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Wilson, John (1774–1855), marine and scene-painter, was born at Old Cumnock, Ayr, on 20 August 1774, the son of James Wilson, shipmaster, and his wife, Eleonora Masterton. He had some formal education and at thirteen was apprenticed in Edinburgh to John Norie, a house-painter who sometimes did landscape panels of some merit in the rooms he decorated, and painted a portrait of Robert Burns, one of very few likenesses taken from life besides that by Alexander Nasmyth.

On completion of his apprenticeship Wilson had some lessons from Nasmyth and then practised as a drawing-master in Montrose, Forfarshire, for two years before going to London in 1798, where he again worked as a house-painter. It was while so employed at the Royal Circus (later Surrey Theatre) that he met its Scottish scene-painter, Charles Cooper, who took him on as a colour-grinder and assistant in the painting room. Wilson married a Miss Williams in 1810. He became, by 1812, a scene-painter at Astley's Amphitheatre, touring widely with Astley, of whom he had many stories. From 1816 to 1824, and in 1827, he was principal painter at the Surrey Theatre for Thomas Dibdin (whose son Charles Richard he trained, 1818–20); this was interspersed with work at the Olympic (1819, which he had decorated in 1813), the Coburg (1822), the Adelphi (1823), and the Lyceum Theatre (English Opera) in 1824, where he painted scenery for the spectacular English-version première of Weber's opera Der Freischütz. David Roberts, who made his first visit to France with Wilson in 1824, described him as ‘father of a race of scene-painters including [Clarkson] Stanfield, [Charles] Tomkins, [Charles] Marshall, [P.] Phillips, [T.] Pitt, [William] Gordon and I do not know how many others [who] have received instructions from him at various times’ (Roberts, 203). His work was said to be good, Stanfield speaking of it in ‘the warmest tones’ (ibid., 206), but the fact that he had not been through a scenic apprenticeship caused hostility among the ‘legitimate’ stage painters. This he countered by stating that, notwithstanding, he was then ‘the only scene-painter that has ever exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy’. Though not strictly true, Roberts says ‘the Greenwoods and Whitmores were more civil afterwards’ (ibid.), and credits Wilson with forging the bridge between stage and gallery that he and Stanfield crossed to much greater fame. Wilson first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 and thereafter in most years until his death; also at the British Institution from 1813 and with the Society of British Artists, of which he was a leading founder in 1823–4 and president in 1827. He travelled in France and the Netherlands and exhibited a total of 525 works at these three bodies between 1807 and 1855, mostly coastal marines but also some landscapes. In 1825 he won a £100 premium for a picture of the battle of Trafalgar (bought by Lord Northwick) in a competition organized by the institution, and in 1827 he was elected an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, contributing regularly to its exhibitions. Wilson was influenced by the Dutch and Flemish school of which Roberts says he knew a great deal (ibid., 204). He was a fast worker producing direct and vigorous effects, with dramatic contrasts of light, though sometimes rather careless and not always using the best materials. Sir James Caw considered him more in tune with the sea than any Scottish painter of his time except the Revd John Thomson (Caw, 160). Wilson lived in London until 1853, when he moved to Folkestone, where he died on 20 April 1855. Familiarly known as Old Jock, he was a sociable man, a keen observer, and a brilliant conversationalist, his stories of Burns, ‘Old’ Philip Astley, and other celebrities he had met being much in demand. His son John James Wilson (1818–1875) was also a landscape and marine painter. He exhibited similar works to his father's and from the same London addresses until 1847: at the British Institution from 1834, the Royal Academy from 1835, and a very large number at the Society of British Artists, of which he became a member in 1845, from 1831 to 1875. Most were landscapes until 1849 and marines thereafter. He moved with his father to Folkestone in 1853 and died there on 30 January 1875, having ceased to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1873.

Public collections holding Wilson's work include the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the art galleries at Folkestone, Leicester, Newcastle upon Tyne (Laing Art Gallery), Salford, and Wolverhampton. The galleries at Folkestone, Wolverhampton, Sheffield (Graves Art Gallery), and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, hold examples of work by his son.

Pieter van der Merwe

Sources  

E. H. H. Archibald, The dictionary of sea painters of Europe and America, 3rd edn (2000) · M. Bradshaw, ed., Royal Society of British Artists: members exhibiting, 1824–1892 (1973) · Graves, RA exhibitors · Graves, Brit. Inst. · S. Rosenfeld, Georgian scene painters and scene painting (1981) · D. Roberts, ‘Record book’, GL [photocopy of orig., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut] · minute books, Royal Society of British Artists, London · J. L. Caw, Scottish painting past and present, 1620–1908 (1908), 160

Archives  

Royal Society of British Artists, London, Royal Society of British Artists' minute books