Wyllie, William Lionel (18511931), artist and writer, was born at 67 Albany Street, London, on 5 July 1851, the elder son of William Morison Wyllie (1819/201895), artist, of London and Wimereux, France, and his wife, Katherine Smythe (d. 1872), singer, the daughter of John Henry Benham. Brought up in London and Boulogne, he showed early artistic promise, entering Heatherley's art school in Newman Street at a very young age. In 1866 he went on to the Royal Academy Schools, and won the Turner gold medal at the age of eighteen with Dawn after a Storm in 1869. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1868, showing Dover Castle and Town. That love of the sea which was to influence his life and art so strongly soon manifested itself. From an early age, with his half-brother Lionel Percy Smythe and his younger brother Charles William Wyllie, both artists, he indulged a passion for sailing, an enthusiasm which always informed his work. The brothers freely roamed the coast of northern France where Wyllie found subjects for his earliest pictures, Blessing the Sea (1876) being a notable example (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). In 1879 Wyllie married Marian Amy (c.18601937), daughter of Captain William O'Brien Carew of the Indian marine. They had five sons, the second and fourth of whom were killed in the First World War, and two daughters, the elder of whom predeceased her father.
In the early 1870s Wyllie began working as an illustrator for the Graphica connection which lasted about twenty yearsproducing black and white illustrations of topical maritime subjects. In 1883 the Bond Street art dealer Robert Dunthorne showed an interest in Wyllie's work, inaugurating the artist's lifelong association with the firm. In the same year Wyllie began to make his name with more paintings of the recent bombardment of Alexandria, for which he visited Egypt. These were exhibited at the Fine Art Society where he subsequently had a series of one-man exhibitions of his watercolours, a medium in which he was particularly skilled and prolific. During the 1880s Wyllie concentrated increasingly on views of the River Thames, its estuary, and the River Medway, particularly attracted by their more industrial aspects, as exemplified by Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide, the first of two pictures to be acquired by the Chantrey Bequest (Tate collection). At this time he began making etchings, a process that he combined with dry-point, producing numbers of technically complex plates over a period of nearly fifty years. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1904, and a member of the Royal Academy in 1907; he was also a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. In 1905 he published a book on J. M. W. Turner, whom he greatly admired and emulated in his work. He also wrote books on perspective and watercolour technique.
Wyllie spent much time at sea and did a good deal of work for the White Star shipping line. Following his move to a house overlooking the entrance to Portsmouth harbour in 1907 he became more closely involved with the Royal Navy, and it was with renewed energy that he depicted First World War scenes and events, sailing with the fleet by special licence in order to make drawings. In 1919 he spent a month on board HMS Revenge at the time of the armistice. Nevertheless he continued to paint and etch a wide range of subjects until his death, and in his later years his etchings of the busy life of the port of London brought him widespread popularity. Late in life, Wyllie became increasingly interested in British naval history and the subjects it offered. As a founder member of the Society for Nautical Research he campaigned for the restoration of HMS Victory at Portsmouth. He fulfilled his lifelong ambition of painting a panorama (42 ft × 12 ft) of the battle of Trafalgar in Portsmouth Dockyard; it was unveiled by George V in 1930.
A rapid and prolific worker, Wyllie could make stylish sketches even in a small boat on a choppy sea. The golden-wedding greeting which he prized most was a telegram running: The navy loves youAcland. Active, vigorous, brisk, and kindly, he worked and sailed right up to the time of his sudden death at 102 Fellows Road, Primrose Hill, London, on 6 April 1931. He was buried in the churchyard within Portchester Castle. His wife, who shared his passion for sailing, survived him until 1937 having in 1935 published a biography of him entitled We Were One. Their eldest son, Harold, was a marine painter, and a founder member of the Society of Marine Artists. Examples of Wyllie's works may be found in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, the Tate collection, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
H. B. Grimsditch, rev. Roger Quarm
R. Quarm and J. Wyllie, W. L. Wyllie: marine artist, 18511931 (1981) · M. A. Wyllie, We were one (1935) · R. M. Whitlaw and W. L. Wyllie, Lionel P. Smythe, RA, RWS (1923) · H. V. Barnett, By river and sea, Magazine of Art, 7 (18834), 30915 · C. Bridge, William Lionel Wyllie, Art Journal, new ser., 27 (1907), 132 · N. J. H. Grundy, W. L. Wyllie, RA: the Portsmouth years (1996) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1931)
Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, papers
photographs, 18801930, priv. coll. · photograph, 1914, NPG · R. W. Robinson, photograph, NPG; repro. in Members and associates of the Royal Academy of Arts (1891) · L. Smythe, engraving (after unknown portrait), repro. in ILN (4 May 1889)
Wealth at death
£11,933 7s.: resworn probate, 16 May 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales