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Huggins, William John (1781–1845), marine painter, of whose parents nothing is known, reputedly began life as a sailor in the East India Company, but his only known voyage was from December 1812 to August 1814, to Bombay and China, when he was listed for wages as ‘ordinary seaman’ while serving as steward to Captain Thomas Buchanan on the company ship Perseverance. Unless the ‘ordinary’ rating reflects the circumstance of a man no longer fit to do an able seaman's duty, he may never have been one, although he clearly knew his subject. A painting of the frigate Phoenix (36 guns), under Captain W. H. Webley (later Webley-Parry), convoying seventeen ships including the Perseverance home from Madras in 1814, was reputed in the Webley-Parry family to have been his first picture, and they lent it to the Royal Naval Exhibition at Chelsea in 1891 (catalogue no. 566).

By 1817, when Huggins first exhibited at the Royal Academy (at the British Institution from 1825), he did so from the address of Thomas Merle, a frame maker and dealer at 36 Leadenhall Street, near East India House, but by 1823 had settled at no. 105. Here he remained for the rest of his life, specializing in portraits of East India vessels for captains, owners, and others, and similar shipping and naval subjects, including in watercolours. He appears to have had some early help from Thomas Duncan (c.1779–1841), a ship decorator, print colourist, and art teacher whose son, Edward Duncan (1803–1882), a member of the Old Watercolour Society, subsequently collaborated with him as a lithographer. Edward reproduced about 150 of Huggins's works, acquired skill as a marine painter from him, and in 1834 married his eldest daughter, Berthia (1809–1884). Huggins and Duncan—a better artist—also occasionally painted pictures together, such as one of Indiamen in the China Sea, now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, which is signed by both. Huggins's Eastern sketches provided authentic backgrounds to his work, although he is also likely to have used other people's. He was a competent ship portraitist with a distinctive smooth finish to his oils and rather silvery, muted colour, and his work provides an important record of the shipping of his time. However, although prolific and popular with a maritime audience, ‘Uggins’ was thus summarily dismissed in 1856 by Ruskin in his Harbours of England (Ruskin, 16), and Redgrave characterized his works as ‘tame in design, skies bad in colour, seas thin and poor’ (Redgrave, 228). Turner, whom Ruskin was defending from seamen's derogatory comparisons, none the less partly used his pictures of whalers, owned by their joint patron the whale-oil merchant Elhanan Bicknell, as the basis of his own, about 1845.

Aesthetic critics notwithstanding, on 20 September 1830 Huggins was appointed marine painter to William IV (the ‘sailor king’), who according to Redgrave ‘esteemed his work rather for its correctness than its art’ and commissioned three large paintings of the battle of Trafalgar from him. The first two were shown publicly at Exeter Hall in 1834, the third at the British Institution in 1837: all remain in the Royal Collection. His works still often appear in the market, fetching substantial prices from collectors, and there are twenty-six in the National Maritime Museum. This also holds drawings, watercolours, prints, and two ship portraits by James Miller Huggins (bap. 1807), who was his son and pupil; he exhibited at the Society of British Artists, 1826–30, once at the British Institution in 1842, and was still working in 1865. He and another son, John W. Huggins (bap. 1809), also etched a number of Huggins's shipping studies published between 1824 and 1833 (later gathered in bound form as ‘Huggins' Marine Sketches’, n.d.). Huggins died at Leadenhall Street, London, on 19 May 1845, aged sixty-four. A letter of 1951 in the National Maritime Museum, London, suggests family papers were carelessly destroyed. Huggins and his wife, Berthia (a name also spelt Berthier), had three other daughters, Elizabeth Mary (bap. 1813), Amelia, later Gibbs (bap. 1817), and Sarah Christiana (bap. 1821). His will, dated 1841 and proved on 12 August 1845, made them his beneficiaries, appointing the last two and his widow as executors, with directions to ‘sell by public auction all my sketches drawings and paintings’, but retaining his stock of engraved plates to reissue for joint benefit. Neither his daughter Berthia nor his sons are mentioned.

Pieter van der Merwe

Sources  

DNB · W. Gilbey, Animal painters of England, 3 (1911), 11 [Edward Duncan] · Perseverance log and pay ledger, 1812–14, India RO · P. Bicknell, ‘Turner's The whale ship: a missing link?’, Turner Studies, 5/2 (1985), 20–23 · J. Ruskin, Harbours of England (1856), 16 · Redgrave, Artists, 228 · O. Millar, The later Georgian pictures in the collection of her majesty the queen, 1 (1969), 56 · Royal naval exhibition [another edn] (1891) [exhibition catalogue, Chelsea, London, 1891] · E. H. H. Archibald, The dictionary of sea painters of Europe and America, 3rd edn (2000) · notes in picture files, NMM [incl. copy of letter from Mrs Joan Pamm, descendant, 5 Sept 1951] · ‘Household index’ of appointments, Royal Arch. · Graves, RA exhibitors · Graves, Brit. Inst. · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2022, sig. 641 · IGI · J. Johnson, ed., Works exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists, 1824–1893, and the New English Art Club, 1888–1917, 2 vols. (1975) · ‘Huggins' marine sketches’, [n.d.], NMM [bound copy]