinet maker, builder, upholsterer,’ and many others. It was universal, and should not be contained only to the illustrious institutions and the ‘masters.’

In 1858, Williams moved to Southampton. Here he would continue his teachings whilst garnering further inspiration for his own art. Alongside him in Southampton was Elizabeth Traies. The two would live together for 30 years before being married in 1891, only three years before Williams’ death.

Charles Frederick Williams was an artist with a vision of progress and innovation in art. His connection with one of the most progressive landscape artists of the time, and his own words, spoken publicly and proudly, say much of his passion and determination. Today, Southampton keeps a collection of his works in the City Art Gallery.


Born in Ottery St Mary, Britain.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Moved to Southampton, Britain.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Married Elizabeth Traies.


Died in Southampton, Britain.

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