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Richmond, Sir William Blakelocked

  • Simon Reynolds

Richmond, Sir William Blake (1842–1921), painter, was born at 10 York Street, London, on 29 November 1842, the second son of the painter George Richmond (1809–1896) and his wife, Julia (1811–1881), daughter of Charles Heathcote Tatham (1772–1842), architect. His second name and the choice of Samuel Palmer as his godfather shows that George Richmond destined this son from birth to follow in his artistic footsteps. The family home was a gathering-place for leading figures in the artistic community, including John Ruskin and J. E. Millais. Due to ill health William was educated at home, where he enjoyed the personal tutelage of Ruskin and the organist Edmund Kynvett. He developed a precocious artistic talent and a lifelong love of music. However, the handsome and wilful boy suffered under the harsh discipline of his father, and in the winter of 1857 he ran away from home with the equally unhappy More Palmer, Samuel's eldest son. The boys were caught by police, who had been alerted by their fathers, and were dragged home in ignominy. Richmond was thereafter prevented from seeing More, until, four years later, his friend lay dead. Gradually he forgave Samuel Palmer for his harshness, and both Palmer and Edward Calvert schooled the young artist in the idyllism prevalent in the early work of the Ancients, the brotherhood of artists who had flourished at Shoreham in Kent in the 1820s.

In 1858 Richmond entered the Royal Academy Schools where he won two silver medals, exhibiting his first portrait, of his brothers Walter and John (priv. coll.), at the Royal Academy show of 1861; it was there, and at the British Institution, that he exhibited various Pre-Raphaelite portraits, often of children, culminating in his outstanding conversation piece of Alice Liddell and her two sisters, The Sisters (exh. British Institution, 1865; priv. coll.). This has remained his masterpiece in portraiture. In 1866 his career shifted to Rome, where, for three years, he studied the old masters. His journey abroad was partly due to a domestic tragedy: on 21 October 1864 he had married Charlotte Foster (1841–1865), niece of the musician John Hullah, but she died from consumption on 13 December of the following year, having infected her husband with the disease and leaving him broken-hearted. The warmth and artistic inspiration of Rome contributed to Richmond's partial recovery. Under the influence of the landscape painter Giovanni Costa, and Frederic Leighton, the Royal Academy's budding classicist, he soon directed his artistic allegiance away from Pre-Raphaelitism to a form of classicism tempered, initially, by the mysticism of the Ancients and later by the aestheticism of Albert Moore, his fellow pupil at the Royal Academy Schools.

In 1869 Richmond exhibited again at the Royal Academy, showing The Procession of Bacchus at the Time of the Vintage (priv. coll.), a large classical processional scene influenced by Leighton but marked by the intensity of the Deutsch-Römer, a group of German artists working in Rome. Paintings similar to theirs, such as The Bowlers (exh. RA, 1871; Downing College, Cambridge) and The Lament of Ariadne (exh. RA, 1872; Wigan metropolitan borough council), were severely criticized by traditional critics as un-English, having been inspired by continental classical friends. A relapse in health drove Richmond, in 1870, to Algeria. Here, thanks to the care of his second wife, Clara Richards (d. 1916), daughter of William Richards of Cardiff, whom he had met in Rome and married on 30 November 1867, he achieved a complete recovery.

On their return to England, accompanied now by their two children, it was evident that the young family would need accommodation outside York Street. Richmond purchased Beavor Lodge in the green riverside pastures of Hammersmith, where he remained for the rest of his life. The cost of rebuilding and adding a studio forced him back into portrait painting. Introductions made in Italy led to commissions for society portraits, such as the successfully aesthetic image of Lady Frederick Cavendish (exh. RA, 1871; Holker Hall, Lancashire), and his unappreciated likeness of the princess of Wales (exh. RA, 1873; Royal Collection). This earned Queen Victoria's disapproval, probably contributing to Richmond's failure to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1876, the same year in which he exhibited his intensely atmospheric landscape Near Via Reggio where Shelley's Body was Found (exh. RA, 1876; Manchester City Galleries). Fortunately the Grosvenor Gallery, an exhibition venue more sympathetic to the aesthetic movement, opened in London in 1877. Richmond discontinued exhibiting at the Royal Academy until 1887, when his associateship of that body was assured for 1888.

At the Grosvenor Gallery further monumental mythological paintings were shown: the classically severe Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon (exh. 1877; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto); Sarpedon (exh. 1879; Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia); and An Audience in Athens (exh. 1885; City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), painted after Richmond's two extensive tours of Greece in 1882 and 1883. In 1880 at the same venue he showed The Song of Miriam (priv. coll., Australia), painted in the aesthetic manner using a lighter colour scheme. Various portraits and The Bath of Venus (exh. New Gallery, London, 1891; Aberdeen Art Gallery) were conspicuous for their abandonment of his traditional darker colours. In 1885, 1886, and 1887 he exhibited three mythological studies of the male nude, a daring subject in the 1880s: Orpheus Returning from the Shades (diploma work, Royal Academy of Arts), Hermes (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1886; priv. coll.), and Icarus (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1887; priv. coll.). They were not to everyone's taste: Mrs Douglas Freshfield, a sitter for one of Richmond's aesthetic portraits, described Icarus as 'most vile' (Reynolds, William Blake Richmond, 195). His masterpiece, the magnificent Venus and Anchises (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), depicting Venus's progress through the wintry wilderness turning winter into spring, was shown at the New Gallery in 1899. In 1879 and 1889 two life-sized sculptures were exhibited: An Athlete (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1879; St Peter's Square, Hammersmith, London) and The Arcadian Shepherd (des.); these and his Memorial to Gladstone of 1906 (Hawarden church, Flintshire) show no mean talent as a sculptor.

However, Richmond's success during his lifetime rested largely upon his portraiture. He first depicted pampered Victorian children, then glamorous, languid, and sensuous hostesses—the goddesses of society—such as Lady Mary Carr-Glyn (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1882; priv. coll.), the Countess Grosvenor (1888; priv. coll.), Viscountess Hood (exh. RA, 1888; priv. coll.), Mrs Ernest Moon (exh. RA, 1888; Tate collection), and Miss Muriel Wilson (exh. RA, 1899; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull). Like John Singer Sargent after him, he excelled as the portraitist to the ‘Souls’ for whom he could also paint Byronic male likenesses such as the portraits of George, thirteenth earl of Pembroke (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1887; Wilton House, Wiltshire), and Charles, fifth Lord Lyttelton (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1880; Hagley Hall, Worcestershire). He also depicted eminent statesmen, ecclesiastics, scientists, and artists, attributing to each the due solemnity, grandeur, vision, or artistic panache which might be appropriate to that sitter. He became a good friend of W. E. Gladstone, visited the monastery of Montecassino in Italy with him, and stayed at Hawarden Castle in Wales; he drew a memorial sketch of Gladstone's face just after his death. Richmond's portrait of Prince von Bismarck (exh. RA, 1888), which was instrumental to his participating in international exhibitions in Germany, is lost, but two likenesses of Gladstone (1867; exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1881–2) exist at Hawarden Castle (though his portrait of Gladstone for Christ Church, Oxford, was turned down by the college); Charles Darwin's portrait (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1880) is in the department of zoology at the University of Cambridge; Andrew Lang's (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1884) is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh; and a likeness of William Morris (1882), two of William Holman Hunt (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1880 and 1900), and one of Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) are in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Richmond's portrait of Robert Browning (exh. Grosvenor Gallery, 1882) is at Waco, Texas, while that of Arthur Evans (exh. RA, 1907) is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Richmond was also a master of the small oil landscape, painted directly from nature; many scenes are of Italy, where he travelled during most summers of his adult life. They earned him a little money in his later life when exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1912 and 1914. He also designed two major sets of stained-glass windows, at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London (1908–10), and St Mary's Church, Stretton, Derbyshire (1896–7), while his only extant fresco design (1893–4) is that for Christ Church, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Other executed frescoes, along with his stained-glass windows in St Paul's Cathedral in London, have been destroyed.

Richmond's charm and erudition helped him towards achieving academic rewards: he held the Slade professorship at Oxford (1879–83) when Ruskin fell ill, and he was later awarded the honorary degrees of DCL at Oxford in 1896 and LLD at Cambridge. He became a Royal Academician in 1895 and was created KCB in 1897. During his later years he lectured widely on the somewhat divergent topics of art and of coal pollution and wrote three books: Assisi: Impressions of Half a Century (1919), illustrated with reproductions of his landscape paintings; The Silver Chain (1916), a novel; and Democracy—False or True? (1921). However, the crowning achievement which distinguishes him from the other polymaths of the Victorian Olympian tradition is his monumental decorative scheme in mosaic executed in St Paul's Cathedral.

The history of the decoration of St Paul's is one of English indecision: the high church attempted to enrich the cavernous interior while the low church tried to frustrate such efforts. In 1891 George Frederick Bodley, who had constructed the now demolished altar and reredos, invited Richmond to prepare cartoons for mosaic decoration of the apse and choir. These were accepted and Richmond duly commissioned to undertake the work. He chose the firm of Messrs James Powell of Whitefriars to produce the tesserae and, with a team of English workmen, to execute his designs in line with the production methods which had been used in the Byzantine churches he had visited in tours of Ravenna, Rome, and Palermo. Initially he attempted, unsuccessfully, to erect mosaic sections in his own studio at Hammersmith; having mastered the production techniques himself, he realized that future work had to be done in situ. The subject matter chosen was Christ in majesty, the creation, and related scenes from the Old Testament.

By 1895 much of the commissioned decoration, in a mixture between Byzantine and aesthetic styles, was in place and Richmond, voted further funds through the parliamentary intervention of W. E. Gladstone, set about decorating the aisles and eventually under the quarter-domes. By 1899 much of it was completed, but the recently knighted academician suddenly found himself exposed to a vicious attack in the newspapers criticizing the style and workmanship of the new mosaics. The low church combined with a powerful political lobby, architectural purists, and progressive art students such as Augustus John to spearhead their objections to the ‘Romanizing’ of Christopher Wren's classical masterpiece. With the South African War looming, funds dried up, and any prospect of extending decorative work into the nave was cancelled. The zenith of Richmond's creative career thus ended in ignominy.

In an attempt to reassert his threatened position in the art world, in 1900–01 Richmond mounted a vast one-man exhibition at the New Gallery, but popular taste, rejecting Victorian academia, had moved on to post-impressionism. Richmond, a large, bearded, ebullient man, fought a fierce rearguard battle against these new trends, earning himself the reputation of a political and artistic reactionary which, to this day, has hampered the overdue rehabilitation of his reputation. A damaged hand weakened his later paintings and, after the accidental death of his wife Clara in 1916, he retired into obscurity at Beavor Lodge. Towards the end of his life—influenced by his friend Sir Hubert Parry—he began to compose music, an occupation which, along with writing, was less strenuous to his weakening heart than was painting. Richmond died at Beavor Lodge on 11 February 1921 and was buried alongside his wife at Chiswick, in the parish churchyard, on 16 February. He left four sons, including Herbert William Richmond, and a daughter (one son having predeceased him in 1896), who soon sold the family home for demolition to make way for the construction of the A4.


  • S. Reynolds, William Blake Richmond (1995)
  • S. Reynolds, A companion to the mosaics of St Paul's Cathedral (1994)
  • A. M. W. Stirling, The Richmond papers (1926)
  • [H. L. Lascelles], ‘The life and work of Sir W. B. Richmond’, Christmas Art Annual (1902) [whole issue]
  • W. B. Richmond, Assisi: impressions of half a century (1919)
  • W. B. Richmond, The silver chain (1916)
  • The Times (14 Feb 1921)
  • Art Journal, new ser., 10 (1890), 193–8, 236–9
  • A. L. Baldry, ‘Sir W. B. Richmond, KCB, R. A. 1901’, Art Magazine, 146–50, 197–203


  • Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local History Centre, London, corresp.
  • RA, corresp. and papers
  • BL, letters to W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 4459–4522
  • JRL, letters to M. H. Spielmann
  • priv. coll., diary


  • G. Richmond, oils, 1856, priv. coll.
  • W. B. Richmond, self-portrait, oils, 1880–83, priv. coll.
  • G. Phoenix, chalk drawing, 1893, NPG
  • F. Salisbury, oils, 1902, Art Workers Guild, London
  • J. S. Sargent, charcoal drawing, 1910, priv. coll.
  • F. Salisbury, oils, 1913, priv. coll.
  • Elliott & Fry, cabinet photograph, NPG
  • Moffat, cabinet photograph, NPG
  • R. T., wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (5 May 1888)
  • R. W. Robinson, photograph, NPG; repro. in Members and associates of the Royal Academy of Arts (1891)

Wealth at Death

£9838 17s. 7d.: probate, 18 April 1921, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)