Williams, Edward (1781-1855)

Williams, Edward (1781-1855)
Williams, Edward (1781-1855)

Edward Williams was a British painter of landscapes and the father of a remarkably artistic family. His story is one of rugged Victorian scenery, windswept oak trees, idyllic rivers buried into majestic valleys, and rustic timber-framed cottages.

At the age of 11, Williams left home to live with his uncle, James Ward RA (1769-1859). It’s unhealthy to speculate, but interesting to consider the circumstances of his departure in the context of his turbulent father. His Dad, also Edward Williams, was an engraver who worked in the circle of the notorious rapscallion George Morland (1763-1804) whose habitual drinking was widely known. Morland’s upbringing had been wholeheartedly brutal and, during an age where male emotions were buried under a broad-shouldered facade, this led to alcohol. As is often the case, Morland, in turn, dragged his comrades to the alehouse, thus enabling further misdemeanours. Williams' wife, Mary, left for another man in around 1791.

We can’t assume that young Edward Williams led a troubled childhood, but it seems feasible given the environment. But, either way, it does appear that he found his escape in the rippling streams and abundant woodlands of the British countryside. Numerous Victorian artists arrived in nature for psychological respite. Sketching the scenic views of a land untouched by industry and evolving modernity. Today, we’d call it ‘mindfulness’, the time spent observing a gentle breeze as it rustles through the limber branches of a twisting birch.

Williams came to landscape painting at a time when it was considered a second-rate pursuit in favour of scenes with figures and portraits. But it didn’t matter, as he was escaping into a gentler land, where he could feel a sense of belonging - and love, even. As a result, his works sing with the joy of nature’s solitude, its tranquillity and mystery - its sense of grounding and the reassurance that all things continue, as they always have.

In terms of his style, he drew upon the great Dutch masters of the 17th century, such as Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1629-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709). Their impressive oeuvre provided the basis for countless English landscape painters during this period. Williams probably had access to various etchings and engravings after the Dutch pioneers, which he perhaps copied as a young man to further his development.

Armed with these models and formulas, he approached the British scenery with an eye for accomplished composition and deftness of touch. Producing a heady array of picturesque delights. He’s also known for his evocative nocturnes, particularly along the River Thames - the press often dubbing him ‘Moonlight Williams’ as a result.

The Family

At times, a difficult upbringing is passed on to the next generation - e.g. a father, traumatised by his own childhood, inflicts the same fate upon his children. But, it can also work in reverse - whereby a father inspires his family in an effort to break the chain. And it’s evident, from the various successes within the Williams family that ‘Old Williams’ worked tirelessly to improve the fate of his sons.

Six of his boys developed into successful artists with the majority achieving greater recognition than Old Williams himself.

Edward Charles Williams (1807-1881)
Henry John Boddington Williams (1811-1865)
George Augustus Williams (1814-1901)
Arthur Gilbert Frederick Williams (1819-1895)
Sidney Richard Percy Williams (1821-1886)
Alfred Walter Williams (1824-1905)

This monumental circle of painters worked predominantly from their father’s home in Barnes, Surrey. With some of them moving nearby. Out the back, a carriage house became a studio, a hive of artistic endeavour. Can you imagine the rivalry between each of the brothers?

The dappled marshes, quiet farmland and wooded thickets became an ever-changing muse for the Williams family. And together, they produced an astonishing body of works. Collectively, they were known as the ‘Barnes School’.

In 1855, overcome by the death of his wife, Edward Williams died of a broken heart. He left behind a legacy, which had a lasting effect on landscape painting in Britain. But, perhaps most of all, he should be remembered for his story - one of overcoming adversity and changing the fortunes of a new generation. We have a lot to thank him for.

Edward Williams exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and the Society of British Artists. His works are held in various public collections including at the V&A and Tate Gallery.


Born in London, England, to engraver Edward Williams (c.1755-c.1797) and Mary Ward.


Sent to live with his uncle, the artist James Ward RA (1769-1859).

Apprenticed under carver and gilder, Thomas Hillier.


Married Ann Hildebrandt (c.1780-1851). The couple would have eight children.


Birth of son, Edward Charles Williams (1807-1881).


Birth of son, Henry John Boddington Williams (1811-1865)


Birth of son, George Augustus Williams (1814-1901).
Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘A River Scene’. He would continue to exhibit a further 35 works.


Birth of daughter, Emily Ann Williams (1816-1857).


Birth of son, Arthur Gilbert Frederick Williams (1819-1895).


Birth of son, Sidney Richard Percy Williams (1821-1886).


Birth of son (twin), Alfred Walter Williams (1824-1905).
Birth of son Charles Williams (twin) who died shortly after birth.


Moved with his family to Barnes, Surrey, England.


Died in Barnes, Surrey.

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